The communication imperative

Pygmalion speaking to his statue without hope of being understood (Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, 1126, 14th-century Paris)

Human culture has been moving from unintelligibility to intelligibility. From communication barriers to more porosity and clarity. From fewer words to more dialogue, from silence to sound.

Ancient and medieval Europe knew the challenges of the communication imperative. Ancient Rome cared about Latin, but understood that the communication imperative took precedence over everything else, so Greek was the operative, or bridge, language in the Empire, something we call ‘lingua franca’ (albeit anachronistically).

The liturgical language of the Western Church was Latin until the Reformation. Too few people understood Latin for church language to be truly ‘liturgical’, in the sense of public (from the Greek leitos). The communication imperative was slow to be acknowledged by the medieval church, and when it was, it caused a seism whose aftershocks we still feel today.

Incomprehension and illegibility are the adversaries of the communication imperative and obstacles to be overcome. In the enchanted world of orality, the communication imperative finds ways around incomprehension through paralanguage. Put two people who speak different languages together, and they’ll find a way to eventually communicate, reducing incomprehension each time they exchange words. Writing is a bit different. Illegibility may only be reduced through learning. And when the language is artificial, like Latin was in the medieval West, the learning effort is a lot greater. In the early middle ages, many scribes didn’t understand what they were copying – the very same people who were responsible for reproducing the written capital of the past.

The rate of illegibility dropped as the centuries rolled, to the point that vernacular languages like English, French, German, replaced Latin as the language of record and written communication. The communication imperative prompted Luther and others before and after him to translate the Scriptures into a language that people would understand.

If people don’t understand what you’re saying or writing, don’t bother. Always endeavour to make yourself understood by many rather than by few. This is the legacy of the communication imperative, which is alive and well in us today.

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