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  • Writer's pictureJacob Skorka

Understood Through Tough Thorough Thought Though

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

Here, have a beer and let's talk about language. Ha! Lord, help us!


I have always thought that language is fascinating. I've been somewhat obsessed with how the English language works, or can work, for quite some time. For example, I have somewhat been obsessed with English and how it does and can work, for quite some time. I've been somewhat obsessed with English and how it works, or how it can work, for quite some time. But also, I have been slightly captivated by my native tongue and its intricacies for a while.


What I have not understood is why I enjoy something that is so damn hard!


I always heard that English is the hardest language to learn. I had a hard time understanding that because 1) it came naturally to me, and 2) I've always been more English/writing brained than math/number brained. Remember in elementary school when your teachers starting seeing how you learn and what you're good at, so they would make you do the thing you suck at more to "make you better," but then never taught you how to learn so you just continued through school knowing you were good at this one thing and bad at that other thing. Eventually you stopped doing the thing you're good at to practice the thing you're bad at to pass the class and give the school a good grade when it came standardized testing time? Then, when you got to high school, you got fed up and said, "I suck at math but I'm really good at writing," and the administration said, "well that's great, but you still have to take algebra, geometry, algebra II, and calculus or you can't graduate." Then you scrape through algebra and geometry, and know the chances of you getting through algebra II are the same as a snowball's chance in hell so you find loopholes in the math system that some random board of people created to graduate. No? Was that just me? Anyway, all of that to say, I didn't believe that English was very hard until I got older, and started learning more about it. Looking back, starting in my latter years of high school and continuing through college, I realize how often I looked like the blinking-white-guy-GIF when I learned something new about English. I always seemed to understand it, but was never any less shocked that somebody just made it up at some point and now it's an actual thing.


That's what is so fascinating to me. All language - rules, words, structure, formation, etc. - all over the world, was just made up by someone, or someones, and now you have to do it. What power.


Yes, I realize that English is very young compared to other languages. I mean, languages had already lived and died before English showed up to the party. That's another fascinating thought - a dead language. BUT WAIT, THERE IS MORE! Over 60% of English words spoken today are derived from a dead language (Latin). That's just words. I'm convinced that all the grammar rules and sentence structure nonsense came from a group of posh white dudes, trying to make life harder for everybody else, knowing dang-well they were never going to follow the rules, trying to advance themselves in society. The point is this: language can be traced back millions, and millions, and millions of years. Include hieroglyphics and symbol-languages then we add one or two more "millions" to that list. That is a very long time and yet, here we are. Reading English words in an American dialect, with context from the person writing them. I need a sec to collect my thoughts.


Language has evolved so much. What started as primate-caveman-people trying to communicate has turned into different languages, different dialects of the same language, different geographic locations of the same dialects of the same language, different geographic locations of different dialects of the same language, written languages, spoken-only languages, verbal and non-verbal language, dead languages, root languages, proper language, slang, common tongue, high society language, global language, SIGN LANGUAGE *gasp*, on, and on, and on, and on, and on. There has even been evolution of the American-English language in just the last 5 years.


I repeat.


THERE HAS BEEN EVOLUTION OF AMERICAN-ENGLISH IN THE LAST 5 YEARS.


We're watching it happen. We are playing an active role in our language changing! The millennials started it, and that GEN Z crowd is really taking off with it. I'm not {only} talking about slang, but the fact that there is actually new language being dreamt up and created, then plopped in our lives in an abrasive, interrupting way for us to refine and establish as extremely effective ways of communicating. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary started adding words and calling them 'word of the year' for goodness sake. Things like emojis and hashtags. Emojis are bringing the initial creation of language and our common language together. We have come full circle. They are symbols used, in context, to convey a message, expressing verbal and non-verbal emotion, encouraging a response, inciting reciprocated feelings. But, remember, English is hard and that sentence could also say: we can have a full conversation with symbols and not use words once. I think our hairy ancestors would have a few things to say about that.


What about hashtags? What a novel concept a hashtag is! Scholars, authors, academics, and professionals alike have spent years and years perfecting the idea of a conclusion. The idea that everything we write, or say, has to end somehow. The ideal ending is the ending that encompasses everything that was written, or said, and ties it in a nice little bow so that everyone can understand the package being delivered. Then, here comes some dude who forces people to figure out how to get something across in 140 characters. He slaps the pound sign in front of a word and BAM! Bow is tied. Words concluded. We get the point. Now hashtags are so common it is curious when people don't use them. We use them in social posts, text messages, #blogs, emails, and even spoken language (you know you have said "hashtag blessed" in a real conversation).


Speaking of text messages and emails - more examples of new language! Remember the time when your English teacher told you that you have to learn comma rules because you can't use "text language" in school or work? I do. Guess what, Ms. Edwards, now we use punctuation in text messages to to get a point across. Or, we don't use punctuation on purpose to send an even more serious message. When you text your crush and say "Hey!" and the response you get back is "hi" you immediately know that you need to get over her because she is not interested. We use punctuation to prove a point on the screen in our pocket, but don't know that independent and dependent clauses are married by a comma. We don't even know what independent and dependent clauses are. Interesting. Punctuation that we have such a hard time with is being used to convey emotion. Shocker.


In a world with so many different forms of language, I am also flabbergasted at how languages intersect. If you're fluent in ASL you can literally have conversations with people and never open your mouth, but simultaneously be listening to someone speak the language you are signing. If you know any of the Romance languages well enough you can have conversations in over half of the world. I have friend who is fluent in Spanish. He learned the language formally, in a classroom, in a way that is only spoken in a classroom. He is now fluent in Spanish dialects spoken in Mexico, Spain, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, {maybe} Venezuela, Cuba, and the hardest of all. . . Northern New Mexican Spanish. Not only can he speak and understand it, he can write it. That means he can text, or email, using emojis and hashtags, in 2 different languages, in one of seven dialects. That is hard for me to grasp. Now think about linguists. Language scholars. Translators. Oh. My. Gosh.


Language gives us art. Language gives us creativity. Language portrays emotions. Language is a tool that we use to carve our lives into a sculpture for the world to see.


Unfortunately, when I think about how incredible language is, it is impossible for me to not think about how it can be used negatively. Like any tool, it can be used as a weapon. A screwdriver becomes a murder weapon, a rope tied into a noose, a fire extinguisher swung like a baton; words become knives, tone becomes deafening, posture turns blinding. I have a friend who studies language. She's chasing a PhD in English, to be exact. I recently asked her what her favorite thing about language is and her response was, "my mind immediately jumped to the things I hate about it. . . that it is totally ambiguous and someone with power decides what is 'right' and 'wrong'." To further her point, people use language to gain power, then use the same language to make the powerless feel the weight of their power. The same tool that you are using to carve a masterpiece is being used to discriminate someone trying to accomplish the same thing. The same words that you say to lift somebody up are being used to kneel on their neck. The tone you speak with is being taken at face value when you use it to gain leverage. Language, used as a tool, has the power to change the world. Language, used as a weapon, has the power to ruin the world. The sound of a mother's voice singing her newborn to sleep. The sound of a husband's voice telling his wife that he wants a divorce. The sound of a police officer's voice telling a white man to go home. The sound of a judge's voice telling a black man that he no longer has a home. The sound of children's voices while playing on the playground. The sound of a white kid's voice telling a Mexican kid to learn English. The sound of a coach telling an athlete that she's proud of her. The sound of a teacher telling a student that she won't amount to anything. The sound of a family welcoming you home. The sound of a global leader's voice telling an entire people group that they don't belong.


Language is powerful.


Later in the conversation with my friend, she told me that her single favorite thing about language is, "that through language, we make thoughts tangible. We share our innermost being and ideas with others through language." Beyond the rules that make it hard, past the words that flow seamlessly across borders, deeper than new ways of communicating the fact remains: that when we use language we give pieces of ourselves to others.


My hope is that when I speak I am giving the good parts of myself to others. My hope is that I see through my fascination and realize that language holds power, and often times the power is manifested in ways that I cannot see. I want to continue to be enthralled with its majesty while staying mindful of its responsibility.


 

Language, as a whole, is insane. Not the literal definition of insane, but our American slang version of insane. See, that's another example of how crazy language is. I guess it's okay if you don't think language is nuts. I'm okay with being seen as a word nerd. I love words, but you don't have to. I would just really encourage you to think about language from a 30,000-foot perspective. Try and see the whole picture rather than your own picture. Maybe you'll see what I see. Let's chat about it!

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