The languages we speak


The late poet Derek Walcott wrote: “To change your language you must change your life”. I’ve thought about this statement many times over the years, and usually find that the inverse is also true – truer even: “To change your life you must change your language”. And we speak many different languages, literal and figurative, to fit our lives.

Literal language

There are the obvious ways in which this is true. For example, in the life of a migrant, you only become integrated to a limited extent without changing your language, but you can make inroads with the literal changing and adopting of another language. The more immersive it is, the more it shapes your life (so these statements work in conjunction with each other: language changes life, life changes language).

I spoke at some length with a friend about whether a language inherently contains a power structure. We were discussing that the US and UK have buckled under the weight of crumbling infrastructure and insufficient provision for managing natural disasters/bad weather. He shared that a friend in Massachusetts boasted about how her new generator switched on automatically five times that winter, leading him to ask (once again), “What is it about Americans that makes them twist the shortcomings of the place they live into things to brag about?” I always go back to the same answer: they don’t know any better. Many everyday things (for me or for him) sound futuristic to people in America (and to some extent, the UK). “Empires”, if we could call America one, crack and crumble from within. My friend wondered if the English language contains a built-in predilection for “shitty societies”. I did not agree with this statement but thought a bit about the built-in attitude of English. He posited that something in the language creates fear and anger in its speakers that is masked by arrogance.

I admit that although I have analyzed the language – and language in general – from many points of view, I had never taken it on from this angle. I have, though, thought about the imperialism and spread of language, which then gives native speakers a sense of entitlement. He posed the question: “How else to explain why both London and NYC are crappy in similar ways?” I figured it is not so much something within the language itself so much as in its ubiquity and power. (Both places driven and developed by the original British imperialist way of thinking, the dominance of English, even among large populations of immigrants who end up united by this one powerful lingua franca, contributes.) Within the language itself, though, is it a magnet for the best or most useful elements of other languages? Has it not only overtaken other languages but plundered them for its own needs? Does the dominance of English come from how and where its imperialism ended up (North America, India, other parts of Asia, Australia), in places where dominance also meant colonization and the “conquering” people staying put and taking power – as opposed to “resource grabs” like those in Africa, where French colonialism was alive and well? Could it be the result of English having such a vast and even superfluous vocabulary.. another way of dominating just by sheer volume of words? (And we can’t even say there is one “English” – its spread and ubiquity have created all kinds of variations.)

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the questions are fascinating.

The language of self-help and personal identity

Then there are increasingly less obvious languages. For example, the language of self-help: you are told to frame yourself and your issues in a new way. The frame changes perception and eventually the language used to describe that perception. That is, you are what you think. You are the language you use. This came to mind most recently when I was listening to a young colleague who is often cuttingly direct in the language she uses, and I wonder how she would respond to softer, more diplomatic language. I also note that she notices keenly when others are as direct as she is. Would she be as effective in her role if she were softer? No. But if I were as direct and abrupt as she is, it would not suit me or work for me. Each of us, thus, forms our own (kind of) language – by which we are identified and through which we craft our own identities.

The language of failure?

Similarly, in pop-self-help and some broader psychological discussion, “failure” isn’t used when something might just be a setback. Here I think of alcoholics… do we really want to say that because someone had 90 days of sobriety and then fell off the wagon that those 90 days are a loss, a waste or a step back to square one – and their attempts a “failure”? Does the language we apply imply judgment and set the groundwork or pace for the next “slip”? That is, for an alcoholic each day sober is a success, and even if they build toward longer periods of sobriety, is their success (or failure) measured cumulatively? Maybe AA or other people measure this way. But for the person dealing with it, the language needs to be more forgiving or less judgmental.

Language of experience

Maybe certain experiences we live through do not change the literal language – the words you use – but change the whole approach, so your set of sociolinguistic approaches and cues become different. Maybe experiences forge within you a different person, with different eyes, who can no longer speak the same language, with the same tone you once used before the experience. This is applicable in many cases, but I think in particular about consolation, grief and the expectation of it.

How little I understood when I recently read Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes how prescient two takeaway quotes would be:

“…perhaps the man’s fate, a life destroyed by tragedy and grief, provided me with a chance to reflect on my own worst fears. I’ve often caught myself feeling a certain guilty joy at the disasters of others, as if the fact that horrible things happened to other people meant that my own life would be exempt from such tragedies, as if I’d get a kind of safe-conduct based on some obtuse law of probability…” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

“I believed I understood that the reason we’re sometimes moved by another’s grief has to do with our atavistic fear that this grief may get transferred to us, too.” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

These thoughts stuck with me after reading the book, which I was reading as I consoled someone through and after the death of his mother. While being supportive and compassionate to him, I turned to someone else for my own kind of consolation, and discussed at length the particular kind of grief that punctuates the loss of one’s mother. He only realized then, as if becoming prepared for grief, how very devastating his own loss would eventually be when his mother passes away. It seems especially cruel and unusual that he didn’t have to wait long to be confronted by the potential for this grief: his mother suffered a fairly catastrophic setback only a couple of weeks later, which has not resulted in her death – but has opened the floodgates and made him see that his entire approach, logically, was flawed, that he could not control or know what the loss would mean or do to him. Sacheri’s points on how we are moved by another’s grief – because it is so close to what we ourselves may soon experience – was applicable.

And yet, language cannot contain this kind of grief, the fear (or confusion) it creates and the mirror it holds up to us and how we live and feel.

Language is equally inadequate for consolation. But in such cases, it’s less a spoken language and more a listening language: giving the time, patience and love to listen.

He “…went on to assure us there’s no Devil, no Satan, no Hell. There is—(maybe)—Heaven but it isn’t anywhere far away or anything special. And we demanded to know, why isn’t Heaven anything special? (You always hear of Heaven being so special.) And Daddy said, because Heaven is just two things: human love, and human patience. And all love is, is patience. Taking time. Focusing, and taking time. That’s love. This was disappointing to us! This was not anything we wanted to hear. We were too young to have a clue how special human love and human patience were, how rare and fleeting…” –A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash


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