The linguistic bodhisattva

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who could attain pure enlightenment and transcend to Nirvana, but chooses instead to remain on earth to help other beings come closer to enlightenment. The idea of the bodhisattva is popular in most sects of Buddhism, and though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve always liked it.

I make no claim to being anywhere near the kind of enlightenment that leads to Nirvana (it seems a fraught route, though I’ve heard with the lights out it’s less dangerous). But I do have a sort of parallel in my own life.

I have a PhD, in drama. Fine. I was unable to find a teaching post within the parameters I set myself (and I was a bit disenchanted too) and so I moved into a different line of work, editing. Before too long I started taking courses in linguistics, and in 2016 I finished an MA in it. Academic research has its appeal, and I’m sure I could enjoy getting a second PhD as much as I enjoyed getting the first one (look, I’m a weirdo, OK? almost no one else I’ve ever talked to has actually enjoyed getting their PhD from start to finish, but I did). But I look at what people say and read and believe about language and communication, and most people have no clue how language actually works.

This matters, because the things that many people believe about language are downright harmful – not because it leads to bad writing (though it sometimes does) but because a lot of it is crypto-classism and crypto-racism and in general it feeds an unnecessary insecurity even in skilled writers. As appealing as it could be to be a monk of academe, digging deeper and deeper truths, and as necessary as it is that there be people doing that, I really want to go into the world and help more people know about language and understand how it really works and what its effects are and can be. It may seem pretentious, and really I can’t say it without a little tone of self-mockery, but I want to be a linguistic bodhisattva.

There are many such out there. And what they write matters. To give just one example, Carol Fisher Saller, of the Chicago Manual of Style, has more effect on what people actually write, and what gets deemed acceptable by publications that reach millions, than uncountably many academic linguists who publish only in peer-reviewed journals. Her advice even affects how those linguists’ articles are presented in those journals.

I know the value of linguistic research. It’s important. I love data. But I also love seeing the data put to use in ways that do more than just inform theory that doesn’t take wing out the window of the ivory tower. While linguists count usages from real-world data, the people who write the real-world texts that those linguists will use as data are looking around uncertainly, wondering about what usages they can and can’t get away with. Where do they go to find out? Not academic journal articles; aside from being written in a dense style and presuming a high base level of knowledge, they’re often inaccessible behind paywalls. No, they read books they can buy in a bookstore and articles they can find on popular websites. Some of those books and articles – too many of them – are filled with dogma that has appeal in its certainty and tidiness but is truly toxic nonsense. It is necessary for people who actually understand how language works to write things that the general public can and will read, to help them come closer to linguistic enlightenment and Nirvana.

In a way, this is a bit like the difference between scientific literature on plate tectonics and seismic events and books, articles, and notices on earthquake preparedeness and response. It’s what’s called knowledge translation. But earthquake-response advice doesn’t alter tectonics, just our response to it. Editorial advice affects language change. What writers and editors decide should be so has a real effect on what actually becomes so. And thus also on the data that future linguists gather.

It can be a circle if we make it so: linguistic data feeds linguistic understanding feeds linguistic advice feeds linguistic data. It’s the circle of reincarnation, but with language and linguistics.

Nirvana, of course, is a freeing from the cycle of reincarnation. If you gain linguistic enlightenment and stay in academia and your research never gets back into the real world, you may as well be in Nirvana. But I would rather be a bodhisattva, seeing that research be reincarnated in popular usage, telling everyone how it works. In Buddhism, it’s a basic truth that actions have causes and consequences, and you should work to understand what those causes and consequences are – why you’re really doing something and what effects it will really have. Same goes for language. Why? Because it affects us. It affects how we treat each other, how we view each other, how we understand each other.

It’s not just about being a good writer. It’s about being a good person.

11 responses to “The linguistic bodhisattva

  1. David Milne-Ives

    Lovely thoughts, and beautifully expressed, including the self-deprecation.

  2. My recent “Crazy About Words” column, “When Poobahs Bloviate” aptly illustrates some of your points I believe, especially the one made in your final paragraph here.

  3. Always reading, but I just love the heck out of this post.

  4. Being an Indian, I have a precarious claim on Buddhism and bodhisattva. But every time I visit you blog, I leave in enlightenment.

  5. Reblogged this on Ink The Thought and commented:
    Looking forward to more insights from the linguistic Bodhisattva 🙂

  6. Great article dude.

  7. Socio-linguistically interesting piece with an enlightening touch. Well done.

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