How do you think about language?
Do you view it as collections of words that represent “things”?
Do you view it as a tool that we use to communicate with one another?
Those are common ways to think about language, especially when we find ourselves learning new ones. There are long lists of vocabulary and strange verb conjugation rules . . . all leading to hours of tedious memorization. Perhaps that’s your memory of language classes from high school, and now that Spanish or French (or Afrikaans and isiXhosa if you’re South African like me) is merely a distant, vague shadow in your brain.
If that is how you were taught to think about language, however, then you are missing out. Language is more than simply a tool or set of words. Language is something that humans use to actually construct our world. Here I am going to briefly turn to a Swiss linguist from the late 19th and early 20th century who revolutionized how scholars think about language–Ferdinand de Saussure. In the “Arbitrary Social Values and the Linguistic Sign”, he writes:
Frederic Jameson helps us understand the philosophical shift that de Saussure makes: “The movement of Saussure’s thought may perhaps be articulated as follows: language is not an object, not a substance, but rather a value: thus language is a perception of identity” (“The Linguistic Model” in The Prison-house of Language, 35). Language is dynamic and operates, along with our thought, to shape how we view and comprehend the world around us. Language, you could say, is a reflection of our perception.
This understanding of language is central to the plot of the recently released film Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. After twelve strange vessels from space appear across the globe, hovering in Earth’s skies, the world’s top linguists are employed by governments to try to communicate with the alien beings who command these ships. The goal: find out if the aliens come in peace or animosity. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, one of those linguists who is hired by the US government along with Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist.
Together Louise and Ian make contact with two of the visitors and struggle to comprehend the nature and mechanics of the new language, along with linguists across the world who are also trying to make progress using different techniques. Simultaneously, military leadership and government officials impatiently await answers while they must manage the fears and anxieties of national publics who have no idea what is going on and want the aliens annihilated.
The film is about the tension between expectations and reality, and how our expectations can color how we use and think about language, which in turn shapes reality. In other words, if we are not careful, what we expect will be what we get–not because it was inevitable but because we believed it into existence. While the stakes are much higher in the context of this film, the narrative challenges the ways in which we the audience also participate daily within similar frameworks. The most direct example would be the ways in which we perceive outsiders to our communities, whether local or national. For example, fear of illegal immigrants affects our language, such as calling Japanese-Americans the derogatory term “Japs” during WWII, which in turn builds a culture that circulates fear while simultaneously dehumanizing the object of our fear.
Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and mathematician wrote aptly about this topic. First he noted,
In addition, he said,
Of course, fear can also play a significant role in protecting us, but the danger is when fear becomes our trigger instinct. Before we accept the truths that our fear suggests, we should step back and challenge the framework of the world where that fear exists. And we should analyze the language that may be fueling the fear.
This is precisely the situation in which the world finds itself in the movie Arrival, and Dr. Banks, a linguist, finds herself responsible for de-escalating potential world (or inter-galactic?) war. If you have not already, I encourage you to go see the film Arrival over break because the thoughts I have raised will become more clear in relation to the plot of the movie. If you do, I urge you to reflect on these ideas about the role that language plays in our society. As we head into Christmas break and spend significant time with families and friends, take the time to reflect on your conversations and your thoughts and how they, individually and collectively, are shaping our world of today.
This week’s featured image is by Antonio Literrio, made available for use by a CC 3.0 License.