Monday, 17 August 2009

Part one) Language is our prison and our portrait...

What better place to start my reflection on language than in my home of Englandshire which is a veritable hotbed of language deviance, a rich tapestry of accents, dialects and slang. We can travel all the way from Geordieland, to the sunny vales of bumpkin Dorset, from the Manchurian drawl to the scouser swagger all the way from the surf happy corns to the ducking-and-diving-del-boys of the east end and discover a wonderful array of language styles and forms. Each individual and developing a persona each encompassing its own style, steeped in it own stereotype representing its own culture. The striking thing about language is its immediacy in representing all of these things, a subtle cocktail of accent, dialect, vocabulary and grammar which form such lasting ideas of ones character. Indeed, this can be before we have said anything about ourselves!

For example, if I were standing in a room speaking out loud to you, instantly you would be making assumptions about my gender, race, class, upbringing and hometown. The fact I am even writing this will probably invite you to make some guesses as to my education. Language is so wrapped up in who we are we cannot escape it in the same way we cannot escape our own reflection. We might attempt to imitate others but it is likely to be flawed imitation at best, and a laughable impersonation at worst. Certainly some of us are better deceivers than others but we are still exposed as liars in the end.

Now if we accept that language affects how we are perceived, however inaccurately, by others then we will have to accept that it will also affect how we view ourselves. So if we ride the very simple train of thought that suggests how we present ourselves affects how we are perceived it no doubt has an impact on how we then interact, language is now helping us develop an ‘attitude’ towards how we interact with others. This might be reliant on context say in an essay, a job interview or even how express ourselves toward a potential partner but success in these areas is completely dependant ability to express what we want in a clear, persuasive manner without coming across as false or sycophantic. Language may be our intellectual prison but it is one we build for ourselves and one we can improve, expand and develop anytime we please.

I found out to my horror, this was not a new idea I had stumbled upon, Stephen Pinker, Noam Chomsky and Wittgenstein have all mused on the idea that Language is father of all thought. I find this an increasingly convincing idea, for how can I know what to think before I can articulate it in my mind? How Can I discover the legitimacy of anything if I cannot discuss it with anyone? Without language ideas and concepts are eroded because there is no basis for a common understanding. A world without language would be a lonely one and are primary way of understanding truth is through consensus. Orwell once reflected that a totalitarian government would remove justice, freedom and liberty from our vocabularies therefore removing or at least eroding the concepts from our minds, it’s the basis of 1984s newspeak. He is suggesting here that language is the very basis for shaping our world view.

On a more personal level, many of my personal philosophies are derived from the very quotable great literary masters of language. Perhaps this is due to their capacity to condense language into the easily remembered poetic forms, and I simply defy you to forget Wilde's reflection

“Beauty is the greatest form of genius because it requires no explanation”

a reminder to us all of the very simple pleasure of enjoying beauty without having to justify it to yourself and still remains one of the best ways to garner enjoyment in this life. I like that someone with a genuine skill with language can be so influential in how we think.

I hope you'll agree language is our prison and our portrait, but one we make for ourselves- so lets make it as roomy and beautiful as possible. Why? I thought that required no explanation...

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