Thoughts on Language, Part 2

In part 1 I looked at language and some of the problems that translation can cause because there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the words in one language and those in another, nor is there agreement between the grammars. This time I want to look at some of the issues of morality and justice that can be due, in part, to less robust language.

By “less robust” I am thinking less about what we might call “primitive” languages—those of isolated tribes in Asia, for instance—and more of the subsets of English spoken by various groups. The language of an isolated tribe may well be too circumscribed to be of use to a member of a modern, technological society, but it is probably very well suited to the society in which it is used, and capable of making the subtle distinctions that are needed in that setting.

The problem with Ebonics, from use.com

The problem with Ebonics, from use.com

Instead, consider, for instance, the street dialect used in many parts of the United States by people of all races. It is a severely impoverished form of language. The first thing one notices (after one becomes used to the bad diction, but that is a different problem) is the frequent, redundant use of profanity. That, however, is not the real problem, the profanity acting, in many ways, simply as a form of punctuation. More serious is the limited vocabulary, but even that is relatively easy to fix, as anyone can learn a new word when needed with little effort. Far worse is the elementary grammar. Those fine distinctions of tense mentioned in part 1, for instance, are almost totally lost.

Such limited language seriously limits the thinking of those who use it and this, in turn, will seriously limit their success in the larger society that has a more robust language. It is for this reason that it becomes a moral issue. The failure of the larger society to remedy this process of disenfranchisement is, at best, a serious sin if omission. But that assumes that it is not deliberate, and I am not convinced that this is the case. I doubt that there are very many people who consciously want to oppress the poor in this way, but surely there is a “principality and power” of the enfranchised that does. That is to say, people in a group (the “haves”) can often act in ways that they would not act as individuals, sometimes even without realising it.

This particular form of bondage is, I think, a particularly evil one, for it teaches the enslaved to love their chains! This language, which is one of the major things keeping them disenfranchised, is “their language” and there is even a certain pride in being able to speak it “properly”. This also means that attempts to legitimise such dialects (like some of the more extreme proponents of Ebonics) are misguided and dangerous, at least until such dialects evolve into their own robust languages.

Now note that I am not against such dialects in themselves. It is not even a question of which version of English is “best”. The problem comes because the enfranchised “haves” speak one version of English and the disenfranchised speak another, enabling a distinction to be made. It is probably a similar situation as the one that existed in England after the Norman invasion, when the new power elite spoke Norman French, and the subjugated commoners spoke Anglo-Saxon. Or, more recently, in countries like Belgium or Canada where different languages are spoken, and where there is tension between the different groups.

But, as was said in part one, even the most robust language is limited both in vocabulary and grammar, and hence everyone’s thinking is limited. What happens, then, when we get closer to God, who is infinite and perfect and timeless? I will look at this in the third and final part.

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One Response to “Thoughts on Language, Part 2”

  1. Thoughts on Language, Part 3 « thoughtfulspirituality Says:

    […] Explorations of Christian Spirituality « Thoughts on Language, Part 2 […]

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