The Many Voices of Language

Ester Grace

Language is a strange construct. It is relative, fluid and the essence of dynamic. Yet language governs our lives in ways so cemented into our subconscious that we often deny its power over us. Language is weaponized to assault our values, our goals and our entire sense of self while we wallow in untroubled complacency. We have no defense against the way we communicate with others and with ourselves.

But language is beautiful. It unites us across time, geography and culture. It is inextricably entwined with the breath of life. It is both the single string that weaves humanity together and the razor that shears us apart.

Now evident is the integral role that language plays in the marginalization of minority groups. The most obvious example is looking at the gender disparity when gauging acceptable levels of promiscuity. There is plenty of colorful and often tasteless language available to describe women who are sexually liberated. For examples, visit your local high school. But when it comes to describing promiscuity in men, the language simply does not exist. And when it does, it is a conjugation of the language established to admonish women. (Read: man-whore.)

This concept also lends itself to the marginalization of gay and lesbian relationships. But here the threat is dual-natured; not only is there an absence of language to describe the milestones in a gay or lesbian relationship (such as losing one’s virginity, because how do lesbians have sex anyway?) but there is the constant differentiation between activities heterosexuals engage in versus the activities their gay peers engage in. (Read: gay marriage, gay adoption.)

Perhaps the most dire abuse of language is directed, albeit often unintentionally, to those of the transgender community. The formulation of identity is difficult enough when the language is provided. But all the language used to describe transgender identity has roots in the movement itself. It is still in early ages of development, a fragile fledgling thrust into a precise, dichotomous and overly simplistic dialect.

And language manipulates. When corporations began to market bottled water as early as 1977, specific words were employed repeatedly to implicitly state the lack of hygiene standards present in the municipal water system. Commercials emphasized statements such as “your clean water source” or “purest water quality.” After decades of these techniques, convincing the general public of the stringency of municipal water standards is one of the greatest tasks facing conservationists today. This subtle, quasi-brainwashing by selective use of language is utilized by politicians, lawyers, drug companies, anyone who stands to benefit from stealthily implanting an idea into the minds of the masses. In fact, there’s an entire industry based on the use of language to inadvertently state an idea; it’s called marketing.

As such a fundamental part of the human experience, it is quite incredible to recognize mere oscillations of sound waves dictate the behavior of an entire society.

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