My teacher whispers as wisps of her gray hair flutter around her face, seemingly buoyed by the tension evoked at the mere mention of the word.
Our bodies freeze as a synchronized chill ripples around the room. We feel ourselves shifting unconsciously into the stratas that have divided us ever since we can remember: the people of color on one side and white people on the other. Our eyes dart from side to side, the melanin characterizing the skin cells of our neighbor ever more obvious now. We feel the lump swell in our throats, the fear of saying anything to offend anybody gnawing at our stomachs.
Certain segments of the population would likely point to these feelings as evidence of how society’s increasing inclinations toward “political correctness” erect needless boundaries, breeding fear. But in actuality, these feelings serve as testament to a greater truth: language is powerful.
‘An Untapped Resource to Improve Our Present’
Much of this truth is self-evident—if language did not wield such extraordinary capacity, then you would not be reading the words on this page right now. You read because you realize that language connects, capacitates and cultivates.
Few species can tap into the potential of language the way that humans can. Chimpanzees, sharing 99% of human’s DNA, can embody the same communication efficacy historically characteristic of humans. Also, orca whales’ advanced Broca’s area—the portion of the cerebral cortex that controls the production of speech—enables them to mimic the complexities of human speech.
But all of these animals can only use language to converse within themselves, expressing discombobulated thoughts unintelligible to members of any other species.
In contrast, language permits humans to communicate across cultural divisions, to foster connections with other unique beings, and creep into the innards of the past in order to discover long buried secrets.
Language is the means by which history becomes an untapped resource to improve our present. Through prose and poetry, language can entertain, empower and educate.
But just as language can heal, it can hurt; just as language can nourish, it can nullify; and just as language amplifies, it can also aggravate.
We need not conduct a fancy experiment to witness this truth. Simply measure your willingness to use profanity when your friend makes a shot for the other team during a casual basketball game and when you shatter your grandmother’s best china in front of her company.
We recognize that words have complex connotations that far transcend their dictionary entry. It’s for this reason we coo to our children, calling them our “sweethearts” and “honeys,” never lingering close to the coarse language that adulterates our conversations with adults.
‘The Normalization of Profane Language’
Yet, we have become desensitized to the beeps emitting from our TV when political discourse turns ugly, the senators to whom we have entrusted our democracy spewing horrible slurs at one another. We no longer wince when a driver mouths profanity at us after a slight traffic misstep. Nor do we hesitate much when a movie we have selected for a Friday family movie night has its “R” rating “only” because of vulgar language.
And the normalization of profane language in our daily conversations extends far beyond “words banned at the dinner table.”
While communicating with one another, we recourse to even those words deemed taboo for all purposes, words such as the “n-word” and the “r-word”—words whose mere articulation evokes a common memory of use for inflicting insult and injury. Every time these words escape our lips, they blow our listeners with the force of over 200 years of history, even if we are unaware of what that history is. These words represent the evocation of the worst of human personality through one of the most ingenious tools of human society.
But the increasing prevalence of slurs is not the only factor threatening to destroy language.
The introduction of social media, while inventing a new lingo of its own, has also begun to deconstruct our old one. As “great” has transformed into “gr8,” our newest generation is losing touch with a system of communication that has transmitted the societal foundations of democracy and equality from Ancient Rome to the trailblazing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And while this new vernacular certainly maintains its own value among the youngest of us, we cannot deny that its repeated use has begun to erode the eloquence that distinguished the speech of our grandparents and as such, strips language of all its intrinsic beauty.
How then do we rescue language from its apparent fate of total destruction? How do we redeem language for love and for inspiration?
The answer, like the solution to many other human quandaries, lies within ourselves.
We already know that we value language immeasurably. After all, many Americans would prefer to read Emily Dickinson’s beautiful sentiment that “hope is the thing with feathers” and Frederick Douglas’s timeless assertion that “the soul that is within me no man can degrade” than a series of disjointed text messages cluttered by expletives and emojis.
Our next step, then, is to harness this value in our everyday lives. Close your eyes and think of the words that unsettle you; the words that move you.
Perhaps you recall the rhythmic cadence of Amanda Gormon’s poetry. Or perhaps you feel your pores shiver with chills as the words of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address flood your mind.
Whatever your words of choice, I can guarantee that they are words of hope, of encouragement, and of believing in the best of ourselves and our neighbor. I guarantee that they make use of the timeless toolbox of language—assonance, alliteration, metaphors and metonymy—-and interweave creative composition with compelling content.
As we live these words, let us breathe these words. Let us reclaim language so that it is no longer a perpetrator of wounds, but an antidote of woes. Let us say unto our neighbor as we would have them say to us.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.