Adaptation of Language
BY AVA WONG '23
Use your words. From a young age, we learn that our most important form of communication is language, and how we use our words demonstrates our values. While we like to think that the societal standard is “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” words are continually weaponized in our lives. While only saying kind things is an inspirational aspiration, sometimes the truth isn’t kind, and silence is unjust. Language is a powerful tool that can be used to both oppress and uplift, and its evolution communicates society’s ever-changing nature. Since our words convey how we see ourselves and others, if we can adapt our language, perhaps the broader community can progress as well.
In an English-dominated world, assimilating, or conforming to the majority standard, often leads to shedding cultural ties, including language. According to the United Nations, an estimated 3,000 languages are endangered, and 230 languages have gone extinct from 1950 to 2010. English’s dominance leaves little room for other languages and dialects, which are often seen as obstacles to assimilation. Americans who speak with an accent are “otherized” and perceived as less intelligent, contributing to the perpetual foreigner stereotype—the idea that they will never be truly American. Throughout history, assimilation has also been tied to colonization: both the United States and Great Britain forced English upon groups of people, negated their culture and history, and prevented their language from being passed on. And as we lose languages rapidly, we are severing the ties that bind a diverse world together. As Nelson Mandela, the first South African president said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Without intercultural connections, different communities separate themselves, and the easier it is for us to isolate ourselves, the more damage ignorance and hate can cause; the minimization or suppression of other languages reflects language’s power to harm others.
Another example of social control through language is grammar. Whole sections of standardized tests are dedicated to the subject, implying that there is only one legitimate way to speak and write English. But different places have their own branch of English, like Hawaiian English or Filipino English, each with a legitimate grammar system. The grammar we are taught in schools, or “prescriptive grammar,” with its stringent rules, is just one way of thinking about language; “descriptive grammar” also exists, where there aren’t rules to follow but rather patterns that vary between communities. Descriptive grammar encourages curiosity about the evolution of language and grammar, whereas prescriptive grammar remains stagnant and slowly slips into irrelevance. Grammar isn’t inherent to us; we learn to speak by mimicking our parents and then are taught what is correct. However, when the standardization of language goes too far, it can become oppressive.
For instance, the idiom “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is complete malarkey. In reality, words can be used to dehumanize entire peoples. The words we read or hear reinforce hierarchy; words like yellow, black, and white divide and categorize while slurs degrade minorities as inferior. History textbooks also often twist the narrative, painting white revolutionaries as heroes while using language to portray revolutionaries of color as anarchists and trouble-makers.
Words cut deeper and scar longer than we may realize, and this has never been more evident than in our own community. Slurs and graphic insults are the literal writing on the wall at ABRHS; they are carved into bathroom stalls, on blackboards, and circulate through our social media. Words that are used to oppress entire groups of people, whether they target race, gender, or sexuality, are often used without fear of consequences. As culture imposes the largest influence on one’s language, what does the presence of these words say about AB’s culture? We cannot “erase hate” because it is not scrawled in pencil but rather carved into our values as a community. However, though language can harm, it also has the power to advance and strengthen the community. If we prioritize education and help students understand why slurs are harmful, we can give them the power to use language to combat hatred and ignorance, creating a safer environment. From here, we can begin to hope that adapting the way we treat each other will follow suit.