Tag Archives: linguistics

A Rose by Any Other Name…

9 Aug

Yesterday, I posed a question on my Facebook page:


I found the responses really fascinating and they got me to thinking a good bit about language, the words we choose, why we choose them, and the like. This is hardly a new fascination. I became a librarian, in part, because of my interest in cultural studies and linguistics; specifically, why research that involved females as subjects always stated such in publication titles, whereas the same involving males did not. Why were males the norm? Why could findings for men be generalized to the entire population, but the same never (or very, very rarely) be said for women? I was curious and it sent me down a path – and an independent study – that led me to discover that there are people within the field of library and information science who study this kind of thing. Who knew? And so I finished up my degree in exercise physiology and headed off to library school. Or something like that.

I asked the question about reading/listening to audiobooks because I was on the Audible website, trying to decide what audiobook to spend my monthly credit on and while reading the reviews, noticed that lots of reviewers referred to the experience of listening to an audiobook as “reading.”  A good number of my friends agreed, pointing out everything from the history of storytelling as a verbal act to the limitations of people with visual impairments. My friend and librarian colleague, Rachel, argued that it’s a “content/container issue,” that if we limit “reading” to absorbing a book through the eyes, then people with limited sight could never say that they “read” a book. It’s a valid point, though it also made me wonder if a person who’s hearing impaired would ever read a book and then say that they listened to it. Do people who are visually impaired recognize a difference between reading Braille and listening? And I also wonder about the neural pathways that form in the brains of individuals who have visual and/or hearing impairments, though that’s a topic that requires a lot more research on my part. It’s too much for discussion here.

People shared that they’re busy and/or have long commutes and if they didn’t listen to audiobooks, they’d never have the time to read anything. But still I wondered, why would you say, “I’d never read anything” when you admit that you listened? My friend, Matt, asked, “So what would be the right verb to cover either?” to which I replied, “How about just saying you listened when you listened and you read when you read?” Or something along those lines. Why do we need another word? Listening is listening and reading is reading. One is no better than the other, they’re simply different.

But do we really believe that? Do we believe that they’re the same? I did sense a slight tone of defensiveness about reading versus listening in some of the comments. I wondered if I didn’t unknowingly imply it when I posed the question in the first place. And I admit that I argued that we do place a lot of value in literacy, that we teach children to read for a reason. (For LOTS of reasons, actually.) So do I believe, deep down, that people who read books are just a little better than people who listen to them?

I wonder if I don’t think of reading as something that’s active, something we do, something we put some effort into, while countering it with a belief that listening is passive, somehow a little bit lazy? I think of the NFL Hall of Famer, Deion Sanders, who I once heard comment that he never quite understood the enthusiasm of fans; the exuberance of simply watching people play a game. “Playing is what’s fun,” he said, with a kind of, “Get up off the couch, lazy bones!” hint to it. I try to imagine everyone at work on Monday morning saying that they played for the Patriots the day before, instead of that they watched them. How nutty is that? Who would say that?

Maybe it’s some of this. Or … maybe I just prefer that people use the right word.

And it’s that last statement that’s stuck with me the most. A few friends commented that to say you’ve read a book when you’ve listened to it is lying. I find that a little harsh, though it’s exactly what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said about the president when people said he lied about the Boy Scouts calling him on the phone. “I wouldn’t say it was a lie. That’s a pretty bold accusation. The conversations took place, they just simply didn’t take place over a phone call. … He had them in person.” It’s harsh. It’s “pretty bold.” And does it really matter, anyway?

One can argue that there’s a pretty huge difference between the President of the United States lying and people lying when they say that they read something when they, in fact, listened to it. I’ll go along with that. But maybe it’s the times that we’re living in that made me ruminate on this topic for a good 24 hours. There’s an awful lot of excusing people for poor word choice nowadays. And some pretty big consequences in doing so.

Thanks for reading this post. When I turn it into a podcast, you can listen. 🙂