Watching Our Language

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, March 2011

“Angst” is a word we in the English speaking world have adopted from the German language because we have no single word of our own that completely describes the feeling of fear and anxiety that encompasses a person’s life. But though we borrow the word and use it extensively we cannot fully grasp its origin because it is a word that has sprung from a people who were at the centre of both World Wars. A word from a culture with a historical tradition of complex relationships with other nations and because of those wars, it may just be a culture that has had to do more soul searching than any other citizenry.

Language isn’t just about words. We choose our words because they have deeply embedded meaning for us.

I find myself introducing St. John’s Kitchen to people with the idea that one is entering a new culture and in doing so, there needs to be a recognition that each culture has a language all its own. When we learn a new language not every word is translatable and without being immersed in that culture, we may never truly comprehend the semantic significance and tremendous worth of a single word, a small gesture, or a look held a second too long. Every culture has its own code regarding staring in which nanoseconds count.

It is commonplace for people to describe us at St. John’s Kitchen in ways we would never describe ourselves. Just last week a woman told me she was glad we were there to help “needy people”. I explained to her that we would never use the word needy to describe anyone at St. John’s Kitchen or anywhere else, for that matter. Well, what word would you use, she asked? She then began a thesaurus list of words: marginalized, deprived, disadvantaged? She looked at me waiting for a response. None of the above, I said. We would not use any of those words that limit and box individuals into a single description, robbing them of the dignity they, yea all, deserve. It was not an unpleasant conversation. She, on other occasions has taught me about alternate language.

On a daily basis I meet people who are parents, siblings, neighbours, poets, musicians, gardeners, retired farmers, labourers, volunteers, scuba diving instructors, university educated, small machine mechanics, fishermen, loyal, generous, accommodating, soul searching, colourful, lovable. To describe someone as “needy” dismisses them and misses the essence of the person. “Needy” is a word aimed at keeping someone in their place.

There are words and subjects that are not talked about in our St. John’s culture. Any topic that typically falls under the category of small talk would be unacceptable at St. John’s. That being: vacations, home decorating, cars. We would tread lightly on the matter of the weather and children. But politics and religion always have the floor with no holding back.

And when we from St. John’s enter the outside world there are codes within the larger culture that create barriers for the street population. Most notably, in the winter, the ever present sign to remove one’s shoes. In accompanying people to appointments, never have I been with someone who took off their shoes and I too leave mine on. It would be too painful to explain the reasons and often for people it is easier to simply avoid the appointment.

The power of language cannot be underestimated. It was a simple shift in words that proved to be central to the civil rights movement in the USA during the 1950’s. By declaring the difficulty a “White problem” instead of the ongoing reference of a “Black problem” enough of a nudge was given to alter people’s thinking.

In the 1930’s an American Linguist, Benjamin Whorf developed a theory of Linguistic Relativity - the idea that language influences thought. Our view of the world and the formation of our thoughts is directly a function of our language, says the Whorfian hypothesis. It is through this lens that we should examine the words used by a culture, our culture to describe for example, women; the stereotyping of an ethnic group; those with mental health issues; people with limited funds. When we label a person as “needy” for example, we tidily place them in a box from which they can’t escape. And that single word suddenly encapsulates their entire being, robbing them of their dignity and limiting their chances for change.

If the street population wanted to wage an uprising, they just might begin with words to change the way we think. They might question, for example, the ecological footprint of the culture who shuns them, for here we have a group of people who wear recycled clothes, ride recycled bikes, ride the bus, walk, produce little garbage, use minimal electricity, eat food past its “best before” date and find creative ways of living together when an apartment affords extra space.

The people least able to care for themselves should not be responsible for making change. But it just may be that change in language, thought, and behaviour have to come from those in our culture who truly understand our adopted word: angst.

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