Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
— George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946)
As with everything to do with humans, getting some kind of change to occur is a laborious process. So the first question you might be asking about bending language to your will is why would anyone want to try? While there are plenty of side benefits, there is also one fundamental truth – that language shapes the way we think.
The Germans have recently been made aware of this fact, with theorists and the federal justice ministry challenging the German language’s confusing and arbitrary attribution of gender to things. Currently a noun will be either der, die or das – meaning a speaker has to memorise whether it is masculine, feminine or neuter. Though language has been around for a while, changing attitudes towards gender mean there could soon be a radical shift in the structure of the German language – potentially towards making all articles gender neutral, female, or scrapping gendered articles altogether. The problem currently, as Mark Twain so aptly put it, is that “in German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.” Though admittedly he is probably a bit biased, considering he wrote an essay titled ‘The Awful German Language’.
While several other languages have gendered articles, including French, Spanish and even Old English, German seems to be one of the more illogical – for example, a spoon turns masculine and a fork feminine. This wouldn’t necessarily be such a problem – all languages have their foibles – if it wasn’t for the fact that gender in language shapes our understanding of gender in ourselves.
A study completed in 1982 called ‘Language Environment and Gender Identity Attainment’ tested three groups of children from Israel, America and Finland, and found “a direct relationship between gender loading in the native language and gender identity attainment”. Those who spoke Hebrew (a language with much heavier emphasis on gender markers) knew their own genders up to a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish (a language without gender markers at all). The American kids, speaking English with a moderate amount of gendered markers, ended up around the middle of the spectrum.
As difficult as it is to look at something as personal and complex as gender through a lens as hodgepodge as language, there is no doubt that correlations can be observed. But it’s not simply that it’s quite hard to shape language, but that language bends you.
There is proof from various cultures around the world that those who have a different amount of words for things have a varied understanding of what those words represent. Speakers of Zuñi – a Native American language that has a single term for both yellow and orange – have been found to have greater difficulty in recalling these colours compared to English speakers.
On the other side of the spectrum, Russian speakers have separate words for light and dark blue, which, according to a study done in 2007, has shown that they are better than English speakers at picking the difference between the two.
Closer to home, there is an Aboriginal community who have a unique way of locating themselves in space. Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University, writes about the difference between asking distinguished scholars and a Pormpuraawans child to find north:
I am standing next to a five-year old girl in pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia. When I ask her to point north, she points precisely and without hesitation. My compass says she is right.
As to be expected, the scholars that she tests are far less accurate. Naturally, cultural differences play a part here, but perhaps the scholars’ mistakes could be rectified if they had the linguistic training of living in a community that doesn’t refer to things as ‘left’ or ‘right’ – rather as ‘northeast’ or ‘southwest’.
And yet, despite it being clear that language bends both your sense of who and where you are, there are still some cultures who have tried to bend back.
France – home to many great things (including more recently, our online editor) – is also home to a fierce lingual patriotism. You see, since the 1600s France has felt itself under a veritable cultural invasion – the viral influx of English, or more specifically, the inevitable anglicisation of the world. This might seem a little alarmist to some, but they do have a point.
Without necessarily knowing it (and with far less border protection) we import and export words as a by-product of just interacting with communities outside of our own. This has been happening as far back as 43 AD, where the Romans introduced writing to Britain. But France thought it was time to put a stop to all that. Unlike other cultures that might have taken a word here and there and added their own twist (like how ‘beer’ in Dutch becomes ‘bier’), France wanted to keep things pure. Unfortunately this led to a bastardisation of different proportions.
I remember in French class being forced to say “la planche à roulette” instead of skateboard. I couldn’t imagine a gang of teens saying, “Yo, let’s go ride around on our wood-plank-with-little-wheels.”
Enter the Académie française, established in 1635 to act as “the official authority on the usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language, and to publish an official dictionary of the French language.” Though the Académie existed even prior to the French Revolution, real change didn’t occur until Henri Grégoire wrote a report ‘[o]n the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language’. If this sounds somewhat extreme, it’s because it was. Two new laws followed the report, which meant the only language that could be taught in schools and tolerated in public life would be French.
Though didactic, these laws were well-meaning – it was felt that a lack of common understanding kept the public unable to participate (or even understand) political debates and administrative documents. This obsession with purity grew more pronounced over time, with the use of German in Alsace-Lorraine outlawed in 1918; and in 1925, minister of public education Anatole de Monzie stated that, “for the linguistic unity of France, the Breton language must disappear.”
Without necessarily knowing it (and with far less border protection) we import and export words as a by-product of just interacting with communities outside of our own.
The French have calmed down a little since then, despite outlawing the hashtag and fining a U.S. company €500,000 in 2006 for providing technical documents to its French employees in English. This fine was upheld thanks to a law relating to the mandatory usage of the French language in commercial communications such as advertisements, as well as in all workplaces.
After the excess, expense and even language-death that this attempt to bend language has generated, it’s a shame that it’s been entirely ineffectual. According to critics such as François Busnel, “the academy is in the process of dying a slow, public and painful death”.
The fact is that language is a disease and we are the carriers. The French approach amounts to nothing more than haphazard quarantine. Our only option now is to try and mutate while language gently brings us down from the inside.
Rafael S. W. is a graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.