Few subjects are as complex as language, and few are as close to our hearts. As Nelson Mandela observed, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Language serves many different roles—beyond basic communication, it is the foundation for culture, a link to the past, and a means of disseminating knowledge. Its diverse roles are often antithetical: language can be used to both illuminate truth and obscure it. It brings people together and divides them. Words can be some of the most powerful instruments of violence, yet also serve as some of the most powerful tools against oppression.
From science to art to society and even to warfare, language is crucial and often contradictory. Let’s take a look at the many roles of language by some of the people who know it best: writers.
Image courtesy of Jon Fife
“When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness—I am nothing.”
― Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Language as consciousness. The relationship between language and consciousness has long been an important subject in psychoanalysis and other related fields.
“We can never know more than the mind can assimilate and process, nor can we discuss any aspect of the world for which there is no language.”
― Padma Viswanathan, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao
Language and knowledge. How can something be discussed without words, and what does this say about the role of language in knowledge?
“The ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
The power of thinking for yourself. As words are essential for discourse, a mastery of words can give an individual mastery of thought.
Image courtesy of Brooke Anderson
“Writing cannot express all words, words cannot encompass all ideas.”
Frustrations arise. Language is essential for discourse, knowledge, and free thought, yet words are limited. Through complexity or simplicity, certain things escape language.
“At the very best, a mind enclosed in language is in prison. It is limited to the number of relations which words can make simultaneously present to it; and remains in ignorance of thoughts which involve the combination of a greater number. These thoughts are outside language, they are unformulable, although they are perfectly rigorous and clear and although every one of the relations they involve is capable of precise expression in words. So the mind moves in a closed space of partial truth, which may be larger or smaller, without ever being able so much as to glance at what is outside.”
― Simone Weil
Language can limit. What is lost when words fail? Language can serve as a preoccupation, and in that sense, becomes a cage.
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
― George Orwell, 1984
Language can poison. Propaganda is a good example of the way in which language can be used to control the minds of others.
“The author recognizes the power of the persecuting tribe referring to members of hers consistently as ‘snakes’ or ‘roaches.’ This dehumanizing language, she realizes, seeps into the subconscious and makes it easier to forget that fellow humans were created in God’s image.”
― Immaculée Ilibagiza, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust
Language as violence. Language has historically been essential to violence. Hateful, dehumanizing words operate as a means of justifying violent actions, and also become violent acts themselves.
Image courtesy of Dr. Chanda Prescod Weinstein
“Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised.”
― NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names
Language is essential to identity. As a link to our culture, our stories, and our past, language is an essential part of us. Its loss is a loss of self.
“A language is something infinitely greater than grammar and philology. It is the poetic testament of the genius of a race and a culture, and the living embodiment of the thoughts and fancies that have moulded them”
― Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India
A monument to culture. Language exists in a symbiotic relationship with a society—it is shaped by the participation of a people. Words are created and modified out of necessity by its speakers.
“Language is the only homeland.”
― Czesław Miłosz
And ultimately, above all, language is home.