Think Piece on Language, Community, and Hierarchy

01Jun09

I’m reading this article by David Watson called “The Language of Domestication & The Domestication of Language.”  It is essentially a reflection on this book called Shadow Work by a guy named Ivan Illich, and focuses on how language has been objectified and standardized in order to support the continued expansion of imperialism and industrialism.  Watson talks about how, historically, individual communities created and developed authentic, useful, vernacular languages  that worked for them–the languages existed because they were useful to the community and strengthened it as a viable economic entity.  However, the splintering effect of every community having its own, nonstandard language makes it difficult for each of those communities to be unified and ruled by a single governing body.  Thus, voila: Official Grammars.  It makes sense in terms of ‘progress,’ in terms of making everything more uniform and governable and generally less threatening to hierarchical systems of organization.

Alright, so that’s all interesting, but my question is, does it work?  Well, clearly it does.  Standard American English is taught and demanded in the overwhelming majority of schools in our country.  We explicitly teach the grammar of this language to students with varying degrees of success.  Those students that can master it advance socially and economically; those who cannot fill the important roles of ‘undereducated’ workers, taking orders rather than giving them.  Though the article does not explore this dynamic, it is certainly there: Standardization of language helps perpetuate the division of power that our economic system demands in order to function.  Meanwhile, tons of languages are beaten out of peoples, and important cultural and community knowledge is lost forever as a result.  What do you suppose that does to those cultures or communities?

Here’s what Watson says:

Despite the timeworn commonplace of language academics that language cannot degenerate but merely fulfills a changing “need”–from knowing the names of wildflowers and herbs, say, to varieties of automobiles–a language spoken in an increasingly alienated and administered universe obviously undergoes the same process of corruption and degeneration that its speakers experience.  As people become things [he’s talking about commodification here], their language reflects and conspires with their thingification.

In other words, people become commodities because standardized language makes them so–makes them think and act and communicate as commodities rather than people.  I get this.  I do!  But I think that maybe language is a bit too unruly for imperialistic, capitalistic, opportunisitic hierarchies to control.  Language is almost infinitely adaptable, and, I think, certainly will adapt when necessary.  That”s the definition of language!  Its whole point is to be useful.  I don’t know if thinking that makes me a “language academic,” but simply labeling this way of thinking ‘academic’ does not invalidate it.

Can vernacular languages hold their own in a climate of standardization?  Well, sure.  They do.  (Check these out, for example.)  And new ones are popping up all the time, because people keep forming communities–it’s just how we roll–and those new communities demand new ways of using language that work.   Besides that, how can anyone have more control over language than the people who are directly using it in their everyday lives? Is it really that easily governable from afar?  True, governing bodies of all sorts have uses for language as well–and standardized grammars are certainly useful in terms of the goals of these governing bodies–but that sort of removed purpose doesn’t stand up logically to the immediacy of particular people in particular interactions with one another, does it?  Maybe I’m creating a false dichotomy there…

I guess it’s worth noticing that there are differences between the communities Watson talks about as being destroyed by imperialistic standardized language and the communities that are forming today (which are admittedly less often rooted in shared material concerns and conditions).  Our new communities–I’m thinking of online ones, and ones based on shared professional or leisure pursuits–don’t necessarily function as economic entities.  That is, people in these communities don’t often support each other in terms of livelihood, in terms of working together to make sure basic needs are met.  And I’m guessing–really just guessing here–that the shared language that develops within a community is probably only as strong and meaningful as the ties that bind the community together–its coherence and viability, the insistence that each member has upon connecting with the others.  At any rate, shared languages still develop within these communities of varying…authenticity.  Shared language that works is still needed in order for a community to develop and persist and cohere…which means…

Well, I don’t know what it means.  Watson says, in effect, that developing authentic vernacular language is “a precondition for social liberation.”  I agree, I guess, but I am, I think, a bit more hopeful about our potential for achieving this than Watson is.  Watson argues that even when vernacular languages persist in the face of linguistic imperialism, they are maimed and weakened.  But once people begin to rely upon each other within communities…oh, it’s getting all chicken-and-the-egg-y in my mind now.  I guess I feel like language should be too unruly for hierarchies to control.  Like, theoretically, it is.  But in practice I know this isn’t always so.  The language we use limits our ability to perceive our world, and the language we use is often handed to us from above.  At the same time, however, our needs continually shape the language we use.  But if we’re not conscious of our needs or desires because of the limits of our language…where does that leave us?

How exactly do we go about building–and building upon–authentic vernacular languages?  I think language both shapes and is capable of being shaped, but will generally only work if it, well, works. And I think I feel that we can depend upon language to work the way we need it to.  I suppose this perspective comes from privilege–what doesn’t, for me?–but it seems true to me nonetheless.  I don’t know what the implications of this are, though, because I certainly don’t think that this means we should just sit back and wait for our language to save us.

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