WHY LAN­GUAGE MAT­TERS MORE THAN EVER

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - OPINION - ADRI­ENNE CLARK­SON

In­te­gra­tion. Cit­i­zen. In­clu­sion. In 2018, un­der­stand­ing the true mean­ings of the words we choose is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant

The 26th gover­nor-gen­eral of Canada (1999-2005) and co-chair of the ICC. She de­liv­ered the 2014 Massey Lec­tures, Be­long­ing: The Para­dox of Cit­i­zen­ship.

Alice, hav­ing passed through the look­ing glass, meets Humpty Dumpty on his wall. He ex­plains his use of lan­guage to the in­ter­loper.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scorn­ful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – nei­ther more nor less.”

“The ques­tion is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many dif­fer­ent things – that’s all.”

“The ques­tion is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be mas­ter – that’s all.”

Like Alice, we have all passed through the won­der of the ini­tial en­gage­ment with lan­guage. In Canada, we pride our­selves on lit­er­acy as a mark of our civ­i­liza­tion. But lit­er­acy does not mean that we use our own­er­ship of lan­guage in or­der to make words mean what we want them to mean. Why can’t we?

Well, for one thing, we then take away the uni­ver­sal­ity of lan­guage and the ba­sis upon which we un­der­stand each other. We start out from the cra­dle, as Noam Chom­sky in­di­cated half a cen­tury ago, with an in­nate abil­ity to ac­quire lan­guage. We don’t have to be taught the gram­mar of our first lan­guage. As part of our hu­man­ness, we are able to process mean­ing. We de­velop vo­cab­u­lary and are able to com­mu­ni­cate in vary­ing de­grees of ad­e­quacy, in­tel­li­gence and even bril­liance with each other.

When we de­form lan­guage, when we choose words and make them mean what we want them to mean, then lan­guage be­comes loaded. The whole hu­man pur­pose of lan­guage is lost. Re­fer­ring to doc­tors’ pa­tients as “clients” puts a whole new mean­ing on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the healer and the to-be-healed. At the very least, it sub­verts the Hip­po­cratic oath.

If we be­come lazy, ob­fus­cat­ing and ma­li­cious, we sub­vert the very means by which we com­mu­ni­cate with each other. When we kid­nap lan­guage and Humpty Dumpty-ize it, we are say­ing that we no longer want to re­ally com­mu­ni­cate, but that we sim­ply want to state our point of view, or put for­ward pro­pa­ganda.

In a coun­try such as Canada, it is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant that we un­der­stand the mean­ings of words. Diver­sity is our strength. Diver­sity can also cause divi­sion.

In Canada, we do not use cit­i­zen in the same way as it was used when it came into its mod­ern con­text, as a re­sult of the French Rev­o­lu­tion – when the peo­ple be­came a power in and of them­selves, with­out ref­er­ence to any hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­ture. From the 18th cen­tury on­ward, we were not pre­pared for the con­se­quences of over­throw­ing an or­der that had been in place for cen­turies, how­ever shak­ily and how­ever flawed. And now, more than any­thing, the idea of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity en­tered into the con­scious­ness of the peo­ple postRevo­lu­tion, and it is to­day still part of the con­scious­ness of Western so­ci­eties.

In the Cana­dian con­text, be­ing a cit­i­zen means be­ing part of a col­lec­tion of peo­ple who are not re­lated to each other by blood, re­li­gion or even shared his­tory. We un­der­stand what it is to have at the heart of our cit­i­zen­ship an act of imag­i­na­tion. We be­lieve that by act­ing to­gether, we start in this coun­try not with a po­lit­i­cal sta- tus quo from which the idea of cit­i­zen de­volves, but with an idea of cit­i­zen from which a na­tion evolves.

We can­not have a coun­try in which we do not have a com­mon vo­cab­u­lary and an agree­ment on what the words mean. A coun­try of Humpty Dump­ties can­not be put to­gether again once it has fallen off the wall.

In Logico-Philo­soph­i­cal Trea­tise, philoso­pher Lud­wig Wittgen­stein ar­gues against “pri­vate lan­guage.” He points out that lan­guage is pri­mar­ily so­cial and words get their mean­ings by the way they are used by com­mu­ni­ties of users. Humpty Dumpty – who is ac­tu­ally a frag­ile egg – sits all alone and means what he says and says what he thinks things mean. It is the very op­po­site of what we must have for a so­ci­ety in which cit­i­zens un­der­stand each other. Lan­guage must not be pri­va­tized; words should not be kid­napped.

In the Bi­ble, we are told that Adam named ev­ery­thing ap­pro­pri­ately. Humpty Dumpty-iza­tion of lan­guage means that there is only sub­jec­tiv­ity to le­git­imize lan­guage. We must all try to use words cor­rectly, and pro­tect them from the shiny patina of mis­use.

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