Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Language (It’s Power and Trappings)

Of the many things I do in my life, I adjunct at a local college. There, I teach a seminar class to adults dealing with the English language. The main reason people take this course (a total of eighteen hours) is to prepare for the GREs (General Record Exam) and get help in writing their essays for graduate school. Of course, I like to try and slip in knowledge other than just prep for future academia.

Language is powerful. Language is how we, trapped within ourselves, can convey our thoughts, our emotions . . . our humanity. Whether verbal or otherwise, there is a language that we use to express ourselves. Those who don’t have that power are lost. One of the main ways conquerors have taken over lands is to strip away the language of those who already live there. A perfect example is given in Brian Friel’s ‘Translations.’ You strip away the original names of the land and you strip away history and man’s connectivity to their surroundings. You strip away language and force people to learn a new one and you strip away a past and a means of expressing themselves. People promote unity with the taking away of one language to learn another, but instead they are taking away identity. This also happened when ‘Others’ came to the Americas and, in the name of ‘progress’ took away the natives homes, their land, their language and customs. You destroy a people not through death, but through making their words meaningless.

There is nothing more frustrating then the inability to be heard. That makes one feel so insignificant.

In my class I can’t touch on this too much, I’m not supposed to be political. It’s a seminar and there are certain things that need to be taught – the relationships of words to one another, root words, how to form a sentence and write effectively as in – shorter sentences. I find it funny that I teach that when I read over my own writings. However, English is a great amalgam of many languages. There are no set grammar rules; there is always an exception. As I am in New York City, and most of my students have English as a second language to begin with, they find it quite annoying that you don’t always pluralize the same way.

Then we come across a word like “Blackguard.”

See, racism is still such an inherent part of the language. It is just built into the very way we speak, which is dangerous. Student’s take the word apart and think it’s some kind of guard, but not sure what kind. I love their innocence. “In the Academic English language,” I explain, “Black still means bad. Thus, while a guard protects a blackguard is a traitor, a betrayer.” They then think of other words with black as a prefix and are amazed that yes, I’m right. Black=bad.

And Indian=false. Indian summer. Indian giver. Etc. It is such a subtle racism that people don’t tend to realize they are thinking that way. But it’s inherent in the words we study and use. It makes it easier to discriminate against others later in life because it’s already built into our thinking.

We, as a nation, as a people, need to be held accountable for our language. We need to be so careful about what we teach, about how we express ourselves. I really think we need a new lexicon as we dream, we think, in the language we use – whether it is words, colors, or notes it forms who we are.

This becomes apparent as I talk about war and peace. I have worked with children as well, usually in art-based afterschool programs or some community building exercises. And it’s amazing.

“What is war?” I may ask the class, and they give me the visual identifiers. They can talk of guns and tanks and the crying mothers they see on television at night. War is fought not to save the women at home, but to make the women of ‘the other’ cry as they hold their dead children.

“What is peace?” I ask. There is silence. The Sunday school student will generally say a dove. But there are no visual identifiers for peace. Peace is an abstract, not concrete. It can’t be understood, not yet. That is because we lack the language for peace.

Look at the words used, and you can tell what is important in a culture. What do we as a people use as our similes? War terms. Not agricultural, not artistic, not peaceful, but warlike. Because that is what we understand, that is what we are as people. We fight.

Examples: “He’s as big as a tank”
“She typed with machine-gun rapidity”
“He’s gone postal”
“Here comes the cavalry”

I used to have so many more, but you get the point. Our language is one of aggression; it is what we as a nation pride ourselves on, “survival of the fittest” and all that jazz.

We need to take a good hard look at the words we use and the images they conjure in our minds, and those of our children. Peace is what people say they want, but does anyone really understand it when all we have are symbols, and not concrete visual identifiers as we do with War? And how can we stop that, how can we make peace real to ourselves, to our children, to our language? There needs to be other words as stepping stones to peace, I just don’t know what they are.

What mental images do you have when you hear that word? Is it just the logo from Woodstock, the olive branch? Are people involved in the vision that springs to mind as they are in war?

What other words do we have that can bring up an image that children can understand? I think of compromise and see two people talking. Surely that’s a start. What about greetings, two people shaking hands. Before peace there needs to be a greeting and understanding. And negotiation. Negotiation seems a good one. Maybe we shouldn’t teach peace, but teach understanding and negotiation instead, something people can understand.

Did I stray from my point? War and Peace are words we use often in our language, but only one has an identifiable meaning. That doesn’t make the other useless, it just makes it harder to comprehend. And if we prefer the ideal to the reality then we need to form the language to bridge the gap to make peace real.

Just like we need to deal with the fact that our language is riddled with words that subjugate others. That we teach our children that black is bad and Indian false. Language is the most important thing we have at this point, we need to take a critical look at the way it’s taught and used. We need to become aware. We need to care. We need to take steps to help others gain their voice, and to make sure ours is as pointed as we’d like it to be.


Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

Oh my goodness, girl, I have never seen it that way before! You have completley nailed it. The power of language, and how you use it, detemines so much of our commonly held, every day perceptions. Why have I never thought about that?

Now you've gone and made my brain bleed.. I need to go away and digest, methinks! Brilliant, thought-provoking post. Did I already ask if I could link you?

Victorya said...

It would be an honor shrink! OMG, I linked without asking you, was that a blog faux pas?

thanks for the kind words!

Amel's Realm said...

WOW, Vic!!!

This is truly an in-depth post and VERY INTERESTING. English's not my first language, so I can find SUCH interesting info here.

You're right about everything. I can only say that from my own experience here, if I don't have this blogging community and if I don't have my other emailpals to "talk to" in English, I think I'll explode. My Finnish isn't good enough to carry on daily conversations about anything. Before I started blogging, I felt that my world had shrunk to just me and my husband and my close friends. Now it's expanding again and it feels REALLY good to be able to voice what I have inside me. Otherwise I'd feel SO stuck he he he...

Now I'm rambling. Peace...what do I think when I hear that word? Hmmm...A dove indeed hi hi hi...what else? Hmmm...I can't really think of anything, but I like something I once read. A king gave a contest to produce paintings that depict peace. The winner was the picture of a mighty storm in the sea with a small image of a bird (eagle or something) sitting securely and peacefully in its nest with its little ones.

So I guess I like that kind of depiction of peace. Peace doesn't always mean that there're no storms around you. Wait a minute! I think I like to think of peace as an image of someone praying while kneeling down as he/she lets God's peace wash over him/her, even amidst his/her worries and problems.

OK I think that's too long. Btw, Vic, I never asked people's permissions to link their blogs with mine, so no worries he he he...

Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

No! It was a delight - thank you. (smiles)

Victorya said...

Ah Amel, I'm glad you found your voice! I can't imagine being so isolated, and hopefully you'll pick up the language soon. At least enough for basic conversations :)

I like that visual of peace (though I still think for kids it's a bit abstract) how you can be surrounded by a storm and calm. That's what I want in life, calm.

Amel's Realm said...

THX for your wishes, Vic!!! :-)))

Yeah, I know the image of peace that I told you about is too abstract for kids he he he...I don't know much about kids, so I think it's GREAT that you're working with them. :-)))

I guess we all want calmness and peace in life...a clear conscience...mmmm...

Victorya said...

I bet you'd love working with kids, they are very open and honest and haven't really learned how to lie yet (at least, not most of them) and, as Cosby said, they say the darndest things. Some scary, some surprising, some profound, and most just really cute and funny.