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CUNNING LINGUIST: Prisoners of Language


It occurs to me this morning that the source of most of humanity’s problems—all the “isms” with which we burden ourselves, including racism, sexism, classism—are really an issue of grammar.

“Oh, Claire, that’s preposterous, you addlepated nannygoat!” you cry (assuming you have taken your slang from an Elizabethan colonel with a handlebar mustache and a name like “Reginald Mockworthy.”).

But au contraire, mon tres bon frere. Because consider this: everybody likes to be the subject, but nobody likes to be the OBJECT. We all want to be the captains of the S.S. Sentence, verbing our way around the vast adjective sea, inflicting our will on the objects who pass in front of or beneath our hull.

We want to be the ones positioning the prepositions. We want to be the ones controlling those dependent clauses and helpless fragments.

We want to DO, rather than be done TO.

“Sam picked up the ball.”

“Sam picked up the check.”

“Sam picked up that chick.”

Sam’s pretty happy to do these things. But he’s not so happy when:

“Sam was picked up by the Czech.”

“Sam was shot down by the young lady he fancied.”

“Sam was hit with the ball.”

Now, one can argue that we are prisoners of language, because it is both an instinctive and cultural modus operandi with regard to personal expression and interpersonal communication. We are all—no matter what Lifetime movies or Hallmark cards tell us—alone inside our heads, struggling to express ourselves while simultaneously seeking (let us hope) to understand others. It’s easy to say that selfishness and egocentrism are quintessential components of self-expression, because we are all subject to the prison of three cubic feet of blood and meat and bone.

But our brains give us another gift as well; the ability to overcome our selfishness and our isolating, literally idiotic (as the Greeks would have it) behavior.

We needn’t embrace an “othering” worldview. A view which says, “only I, or my family, or my peer group, or my religion, or my sinister group of fellows with whom I have entered into a tontine, are real. Everything, and everyONE, else is an object I may manipulate, create, destroy or ignore at my leisure.”

We have a choice.

Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Is the solution to modify our thoughts? Perhaps introduce some creepy Orwellian modifications to improve our regard for the collective welfare of our species and our planet?

I think not.

Language may be the sweet flower that blooms from the soil of one’s mental garden, but it is up to each gardener to till, and to tend, and to plant. It is up to older, more experienced gardeners to guide the youngest as they begin to work their own plots, so the bounty that emerges is not tainted or twisted or stained with lingering and irrational hate.

Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” And if we want to eliminate the darker blooms that besmirch our collective garden on this blue rock—if we want to weed out the nasty briars that encircle our limbs like chains—we must first strike the weeds of ignorance and fear from our own beds.

Free will is a bitch, huh? But the results speak for themselves…if we’re lucky.

And now, because I hate to leave you without a visual aid, here is Bianca Beauchamp, illustrating the importance of proper gardening. Or something like that. Remember, I was just talking about gardens, and she…oh, you’re not even reading this bit, anyway.

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NEXT WEEK IN CUNNING LINGUIST: That bit about talking animals I mentioned last week, before I forgot and did this instead.

Published inClaire De LunacyCunning LinguistEssaysFun StufflinguisticsLiteratureWritingYou have been educated against your will.

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