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Language and Sense of Self

Updated on December 9, 2014

Are We Defined by our language?

Language is as much a part of us as the food we eat and the air we breath. We often take communication for granted, until it breaks down and we cannot get our point across. Yet language affects our lives in subtle and often unforgettable ways. It is the cornerstone of our relationship with others and ourselves.

The emergence of language was the defining point of civilization, the diversification of it has given definition to cultural attitudes and the way we view the world. While Gloria Naylor, in her essay "Mommy, What Does 'Nigger' Mean?" refuses to enter into the debate whether language shapes reality or the other way around, she does say ... "Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power." Language is a consensus, if we did not agree to call the flat thing we eat dinner on a table, then in order to communicate the object we would have to agree to call it something else; as a human species we have done just that thousands of times, speaking thousands of languages.

For those living in the United States but born into a different culture, the relationship between language and the things around them is far different than for a native English speaker. Maxine Hong Kingston and Richard Rodriguez were both born into cultures where their language and its influence had special meanings that were emphasized and diminished by the introduction of English into their lives. Kingston talks of the silence at school that was a welcome escape from the confusion of a new language she had not mastered, while Rodriguez speaks of losing the feeling of closeness within his family's home. Just as Kingston became self-consciously silent, so Rodriguez's father grew quiet. Rodriguez explains in his essay "Aria", "The family's quiet was partly due to the fact that, as we children learned more and more English, we shared fewer and fewer words with our parents." Initially, he considered his native Spanish a "private" language, and English a public one. This set up a duality that needed to be resolved. He felt drawn to English because it represented the world at large, but mourned the loss of the "desperate, urgent, intense feeling..." that his native language elicited.

In Kingston's piece "Tongue Tied" she describes a completely different set of behaviors as a Chinese girl in an American school having to speak English, and as a Chinese girl in a Chinese school where "The girls were not mute." In fairness, it was not just the language that influenced this difference, but a contrast in cultural attitudes which the language was a reflection of.

Kingston and Rodriguez, although culturally diverse, had similar experiences when faced with the diminishment of their native tongues. Both had concerned teachers who connected their behavior with difficulty in learning or understanding, so visited their homes to find out why they were withdrawn and shy. Ironically, for Kingston, the school itself seemed to support her shyness and that of the other Chinese girls by leaving them behind while the rest of the class went to the auditorium to perform a play. Her cultural identity further conflicted with the English language in the meaning of words and phrases. In one instance Kingston recounts: "I remember telling the Hawaiian teacher, 'We Chinese can't sing land where our fathers died.' She argued with me about politics while I meant because of curses.". This miss-communication served to reinforce the concept of language as a representation of certain realities. It is not merely a matter of semantics, the exchanging of the word table for some other word representing table, but what the word means within the context of culture. Kingston's sense of herself was split because she had to accept two ways of looking at the same object.

Rodriguez was more easily assimilated into a different culture even though he describes his initial reaction to his parents adapting to a new language like this, "Those gringo sounds they uttered startled me. Pushed me away. In that moment of trivial misunderstanding and profound insight, I felt my throat twisted by unsounded grief." He found that slowly and surely the once familiar sounds of his native Spanish gave way to those of English, and in doing so his view of the world changed, his relationship with his parents changed, his parents use of language changed. While Rodriguez's father still used the Spanish word gringo, it was no longer, "charged with the old bitterness or distrust." He found he could no longer tell if his father was pronouncing the Spanish word gringo or saying it in English. He was not even sure how to address his parents, no longer being able to use the old terms because.."They would have been too painful reminders of how much had changed in my life."

Just as Rodriguez termed his native Spanish a private language and English a public one, so his sense of individuality was altered by assimilation into "public society." He states, "Only when I was able to think of myself as an American, no longer an alien in gringo society, could I seek the rights and opportunities necessary for full public individuality."

So those people from divergent cultures coming to live in America, not only have the task of adapting to the language and society but to a completely different sense of themselves from that which they were born with.

Let us now return to Naylor and her unique experience of language. Coincidentally, much like Kingston and Rodriguez, her pivotal event happened as child in school. She explains, "I remember the first time I heard the word nigger. In my third-grade class..." Having never heard the word before it held no meaning for her. Only when the teacher scolded the child who called her nigger did she learn that it had a bad connotation. But she was also to find out the connotation had to do with the context and not the word itself.

While not having to deal with a completely foreign cultural and linguistic background, the very meaning of words within her native language had profound effect and influence on her sense of self. Table may represent table to all those who speak English but the word nigger has a wide variety of meanings based on who says it, how it is used, and what its intent is.

Growing up Naylor encountered its many uses, how it could be a reflection of envy..."I'm telling you, that nigger pulled in $6,000 of overtime last year. Said he got enough for a down payment on a house," of pride..."Yeah, that old foreman found out quick enough - you don't mess with a nigger," or of derision ... "trifling niggers." This transformation of a word that whites used to signify worthlessness or degradation into one that signified the diverse attributes of human beings, is an example of the ways we can choose how language represents us rather than accepting someone else's definition. This is a defense, a way of maintaining self esteem, as much as silence was a defense used by Kingston and Rodriguez.

Naylor may just as well have been from another culture, the way her experience of the English language influenced her personal identity. But then so must we all, for the meanings we give to language reflect how we chose to live life both inwardly and outwardly.

So far we have discussed how external language impacts our lives, but it is not just the spoken language that affects our sense of self, it also the symbolic language out of which the spoken word comes. Erich Fromm in his essay "The Nature of Symbolic Language" tells us of three kinds of symbols - conventional, accidental, and universal. Fromm describes symbolic language as a, "... language in which we express inner experience as if it were a sensory experience, as if it were something we were doing that was done to us in the world of things." I have already used a conventional symbol in this essay, that of the table. The connection between the word and the thing is merely an agreement but words don't just symbolize things, they also symbolize how we feel, combining sounds with physical actions. Fromm uses the word "Phooey" to illustrate that the word itself is meaningless other than as an expression of displeasure, but while making the sound we expel air, we "get it out of our system." He goes on to describe accidental symbols. These are symbols that have no relationship between the symbol and what it symbolizes to the individual. I would call them "personal" symbols, for they represent the connection between events in our personal lives and external things. Fromm explains, "There is no intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolizes. Let us assume that someone has had a saddening experience in a certain city, when he hears the name of that city, he will easily connect the name with a mood of sadness...” These symbols, more than any other, give us a sense of ourselves, our individuality.

The final category, the universal symbol, is one which we can all relate to no matter what language, or place, we come from. Fire, for example, or water, these represent power, change and have down through the ages. Fromm describes the symbol like this, "Indeed, the language of the universal symbol is the one common tongue developed by the human race, a language which it forgot before it succeeded in developing a universal conventional language." He continues, "Every human being who shares the essential features of bodily and mental equipment with the rest of mankind is capable of speaking and understanding symbolic language that is based upon these common properties." Whether individual, or collective, symbols are the initial definition of our experience and the core of language. So too are they the core of our sense of reality and ourselves.

Had Naylor not encountered the word nigger, or had Kingston and Rodriguez not experienced the diversity in culture and language, what different lives they would have led. In doing the reading for this essay I often thought about my own experiences and wondered how I have been effected by language. Living in Los Angeles, exposure to different languages is inevitable, but it is more in passing, for even if I was to learn a new tongue my cultural identity remains the same. So how then does my relationship with English, effect me?

Despite my tendency towards the use of vernacular, I have recently become more concerned with the finer points of both written and spoken English. This broadening of my linguistic experience has opened up some interesting aspects of myself in relationship to those around me. I find that, while still relating to my friends in the old way, I also am able to better express myself with new people I meet. The understanding of subtleties in the language has given me the opportunity to choose, and have better control over how others see me. While humbled by those who have a better command of the English language than I and who are able to relate to Kingston and Rodriguez's plight, I am still grateful for my expanding experience of it. In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller because of new communication technology, it is essential for everyone to be cognizant of how language effects their relationship not only with the person standing next to them, but with the world at large.


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