Wednesday, March 20, 1996

DREADWORDS: Communication

When cultural studies pioneer, Raymond Williams, dealt with the word "communication in his now standard work, Key words, he did so in a rather cursory manner. True, his comments on the word had to be squeezed in alongside those on others sharing the same Latin root, such as common, commercialism, communism and community. But it is still apparent, however, that Williams had only the mildest intimations of how crucial the word was to become in the late 20th century.

"Communication" once had a far broader range of concerns than it possesses today. In the 18th century, for example, the word saw service in describing sexual intercourse. One of the OED's examples of this usage offers a telling snapshot of the world at that time. Outlining the regulation of troops operating among the colonials, the citation proscribes a "European officer" having "unlawful communication with any woman slave".

This application of the word, like its former use to mean "the observance of Holy Communion", has now fallen into abeyance. Even the more modern sense of "communication" meaning infrastructure, such as roads and railways, is falling from fashion, giving way, like so much else, to the tide of digits washing through the language. Who now would ever think that "good communications" meant big roads rather than fast modems?

But what has been interesting about the private history of the word over the course of this century has been its extension first into mass media, newspapers, radio, television and advertising, then gradually, out into Hollywood, marketing and literary criticism (via distinctions between digital and analogue communication) into fine art.

But once "communication" has come to represent everything from ads for pot noodles to Get Shorty, some fine tuning is obviously required. Marina Galanti, Benneton's Head of International Media Relations (why do those kind of titles always sound like euphemisms?) whose company has recently put up one of the largest sites on the WWW, was careful to make clear that she knew not all communication is born equal.

"We are not trying to communicate to people" she said, somewhat disingenuously, one imagines, "we are trying to communicate with them". Close up, however, any differences between these two notions have dissolved into a haze of equivocation. Does is really matter if you are communicating with or to as long as it results in increased sales of woolly goods?

The most interesting aspect of "communication" as it is now defined is that as any good Head of International Media Relations could tell you it often means to transmit as little information as possible. A handbook recently made available to British Rugby League players offers the crucial communications advice "Never ever share your confidences with a journalist."

This can come as no surprise to Professor Jean Aitchison, who delivered this year's Reith Lectures, that traditional series of radio talks which is the legacy of a long gone era, the very title of which has the funereal ring of a deceased theory of communication la her lecture, Professor Aitchison recapped on what she said was the relatively new science of language origins.

Recent research has uncovered, according to Aitchison, that "the ultimate goal of learning to speak may be lying...While this may come as distressing news for some disciples of Noam Chomsky, it can hardly have taken unawares Ms Aitchison, who is, of course, Oxford University's Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication.

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