All Humans Speak, but How Does Language Affect Who We Are?

Tuesday August 19 2014
by Agustina

I have been recently introduced to HVNGRY by one of the coolest females I’ve ever encountered and I immediately felt an urge to contribute. You see, I only have a voice in the written form. Ok, that’s a lie, I’m a loud person in real life, but it is with the written medium that I feel the most comfortable. When I read the theme on the home page, it took me only a couple of seconds to decide on the topic for my piece: language.

As a translator and language enthusiast, I know that my tongue defines me and everyone I meet. Language is one of the only topics I can talk or write about without feeling intimidated by the ungraspable amount of information and knowledge I lack.

Linguistic Power

In linguistics, language change is a complex phenomenon which depends on factors such as migration, usage, time, and social class. The process of how language changes gets so complex over time, that it can result in the creation of different dialects or even entirely different languages. But today, I want to focus on us changing. The vocabulary, sentence structure and even the word order we choose to use affects and constructs our society. I bet you didn’t think you were that powerful! Because of that, we must all reflect upon the way we speak and the way in which we judge people around us based on how they use language. Maybe we can even change the way we think.

Linguistic Equality

To move towards a kinder understanding of language, the first thing to keep in mind is that all languages, no matter how old or new, popular or unpopular, are useful to those who speak it. Languages are subject to the needs of each society, and so each tongue evolves depending on the needs of the people speaking it. Think about how we have so many words for the Internet: net, website, online, and so on -- but only a few words for, say, ice. Compare that to the Sami language of Scandinavia, which has some 180 words for snow and ice[1]. The world we're in shapes the language we use, and vice versa.

The same goes for language varieties: Have you ever found yourself judging people on the way they speak? Societies are built around standard varieties of language, some of which are seen as “proper” or “acceptable” by those in charge. There is no reason for one variety being standard other than it being the one spoken by the ruling class. In our minds, standard language varieties are synonymous to power.

If we want to move towards an understanding and open-minded conception of language, we need to stop thinking about language as “right” and “wrong”. Instead, we should be judging it in terms of appropriateness. This means we can swear all we want, as long it is not in, say, court. That’s right! There are no bad words or poorly constructed sentences, ladies and gentlemen. There are only contexts in which you should probably avoid swearing, or contexts in which you should strive to make yourself clear and concise.

I guess that all we need to keep in mind to change our conception of language is: communication and context. If a person is not following the rules dictated by “proper English,” but you understood what they were trying to say, then you should consider that a successful case of language usage. If you're about to correct one of your friends’ sentences or scold them for being too rude, perhaps bare in mind that your friend believes the context to be informal and relaxed enough to do so. Make sure they do switch to a more academic register when writing papers for school, though!

And, if you are feeling particularly revolutionary today, ask yourself the following question: Given that there is no intrinsic reason why "proper English" should be so, then what can I do to change the preconceptions that surround it?▼

[1] Ole Henrik Magga, Diversity in Saami terminology for reindeer, snow, and ice, International Social Science Journal Volume 58, Issue 187, pages 25–34, March 2006.

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