Viewpoint -- Take A Trip Down The River, So To Speak

Dec. 21, 2004
Immerse yourself in the language of Far Appalachia.

The response sounded like the executive equivalent of geek-speak. The question had been put simply enough to the senior manufacturing manager. But his answer was something else. Somewhere among his subjects, verbs, and direct objects his points were being mugged into incomprehensibility by such management jargon as "transformational work," "integrative collaborative processes," "differentiating initiatives," "customer-relationship management environments," and "customer sets." His listener was left wondering whether the speaker might be, dare we speculate, surreptitiously interfacing without impacting. Or perhaps he was imperfectly prioritizing in the participatory pursuit of sustainable change. Or maybe the executive was just as confused as was his bewildered listener. We'll never know, because although the manager was enunciating the words clearly enough, he was not even coming close to communicating his ideas. He was speaking a private language. It was a jumble of jargon. There is a place for specialized language. Medical doctors, for example, speak of infarcts, TIAs, acetaminophen, polycythemia vera, and bipolar disorders. Airline pilots and air-traffic controllers know the meaning of "Speedbird 217 heavy proceed direct Leesburg." And more of us are learning that spam is not only the name of a Hormel lunchmeat -- or that reboot doesn't mean to put on galoshes again. But when language gets in the way of ideas, or data, or information, or the communication of knowledge, it constrains. It limits. It fails not only the speaker or writer, but the listener or reader as well. Contrast the executive's incomprehensible and off-putting jargon with these three sentences. "We are deep in West Virginia on a Sunday morning. The air is chilly, colder than the river. If you had a cabin on the west ridge above us you'd be in sunlight but down here on the river warmth is two hours away." Or with this sentence: "The churches of the small communities are the still points of history -- men and women would have stood on the steps of South Fork Baptist talking about what they might do if the North invaded and started the war." These are words that work wondrously well. This is language that does not limit understanding but rather expands it. It succeeds for the writer as well as for the reader. It is the language of Far Appalachia:Following the New River North, by NPR's Noah Adams, the co-host of All Things Considered. Adams follows the New River north on its course out of North Carolina and well into West Virginia for 238 quiet, powerful, and eloquent pages. Even in the economy of Adams' language, you turn with canoeist, looking over your shoulder for a house built of natural materials high on the hillside and facing downriver near the State Highway 221 bridge in North Carolina. And through the amazing presence of Adams' language you are in the Virginia town of Ivanhoe, a place with only a few buildings downtown, many more white frame houses with gardens along the side streets, and a Fourth of July parade with dogs in the backs of pickup trucks. Adams' language gives you witness to the 1940s look of the Bluestone Dam, its vast swoops and steps of concrete crossing a valley in West Virginia. And Adams' language makes you a passenger in a rubber river raft. You feel the river and the raft as the boat bends to accept the force of the second wave in Surprise, a funnel of a rapid near Thurmond, W. Va. You spill to the center of the boat. You scramble to regain the edge. You feel the boat rock sideways, skid past boulders, and slide into the pool at the bottom of Surprise. And you do not drown in jargon. Simple yet wonderfully, unpredictably constructed sentences put you in the places where Adams is. You see what he sees. You feel what he feels -- the alternate serenities and surprises of the present, the unloadable burdens of the past, the promise that the future will contain all three -- and be different as well. Far Appalachia is a book for all seasons and a book to be read for all sorts of reasons. It is a book about adventure and a search for heritage. But, this summer, pick it up and read it for its language. Let it reacquaint you with narrative and simple dialogue at some of their most effective. Let his trip down the New River renew your spoken and written words, not only for this summer, but also for many seasons to come. Take a trip down the river -- so to speak. John S. McClenahen is an IW senior editor. He is based in Washington.

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