Lingering legacy of language

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.

—  Justice Oliver W Holmes, Jr., US Supreme Court

Language is indeed the dress of thought for it to be the impetus of social cohesion. Inspiration, encouragement, discouragement and desperation are sourced from it depending on its spirit, substance and purpose. It is a reliable tool for effective, distributive, defective and destructive communications.

The English Language used in legislation is the epitome of convulsions and complexity in syntax. Edward VI (1537-1553) lamented, “I wish that the superfluous and tedious statutes were brought into one sum together, and made more plain and short.” Since then, a number of government commissions and parliamentary committees have attempted to revise and reorganise the statute book for the last 400 years.

To find the mercurial entity called justice requires language experts — philologists, linguists, grammarians, phonologists, vocabulists, usagists, classicists, transformationalists and glossographers — to draft legislation generally created to provide adequate exit strategies with well-designed escape routes to aid, assist and abet political camaraderie.

Drafters of legislation must be masters of language like Justices Cardozo, Holmes, Hughes, Jackson, Iyer and Abdoolcader. Why shouldn’t legislatures muster the assistance of judges as they are ultimately required to interpret the law? The doctrine of the separation of powers has seen better days!

Language power favouring government instead of the governed can be found in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution — “No State shall deprive any person of due process and equal protection of the laws.” Political hazards arise with “No person shall be deprived by the State of due process and equal protection of the laws.”

Article 8 Federal Constitution (FC) promises “all persons are equal before the law” using firm unequivocal language. If this is put to a serious acid test in a court of law, the chances that the soul, spirit and substance of this constitutional guarantee will be upheld is a toss of the dice becoming a suspect yardstick to gauge fundamental rights.

The language of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 became living proof of tongue-in-cheek equality for Black Americans when civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr stopped the world in its tracks with his acerbic salvo that “no man should be judged by the colour of his skin but by the content of his character.” A bullet got him, not the ballot.

“The working class has never yet had a voice in declaring war. If war is right, let it be declared by the people — you, who have your lives to lose,” warned Eugene Debs, the American Socialist Party leader, in 1918 during the WW1. He was imprisoned for opening the minds of the masses with plain language that irked the government.

American President Theodore Roosevelt refined expression when he remarked that there is nothing more distressing to any citizen, to every good patriot, than the scoffing spirit that treats dishonesty in public office with laughter. “The fool who cannot differentiate between good and bad is as dangerous as he who differentiates and chooses the bad,” he added.

The Navajo Code Talkers participated in all US Marines assaults in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. These Marines conveyed messages by telephone and radio in their unique Native American language, a code that was never broken by the Japanese. There’s a promising future for cryptic language.

Language used in religious texts win hands down when it is a clash of wills and emotions involved in sanity and survival. Interpreters have sprung up in every creed claiming divine inspiration that inspired the scrivener to write and wreck the ultimate truth.

“A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in colour and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used,” wrote Justice Holmes knowing very well that the language of the law suffers mockery and ridicule when its incoherently insufficient design encourages injustice.

Paraphrasing Nathaniel Hawthorne, words are innocent and powerless as they sit in dictionaries. But look how potent they become in the minds of those who know how to combine them for good or evil ends.

Language is indeed the dress of thought. We must make sure that our minds are well clad with style and finesse. The art of designing and tailoring our thoughts for a stylish fit comes with constant usage of available tools and mechanisms associated with the magic of stringing words.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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