Will words fail us at the Copenhagen conference?

Linguist George Lakoff maintains that humans lack good ways to verbalize complex issues like climate change; the Monitor's language columnist tries to imagine things otherwise.

The National Public Radio program "Living on Earth" recently noted that the climate-change bills currently on Capitol Hill don't actually use the phrase "climate change" in their titles. The House has passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The Senate is considering the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.

George Lakoff is a noted linguist and a longtime political strategist. He has counseled Democrats on "reframing" issues, helping them find new words to use to help them win support for their policies.

"Living on Earth" invited him on and asked him, "Professor Lakoff, please explain why Democrats think they can pass a climate-change bill when the words 'climate change' are barely mentioned?"

Lakoff responded by citing a recent Pew Center poll. It found that the number of Americans who say there is solid evidence of global warming fell between April 2008 and October 2009. "As a result, the administration has decided not to worry about that," Lakoff said, "not to take that on and have the debate over whether [global warming is] real, but to just assume it's real and go on."

Host Steve Curwood pressed him: "What is it about the human condition that makes it so hard to talk about a slow-moving, yet, as science tells us, ultimately deadly, phenomenon known as climate disruption?"

The problem may be one of language, Lakoff responded. "Linguists have studied languages all over the world, and every language has a way to express causation, but that causation is always direct.... I pick up this cup of coffee; that's direct causation. Climate change isn't like that.... [It] is systemic causation."

It sounded like another battle between the urgent and the important. It may be that human beings are better evolved to outrun woolly mammoths than to design tax codes to incentivize multinational corporations to minimize their carbon footprints.

But now that the woolly mammoth thing is under control, for most of us anyway, I would suggest that the real challenges tend to be about learning to deal with important issues as if they were merely urgent.

My ears pricked up when Mr. Curwood asked, "What language is better suited for communicating systemic causation? Or is this part of the human condition?"

But I was disappointed in Lakoff's response: He said, "It's part of the human condition. There's no language better suited for speaking of systemic causation. They all have direct causation."

It sounded as if Lakoff the linguist had been elbowed aside by Lakoff the popular political philosopher.

What if his answers had been different? I found myself fantasizing:

What if there were a language whose verbs had a special "crystallizing tense" that enabled large groups of people (e.g., diplomats who will gather at Copenhagen, Denmark, for the big climate conference) to reach consensus quickly?

What if there were a language whose taxonomy of personal pronouns featured a superinclusive first-person plural, a sort of glorified "we" that clearly implied that there are no "others" out there?

What if there were a language that did express systemic causation, maybe with verbs that expressed consequences? For instance: "I-think-I-shall-leave-the-car-at-home-and-accomplish-this-errand-on-foot-thereby-improving-local-air-quality-and-my-neighborhood-connections."

A wordsmith can dream, can't she?

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