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The silent hardening of communication

Published on 05 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

The silent hardening of communication

The usage of words changes all the time. Just as literary genres, words are subject to fashion.[1] If one only reads in one language, the evolution is not as noticeable as when one leaves a language for some time, comes back, and finds that unfamiliar words have populated it. German and Italian are both languages I read occasionally. I have discovered convergent changes.

I remember when words like dialogue, deliberation, and conversation were used to describe inter-personal communication. Opening various newspapers, recently, I have noticed a drift toward debate and discussion.

One notes, first of all, the silent hardening in the sounds: the “hard” deb– and disc– has replaced the “soft” dia– and deli-.. As the French say: c’est le ton qui fait la musique.

Words like debate and discussion suggest a duel of self-contained arguments – robust adversary proceedings, to be adjudicated either in Parliament, in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion. “May the better thought win” leaves the loser with nothing for his pains. His arguments are rejected, not accommodated.

Such intellectual posturing is not new. In Ancient Greece, Sophists “were philosopher-teachers who traveled about in Greece teaching their students everything that was necessary to be successful in life including rhetoric and public speaking. These were useful skills, where being persuasive could lead to political power and economic wealth.”[2] Without entering into the age-old debate that opposed Plato to the Sophists, one notes the different purposes. Plato looked for personal enlightenment. The Sophists wanted to persuade – sway public opinion in favor of their arguments. To this end their statements needed to be self-contained and consistent, rather than open-ended, inclusive, and complex.[3]

Past iconography has presented this kind of conflict in vivid forms (here “Ignorance” – the opposite side of “Prudence” – is literally “sans culottes” well before the term became an epithet):


Rubens: Prudence (Minerva) Overthrowing Ignorance (or Sedition)’ (c.1632-33)[4]

The fading away of poetry

A new edition of Lucretius Carus’ On the nature of things (De rerum natura)[5] has just come out in German. My 1956 translation by Karl Büchner was in Hexameter – all 7’400 of them. Reading the introduction one senses that the effort has transformed the translator’s style: the text is fluid – the ease of someone who has mastered language.

Klaus Binder’s 2014-version is “rhythmic prose:” the loss of ambition is telling. Many factors might have been at work: new compromises in making the work accessible to readers, time and effort involved. I would also point to the loss of sensibility for beauty of verse.[6]

In reading contemporary lyrics one is struck by the disappearance of rhythm: under the guise of “freedom,” the texts are mostly plain prose, whimsically broken up into “verses” for visual effect – or to imitate twitter messages. Lucretius’ texts were read aloud (even by a solitary reader): now verses are looked at as blocks.

Concept cars

Expensive cars being status symbols, one is interested in decoding the images contemporary cars project. Here is a “concept car” from Lexus, which may be taken as harbinger of styles to come.


What one notes is the combination of soft lines and cutting edges, or the dark lines of the radiator grill. The Star Wars analogy is discernible:


Earlier radiator grills, recalling sharks’ mouths, look downright quaint by comparison. Cars have grown in size (and not just length), have become over-towering and overweening, and their lines increasingly recall aggressive body-building bulges.

Are times a-hardening?

It would be easy to take such examples of “hardening” (or at least flattening) of communication as a sign of the ages. While one should notice such subtle persuaders, a sense of proportions is advisable. If Heraclitus’ analogy of life being a river is apt, then the underlying currents of life’s flow – which we call experience – might be of far greater import that publicity posters along its banks.


[1] For a learned discussion, see: Franco MORETTI (2005): La letteratura vista da lontano. Einaudi, Torino. For people who like to test the proposition, I would recommend https://www.wordle.net/ Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophism

[3] False analogies flow back and forth between the personal and the public. Personal and public ethics are commixed, with disastrous results. See e.g. Michael WALTZER (2015): Is the right choice a good bargain? New York Review of Books; LXII, 4. I’ll discuss this aspect in a later blog.

[4] Note the overt class and sexist undertone. The losing side is labelled “Ignorance or Sedition.” This iconography is understandable in Rubens’ times: the XVIIth century was a period of revolutions the world over. In hindsight, climate change and not ignorance helped drive the conflicts: see Geoffrey PARKER (2013): Global crisis. War, climate change and catastrophe in the seventeenth century. Yale University Press, New Haven.

[5] A presentation of the work is found in Piergiorgio ODIFREDDI (2013): Come stanno le cose. Il mio Lucrezio, la mia Venere. Rizzoli, Milano. For a discussion of Lucretius’ subtle role in modernity, see: Stephen GREENBLATT (2011): The swerve. How the world became modern. Norton, New York.

[6] For an example from a quite different world, see in: Samuel HA-NAGUD (2001) : guerre, amour, vin et vanité. Anatolia, Éditions du Rocher, Monaco, the prose translation of Jewish medieval poetry in courtly Granada.

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