The Power of Language

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In some situations, especially in my classes at school, I find myself to be quiet and shy. I typically don’t go out of my way to ask questions or spark debates. Instead, I believe I make up for it in other ways besides verbal language.

I am fond of any and all kinds of art; to me, language can’t be defined as only a verbal tool. Language goes so much further than just in your English class or Spanish textbook at school. Language touches the walls of the visual and performing arts, mathematics, history, and science departments. Language is necessary for everyone and holds a wondrous amount of power.

For instance, I was recently asked to write an essay that addressed a prompt about our view on the purpose or value of polite speech. I took a positive stance, but after submitting my essay and discussing it with a friend, I realized that the negative standpoint was just as important. I wrote about how much people appreciate polite speech and etiquette, whereas my friend wrote about how speaking politely can also be taken the wrong way and used sarcastically, or not mean anything at all. We agreed that both our points were valid, but the fact that speaking nicely can be used negatively can show how language has developed over the years.

I recently finished reading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I took note of the distinct diction that the teenage narrator of the novel, Holden Caulfield, used. Published in 1951, this novel’s diction vividly depicts the era the novel is set in. Compared to our verbal language today,  Holden’s character uses phrases such as “phony,” “that killed me,” and “give her a buzz,” in addition to many others. These terms today would seem almost “outdated” to today’s generation of sixteen-year-olds, and maybe even to those older than them.

Similarity, Geoffrey Nunberg writes about the change in the meaning of the word “terror” throughout the years in his editorial, “The -Ism Schism: How Much Wallop Can a Simple Word Pack?”. Nunberg declares, “It is as if language is girding itself for the long haul,” as if language is making a three-sixty in its meaning after being changed and interpreted. The word “terror” has shifted from meaning large or great (ex. “terrible swift sword”) to a definition that defines fear.

Although speech has changed with time, the power that language holds has not. Language has the ability to do amazing things, yet it also can do some not-so-great things. Either way, language leaves an impact. For instance, we can use language to create and make art, such as dances with body language, and music with verbal language. On the other hand, language can be used as a weapon to wound others.

I’ve heard of many cases where kids are verbally bullied. This is one negative to language. Much like a rifle or a bow and arrow, just because we have this great tool known as language, doesn’t mean we know how to use it properly or want to use it to defend ourselves against others using foul language. If you were to say something hurtful to me, I wouldn’t necessarily say something hurtful back at you. Words can be offensive, even if you don’t mean them to be.

I was a peer tutor for a class of special education students at my high school this past year. We had a presentation in one of my classes that talked about “people first language,” something I had never really thought much about nor took notice of. “People first language” means that when addressing someone that has a disability, you put the person before their disability. For example, instead of saying, “the handicapped, the disabled,” you would say, “people with disabilities.” This form of language serves the purpose of not defining or labeling a person by their disability; it doesn’t restrain them. Non-violent language has the same affect; instead of saying, “take a stab at it,” you would say something along the lines of, “go for it,” or replacing “you’re dead meat,” to “you’re in great trouble.” I wish this language was used more in today’s society, not only for the students in the special ed. program or violent situations, but everyone who is seen as different because of their religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Looking back at The Catcher in the Rye, the last sentences of the novel are, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” This is significant because Holden realizes his past can’t be changed, and he knows he can’t go back and change his words; he can only improve on what he says in the future. Throughout the novel, Holden is looking for someone to listen to what he has to say and to understand him. Yet, Holden doesn’t realize when he finally finds someone to talk to that they are willing to listen and communicate with him.

Here is a video that I think accurately discuses the power of communicating with language. Mark Pagel talks about how important communication is in evolving, and that language is what developed human life as we know it today. Pagel claims, “Not having language would be like a bird without wings.” Yet, he also talks about how language creates a barrier between some communications.

In an essay titled “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan writes about her relationship with her mother and how they communicate. Tan can fluently speak both English and Chinese, but her mother knows Chinese and little English. Tan describes how even though her mother isn’t fluent in English, she is still able to understand her. I can relate to this point; when I am tutoring, I realize that some students can’t fully communicate things by themselves. Sometimes you need to prompt them, or even ask them numerous times to get a clear answer. One day, of my students, who coincidentally shares the same love for the band The Beatles as I do, was asking me questions about the British band. She asked me a series of questions, such as who my favorite band member was and what was my favorite song, but one she asked was difficult. She asked me if I liked “the colors,” which I assumed meant the bright, vibrant colors on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album. The next day she came into class wearing a Beatles shirt with bright, vibrant colors. I knew from that moment that I was able to understand and communicate with her, even though there might be a barrier between us.

Even though I don’t raise my hand in class often, I still use language outside the classroom. Through my blog, projects, and group discussions, I believe I effectively communicate my thoughts and words.

All in all, language is a great and powerful thing; you don’t even have to utter a word, yet you can clearly communicate with someone through other forms of expression. Words can be interpreted in so many ways. Language, if used properly, can be a tool that will help future generations evolve. Like Holden Caulfield, we need to remember to choose our words wisely. Communication is a lock, and language is the key.

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