Reflections on Language

Notebook entry #8

I have spent a lot of time thinking about language both as part of my Literacy Learning class and because I refer to myself as a plain language consultant. So this week’s notebook is about some basic questions surrounding language:

  • How is language defined?
  • Is language uniquely human?
  • Is identity formed through language?
  • Does language limit us?
  • What does this mean for plain language?

How is language defined?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary Second Edition has seven definitions of language

  • “the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in an agreed way
  • the language of a particular community or country
  • any method of expression (body language; sign language)
  • the faculty of speech; a  style or faculty of expression; the use of words, etc; course, crude or abusive speech
  • a system of symbols and rules for writing computer programs or algorithms
  • a professional or specialized vocabulary
  • literary style”

Is language uniquely human?

Apart from the third definition of language listed above, this would appear to be so. After all, language is primarily defined as “the method of human communication” and the other definitions point to words or other systems unique to humans. Brent Davis, Rebecca Luce-Kapler, and Dennis Sumara in Engaging minds: Learning and teaching in a complex world touch on this when they state: that “there has been an emphasis on the uniquely human ability to use words to refer to words, which is the quality that distinguishes mere communicative capacity from the powerfully recursive phenomenon of language. (Many species have been demonstrated to have sophisticated communication systems, but only humanity seems to have developed the self ­referential and recursive use of words—that is, language.)” The authors go on to say that from an ecological postmodern perspective, this view of language as uniquely human has led to “troublesome consequences of humanity’s language­-based habit of thinking itself apart from and superior to the natural world.” (176)

Is identity formed through language?

Many writers have stated that language helps to define each one of us as individual human beings. In her doctoral dissertation, Troubling experiences: Female subjectivity and fear in teaching, Susan Walsh asks the question, “How is language implicated in how we come to know ourselves and how we make sense of our lives?” (169) Likewise, Davis et al in Engaging minds ask “Is identity constructed by language? Or does language arise in the need for human subjects to communicate?” (157) and “… is the self really in existence prior to language, experience, and education? Or might it be that who one becomes is the product of cultural influence and social interaction?” (168)  A little further on they state that “within language, humans have the capacity to create senses of personal identity and to theorize about that act of creation.” (168) “In other words, all these technological elaborations of language are enfolded in every human subject’s experience of self.” (170) And in fact, “Language appears to be the most important self­-making technology. As a tool of consciousness, language greatly enables our limited capacities to gather ideas and to note relationships.” (171) Davis et al state that humans use language to “[shape] the worlds in which they exist and the identities that they assume in those worlds.” (176)

While all of this sounds wonderful — like we are in control of our destinies as long as we are in control of our language, Patti Capel Swartz points out in Bridging Multicultural Education: Bringing Sexual Orientation into the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Classrooms that we are not always in control of language and that sometimes it can, intentionally or unintentionally be used to lead us to define ourselves in negative ways. Swartz speaks of “… the power of language …” (12) and states that even “children can understand and need to understand that words can be effective weapons, and that seemingly innocuous words, particularly sexist language, that reflects constructions formed through employment of binary oppositions, can be used to hurt and to control.” (14)

Swartz argues that the binary oppositions in language are largely responsible for the growth of “homophobia, racism, sexism, classism and other ‘isms’ [that are] used to denigrate particular individuals or populations ..” (14) But she goes on to say that “even very young children can engage in interrogation of the constructions of language that reinforce binary oppositions…” (14)

In this way, Swartz is telling us that while language can define us in negative ways, even young children have the power to master it so that language works for them and not against them. It is simply a matter, Swartz says, of “[unlearning] the prejudices and … deadly biases” (14) that language and culture transmit.

Carmen Luke, in her discussion of language in Feminist Post-structuralism argues on the one hand that language is not a “transparent window to the real [with] the meaning fixed in the linguistic signifier…” (189)  but, unlike Swartz, she argues that individuals, “the subject” do not have “autonomous control and choice over ‘authentic’ self-expression through language.” Rather, she argues that “the gendered politics of language preclude authentic voice and self-expression.” (190)

Luke agrees that language does define us for she says, “Language gives meaning to social reality, including the way social subjects make themselves, others, and the world intelligible. Post-structuralists thus argue that language—signs organized in discourse—provides discursive subject positions and subjectivities through which we live our lives and make sense of the world.” (190)

She goes on to say that “feminist post-structuralists have sought to reclaim language and speaking positions for women, although their ‘speech’ bears the residue of the language and genres of the father.” (190)

Does language limit us?

As we’ve seen, some say yes, some say no. I understand that languages that uses gendered terminology can be limiting, and I understand that language can be used equally to empower and to disenfranchise, to give voice, and to silence.  However, I also believe, as Swartz does, that we can master language and the way to do it, is to understand its limitations and uses.

What does this mean for plain language?

Plain language writers and advocates have long understood the limitations of language—that gendered pronouns are acceptable to some and alienating to others, for example. We understand that our readers’ (listeners’) understanding of the language we use depends on its context—where it is read or heard, by whom, under what circumstances etc. But we must never be complacent, we must understand, and I think we do, that our audiences are neither homogeneous nor fixed. What worked last year may not work today. What worked with one group of teenagers may not work with another.

Because we as individuals and groups are fluid, and because language is fluid, we must continuously test, and retest, the words and phrases we choose and be ready to adapt constantly.