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Weeding the Gardens of Language

Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Our arguments about words are so fierce because, like Candide, each of us cultivates our own garden of language.

Indeed, most of us cultivate many language gardens. Some are for public display, for making speeches or talking with strangers. Some are private, for family or friends. Some are for work, for the professions we profess, and some are for play, for our hobbies or sports. Some are for school and some for the playground.

All gardens for a particular language have many species of words in common and similar arrangements of them, or we wouldn’t be able to understand each other. Nevertheless, no two are exactly alike.

That’s because we each have to do our own gardening. We have to decide for ourselves how to plant the gardens with words and arrange them in grammatical patterns. And we have to weed them.

None of us is born with a language. Instead, as we begin to advance in years we begin to plant our own gardens with seeds of the words we hear. Those seeds influence not only the language we speak but also the particular words we choose to plant in particular patterns.

When we speak, we reveal our gardens to our hearers, and depending on their reactions, we add or eliminate words and usages. A word that looks healthy and beautiful in our gardens may be rooted out as a weed by someone else, whose gardens are ineluctably different. And conversely, a weed in one of our gardens may be a showpiece in another.

“Weed” is a relative term. A plant is not a weed by nature but by circumstance. That is, it’s a weed if it doesn’t fit the plan of a particular garden.

And that is why our arguments about words and usages are so fierce. What one person happily plants in a language garden can be viewed as a weed threatening the beauty of another person’s garden.

It leads to quarrels when we believe that only our own gardens have the proper words in the proper arrangements.

Tradition and logic and aesthetics are the arguments we use in favor of the language gardens we cultivate, but mostly to rationalize our choices. Others have equal access to tradition, logic, and aesthetics to justify their gardens. Since people will be looking at different gardens, they will reach different conclusions. So we will never have an absolute determination of whether “you know” and “lol” are to be planted or weeded, to take a recent example from a Lingua Franca colleague.

Is “between you and I” an elegant flower of speech or an abomination? Is “10 items or less” a weed to be uprooted from supermarkets? Is “actually” to be cultivated or weeded out? Is “begs the question” to be planted with “asks” or with “evades”? Do we allow “however” to be planted at the beginning of a sentence?”

Clichés, dead metaphors, and overused words are weeds in the gardens of language. But each gardener decides what’s a cliché, when a metaphor is dead, when a word is overused.

It matters. To be understood, and to connect with others, we have to cultivate our language gardens. And as long we do, they will be different. Vive la différence!

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