The Versatility of Language: How Speakers Find Identity by Molding Language

Language has always been the most prominent symbol of any culture and thus, is a powerful political weapon. Unlike what the biblical story of the Tower of Babel suggests, however, it is not language alone which creates misunderstandings between us, but cultural differences. Margaret Atwood once wrote, “War is what happens when language fails,” but was it not the American diplomats’ failure to interpret Japanese decorum during World War II negotiations that lead to Americans’ false sense of security? In the Book of Judges, two Semitic tribes, the Ephraimites and Gileadites, go to battle and the Gileadites arise victorious. To prevent the Ephraimites from re-entering the conquered territory, the Gileadites ask each person crossing the bridge to say the word shibboleth. Those who pronounced the word with an “s” as opposed to a “sh” sound were instantly revealed as the enemy.

Today, language remains just as efficient in revealing the identity of its speaker. Alongside this tight relationship with identity, however, comes the sociopolitical consequences associated with speaking certain tongues. Throughout these annotations, one can see that while it is impossible to separate language from politics, it is not impossible to mold language to to fit one’s needs.

“The Interpreter”

John Colapinto, The New Yorker, 4.16.07

A glimpse of the Pirahã people on a boat

The Pirahã language is “ one of the simplest sound systems” in the world, writes John Colapinto of the New Yorker. It is a language so minimal, in fact, that it possesses “no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, and no…terms of quantification.” The bulk of meaning in Pirahã speech is instead carried through stress, tone, and syllable length.

Such a system of communication-so vastly different from the array of documented languages around the world-has left academics puzzled as to whether or not the skeleton of all language is, as Noam Chomsky proposed, the same.Throughout his article “The Interpreter,” Colapinto follows the journey of American linguist Dan Everett on his endeavor to examine Pirahã and its role in refuting Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. 
By structuring the piece as a narrative and foregoing the cold, detached tone of scholarly writing, Colapinto enables the reader to experience the issue from a more personal perspective. The intimate insights presented through the arc of Everett’s story highlight the pains he endured while studying a remote Amazonian language which, in nearly every aspect, contradicted a widely-accepted establishment of linguistic thought.

More importantly, however, Colapinto’s account of his adventures alongside Everett is key to the article’s persuasiveness. For example, throughout his interactions with the tribe (Everett acting as translator), the audience becomes aware that these people are not cognitively inhibited by their language, but rather that their cultural worldview has shaped their language.

Abandoning Chomskyan linguistics in favor of Sapir, Everett hypothesizes that “the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives,” an idea which is demonstrated in the Pirahã word “xibipío,” whose meaning points to the culture’s sole focus on a concrete, observable reality. Whereas one might say someone has merely left the room, the Pirahã would say he has “xibipío,” or “gone out of experience.”

Fundamentally, the value of Colapinto’s piece lies in its power to question the limits of individuality and universality. For instance, his examination of Pirahã’s lack of recursion raises the argument that language is a product of culture, not (as Chomsky suggests) a grammatical formula one is inherently born with. In a mindset which values immediate perceptions, it does not seem implausible that recursion and conceptual ideas such as colors and numbers are not in the Pirahã vocabulary. Ultimately, the flaw in universal grammar is its assumption that culture is completely irrelevant to language. It’s not a language barrier which prevents us from understanding one another- it’s a cultural one.

“Does Your Language Shape How You Think?”

Guy Deutscher, The New York Times Magazine, 08.26.10

Recent research reveals that one’s mother tongue has significant influence on cognition

Linguistic relativity has long been a popular theory since its introduction in 1940 by chemical engineer Benjamin Lee Whorf. It is a romantic (and not too improbable) idea that language can shape the way one views the world. In a 2010 article of the New York Times Magazine, Guy Deutscher examines the issues with the Sapir-Whorf theory which lead to its disrepute. However, he also argues that its discredit does not justify the opposing idea that everyone shares a similar mindset.

Deutscher opens the piece by presenting the principal flaw in Whorf’s thinking, which is the suggestion that “if a language has no word for a concept, its speakers would simply not be able to understand this concept.”

It seems self-evident, in retrospect, that while all people are constrained to some degree by the lexicon of their language, this does not mean that certain groups cannot experience and comprehend the same reality as others. In the words of Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” For instance, the linguistic cliche that Eskimo languages have more than fifty words for snow suggests that language conforms to its surroundings; however, this does not mean that people across the world experience snow in a different, less intense way.

Despite this reasoning, however, recent research has revealed that one’s mother tongue does have a hand in sculpting human experiences. 
The first study Deutscher references examines the effect of gender systems in German and Spanish on the speakers’ perceptions of inanimate objects whose gender in the two languages are opposite. For instance, while the word for violin is feminine in German, it is masculine in Spanish. The results of the experiment showed that when asked to rate the objects on given qualities, speakers of each language associated more “manly properties like strength” with the masculine words in their respective languages, and the same trend was evident with feminine nouns. This was also true of a similar study conducted with speakers of French and Spanish.

It is not difficult to conclude that language plays some role in imprinting abstract associations (such as gender) between the real world and people’s vision of the world. 
In another experiment, scientists found that speakers of languages which use a geographic system of describing space (North, South, etc.) as opposed to an egocentric system ( left, right, etc.) possessed a much better sense of direction than their counterparts.

Likewise, the final case study Deutscher presents reported that people whose mother tongue differentiated between blue and green found it easier to distinguish the two colors apart.

By adopting a first-person point of view while presenting his argument through several studies, Deutscher not only makes his subject matter more accessible and engaging to a broader audience, but expertly invalidates the consensus that the Sapir-Whorf theory is completely unfounded. While the theory is faulty on many levels, as Deutscher admits at the beginning of the piece, the fundamental idea behind it does possess merit. 
Essentially, Deutscher questions why being able to sympathize with those unlike ourselves must imply that such people are similar to us. There is great danger in the suggestion that language creates in us cognitive differences, but even more dangerous than that is the assumption that we all think alike.

“A Language to Unite Humankind”

Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, 10.31.16

The Esperanto Flag

In Joan Acocella’s review of Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, the latest work by Princeton English professor Esther Schor, Acocella dissects not only Schor’s book, but also the birth, development, and politics of Esperanto, the constructed language developed by Polish doctor Ludovik Zamenhof.

Opening with the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, Acocella creates the foundation for the rest of the piece by presenting the primary setback that multilingualism poses: “Because we don’t speak the same language as our neighbors,” she writes, “we can’t see their point of view, and therefore we are more likely to rob them and kill them.”

The irony that is inherent in Zamenhof’s efforts to construct an international language is evident in the language itself. For instance, Esperanto is heavily influenced by Indo-European languages, primarily those in which Zamenhof was most proficient. Consequently, those who would be able to acquire it best were Westerners. Additionally, the doctor’s intention for Esperanto was to “teach the brotherhood of man,” an idea which was clearly a reflection of his Jewish background and which would taint his conception of a “neutral, human language.” 
The organization of Acocella’s article follows a chronological succession of events which culminates to Esperanto’s pervasive impact on the modern world, whether that be its contribution to the “Anglicizing of international communications” or its potential to relieve the tensions of identity politics.

Acocella’s review transcends its role in critiquing Schor’s work and awakens its readers to a larger idea: if, in the name of unity, a language was constructed solely from the views and experiences of a European and subsequently advertised as the language of all humankind, what other aspects of our lives are silently touched by this type of cultural imperialism? Furthermore, when Westerners look for “universality” as a salve for foreignness, is it not true that they are asking for the world to present itself from the Western perspective?

It is evident that though language does not decidedly determine the way we think, it does influence it, and that makes it a powerful weapon. A brief look at history can verify this; take, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarks on racism:

“Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms of the word “black.” It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word, “white.” It’s always something pure, high and clean.”

The prejudice inherent in English is doubly frightening considering its increasingly widespread use in global communications as another kind of “universal” language.

“The Hidden Bias of Science’s Universal Language”

Adam Huttner-Koros, The Atlantic, 08.21.15

Adam Huttner-Koros’ article, “The Hidden Bias of Science’s Universal Language,” which appeared just last year in the August issue of the Atlantic, examines the global scientific community’s rapid linguistic consolidation and the repercussions of that trend. At the beginning of the piece, Huttner-Koros juxtaposes the linguistic diversity of academic publishing in the past with today’s homogenous selection of English papers. Throughout the article, his continual shifts between past and present emphasizes the dramatic move towards monolingualism in professional environments.

Paradoxically, the article finds that globalization is the primary factor in the rise of the English hegemony. In a much more connected society, scientists must aim to produce work that has an “internationally compatible quality” with “the highest possible reputation.” In other words, they must conduct their research in English. As a result, this has lead to the phenomenon known as “domain collapse,” in which a language ceases to adapt to advancements in certain fields of study, rendering them ineffective. For an example, many languages lack the scientific terms such as “quark” and “chromosome” which are needed to discuss relevant topics. Consequently, those words are transliterated from English.

The imparting message of Huttner-Koros’ piece is that the sociopolitics of English as a lingua franca possesses extremely detrimental effects. Although it is a convenient way to standardize official documents for global readership, it nevertheless comes at “the great cost of losing… unique ways of communicating ideas” which in turn means that “other ways of understanding the world can simply fade away.” On a deeper level, the ubiquity of English in academia also alludes to the prejudice with which we view other cultures.

Certainly, we can argue that regardless of the social implications of only using English, it is simply more feasible. However, as we can see in the case of “domain collapse,” this decision has a direct impact on the effectiveness of other languages and can consequently expedite the process of language extinction. It is not just our perceptions which Huttner-Koros asks us to reexamine, but the chain reaction that our perceptions cause. When only English is regarded as valuable or professional and other languages cease to develop alongside science as a result, students in higher level education around the world are forced to adopt an unfamiliar language which can hinder the quality of their research. This, in turn, creates a cycle wherein the innovators of the future are largely the ones who have always conquered in the past.

“Multiethnolects: How Immigration Changes Language”

John McWhorter, The Atlantic, 12.14.15

The recent surge in immigration allows for the development for new dialects

Because language is a living, constantly changing element of human interaction, it is unsurprising that language death is an unfortunate reality as well. According to the Rosetta Project, a language is lost about every three months. In John McWhorter’s article, “How Immigration Changes Language,” which appeared in the Atlantic just last year, McWhorter examines a counter-trend to language extinction: the development of multiethnolects.

Multiethnolects are not pidgin, creole, or slang, but are instead dialects borne from cultural exchanges between many ethnicities. McWhorter’s piece follows the emergence of this linguistic phenomenon in context to the Syrian refugee crisis, which has lead to the external displacement of around 4.8 million people. By analyzing Kiezdeutsch, a dialect of German spoken by inner-city immigrant children, alongside African American Vernacular English, McWhorter better facilitates the audience’s understanding by relating Kiezdeutsch to a multiethnolect which readers are more likely to be familiar with. In addition to Kiezdeutsch, McWhorter also examines Wolof, Indonesian, and Shaba Swahili as multiethnolects which arose from other “standard” languages.

McWhorter’s article offers two lasting yet pertinent messages. The first is that “speech can communicate identity as well as ideas,” and as a result, language is shaped to accommodate its speakers. If, for instance, a Turkish-speaking immigrant arrives in Germany, it is likely he will adopt the dialect of the community he identifies most with: other young Turkish immigrants like himself. The second message addresses the discriminatory perceptions of these dialects. Often, the language of the disadvantaged is looked down upon with the prescriptivist attitude that their dialect represents a deterioration of “proper” language. Rather than representing a desire to connect with one another, the standardization of language instead resembles mass assimilation and an abandonment of cultural diversity.

Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988. Print.

Jamaica Kincaid

The Scottish poet William Soutar once wrote, “Surely our language is the image of our soul.” It is a quote that has haunted me for some time, and I often think of it when I think of colonization. Sixteen and sitting in French class, I realized in a mixed bout of fascination and disgust that the French word for yogurt, yaourt, is identical to its Vietnamese counterpart. In a similar experience a fews years later at my friend Cindy’s house, I noticed that as she was speaking to her parents, the Haitian Creole word for soap, savon, sounded quite like its Vietnamese equivalent, xà bông. I felt a strange sense of connectedness with Cindy in that moment, for the two of us-from countries far from each other, shared a common experience in the form of French dominance somewhere in our heritage. In what way, I wondered, had imperialism affected the Vietnamese or Haitian identity-or the identities of other subjugated nations? In Jamaica Kincaid’s four-part essay, A Small Place, Kincaid explores a similar question about English rule in her home country of Antigua. 
The first half of the work is written in second-person, in which the reader is a tourist visiting Antigua on vacation. By employing this narrative mode, Kincaid implicates the reader in the degradation of Antigua and accentuates the sardonic tone with which she addresses the tourists who come there. In the latter half, Kincaid adopts the first-person perspective, detailing the Antigua she remembers as a child, thereby personalizing a theme that has, for so long, been depersonalized or rewritten in history books. Throughout the piece, Kincaid offers insights into the corruption, poverty, and cultural erasure of her homeland which the tourist, or reader, seems willfully ignorant to. The form of cultural erasure she emphasizes most is the robbing of her people’s tongue. In one passage, Kincaid writes:

“Since we were ruled by the English, we also had their laws. There was a law against using abusive language. Can you imagine such a law among people for whom making a spectacle of yourself through speech is everything?”

In this instance, Kincaid illustrates the repression of the Antiguan spirit through austere British ideals of proper behavior. Later, at the climax of the piece, Kincaid explicitly lays out the most devastating effect of European expansionism through her view of post-colonial Antigua:

“…what I see is the millions of people, of whom I am just one, made orphans: no motherland, no fatherland, no gods, no mounds of earth for holy ground…and worst and most painful of all, no tongue. For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?… the language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the criminal’s deed. The language of the criminal can explain and express the deed only from the criminal’s point of view.”

Both these passages illuminate the idea at the heart of Kincaid’s essay, which is that the loss of one’s language is tantamount to the most destructive and invasive violation that anyone can endure. And why? Because one without his own tongue is forced to live in a mental space which is not his own. Because the death of a people’s language is, in the words of renowned polyglot Timothy Doner, “the death of their mythology, their history, their folklore, [and] their understanding of the world.”

“Manchu, Former Empire’s Language, Hangs On at China’s Edge”

Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times, 01.11.16

“Language is not only a tool for communication…it ties us to who we are and makes us feel close to one another,” says He Wenjun, a teacher and translator of Xibe. A dialect of Manchu spoken in northwest China, Xibe was once the official language of the powerful Qing Empire, though now its usage has been reduced to a small group of 30,000 people in rural Qapqal County at the edge of the Kazakh border. In Andrew Jacobs’ New York Times article, “Manchu, Former Empire’s Language, Hangs On at China’s Edge,” Jacobs not only chronicles the history of the Xibe people, but examines Xibe’s role in unlocking the secrets of Chinese history. 
Jacobs’ exposition, a brief summary of the Xibe’s settlement of the region, establishes the foundation for why the language has been able to endure into the modern era. After the Manchu Emperor Qianlong sent Xibe troops to secure the western borders against foreign invasion, the Qing Empire was overthrown in a 1911 revolution which enabled the rise of Mandarin over Manchu. The Emperor’s decision to deploy troops to the region was one which, although seemingly minor, allowed for the survival of the Manchu language by sparing the small group of soldiers who would carry on the Xibe tradition.
Contrasting the views of scholars and historians against those of the Xibe speakers themselves, Jacobs allows the reader to understand the effects of linguistic imperialism not only from an academic perspective, but from a personal one as well. In the piece, Jacobs makes clear that the eradication of a language, whether it be systemic or due to historical imperatives, inherently means an inconceivable loss of knowledge about the past. For instance, the discovery of the last remaining group of Xibe speakers has allowed scholars to translate ancient Qing Dynasty documents as they never could have previously.

Additionally, Jacobs’ intimate interviews with native Xibe speakers also stirs in the reader an overwhelming sense of remorse that the pervasiveness of Mandarin Chinese has robbed Xibe youth of their motivation to rekindle with their heritage. It is this point which seems the most painful to the few remaining Xibe speakers left- that an entire tradition may fall at the feet of apathy.

To linguists, the widespread usage of just a few languages means the demise of a wealth of knowledge and diversity. However, for people all over the world, globalization renders their tongue outdated, provincial, and limited to their younger generations, and thus inspires in that generation the will to part from their culture. In the end, it is not simply a matter of convenience or necessity that drives people to become more “modernized,” but a matter of bigotry which convinces them that their tongue is not as valuable as others.

“Inescapably, you’re Judged by Your Language”

Ryan Bloom, The New Yorker, 05.28.12

Prejudice against certain languages is an unavoidable reality

If there are social implications for speaking a certain language or dialect, there is certainly an argument for descriptivism, or the doctrine that language should be viewed objectively and without preconceptions of what is considered correct. Although belief in this ideal may seem the only noble approach to language, the reality is that it’s much too quixotic to affect change in society’s decidedly prescriptivist attitudes. In Ryan Bloom’s New Yorker article “Inescapably, You’re Judged by Your Language,” Bloom contends that although prescriptivist, or “proper” English is undoubtedly elitist, it is nevertheless the language of those in power. Therefore, learning it is essential to earning respect in the job market and elsewhere.

In the opening of the piece, Bloom suggests that the technicalities of English which are taught in school are not as relevant in daily speech as the social situation or audience that one addresses. Bloom illustrates this point by contrasting the tone of a New Yorker article with that of a sports fan in a pub. From this, the reader understands that switching between dialects is a means of appealing to one’s listener. It is no wonder then, that even descriptivists write their theses, books, and speeches in the same impeccable, eloquent English which they denounce as racist and classist. It is hypocritical. Far more than hypocritical, however, it represents an oversimplification of the issue, for descriptivists rarely seem to consider that a person looking for a job is not looking for a chance to exercise his linguistic freedom, but for a livelihood. Thus, he must manipulate “the dialect of power” in order to climb the corporate ladder.

What’s valuable about Bloom’s article is its insistence on practicality. Realistically, it is not possible to do away with decades of negative connotations surrounding various languages and dialects by merely advertising that it is morally better to do so. While people may find a sense of identity in the way that they speak, they cannot change the fact that generalizations will be drawn about them based on those mannerisms.

“Vanishing Languages, Reincarnated as Music”

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times, 03.30.16

Composer Tan Dun with Nu Shu speakers

“If something is dying there must be a way to reincarnate it into something new,” says Tan Dun of his thirteen-movement multimedia symphony, “Nu Shu” which was performed by the New York Philharmonic this past February. Tan’s work, which is centered around his film recordings of native Nu Shu speakers and is accompanied by a fluttering orchestral score for solo harp, has immortalized the dying 13th century Chinese language into a fresh new form.

However, Nu Shu is not the only endangered language to be preserved in this manner. In “Vanishing Languages, Reincarnated as Music,” by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim of The New York Times, Da Fonseca-Wollheim details the emerging trend in the classical music scene: integrating extinct or endangered languages into song. Whether it be Liza Lim’s opera, “Tree Codes,” Lisa Moore’s rendition of “Ishi’s Song,” or Kevin James’ “Counting in Quileute,” it is clear that composers around the world are taking Longfellow’s description of music as “the universal language of mankind” in a new direction.

The article’s opening introduces the dynamics of language and music’s relationship as it was in the past. For instance, in the same way that Middle High German was preserved in Mozart’s Requiem and Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” Latin had been preserved for hundreds of years in religious hymns. Contrasting this tradition with recent classical works, Da Fonseca-Wollheim observes that now, modern composers are taking obscure, dying languages out of their semantic contexts and thus, are able to present speech as song.

This new development in the music world suggests that there could be a wealth of possibilities for preserving endangered languages in addition to more interactive ways to study tonal languages as well. Language death is an ever-looming fate for many of the world’s tongues, but for once, that does not mean that those tongues must be forgotten. Perhaps we may be unable to change the rate of language loss, the discriminatory attitudes towards third-world languages, or the atrocities inherent in English’s past, but through art, we can learn to embrace our differences.

“Alien Suite,” Safia Elhillo

Elhillo performing her spoken word poem, “Alien Suite” at TedxNewYork

Once, I was getting my haircut at a salon hidden behind a stretch of Asian supermarkets and gift shops. It was an area I frequented often when I was younger and one which immediately conjured in me the hazy memories of childhood. A fact about myself (and about many third culture kids) is that I don’t really speak my mother tongue that much.

In fact, I do a lot more listening, and most of the time, when I am in places like this, I actually pretend not to understand what people are saying. 
But as I sat there in the hairdresser’s chair, the man snipping away while talking to my mother, I found it harder to feign ignorance as their conversation moved towards me.

“Does she understand?” the hairdresser asked.
“Yeah, she understands, but she doesn’t like to talk much,” my mother replied.
 The hairdresser took this as a cue that I probably didn’t understand at all and clucked his tongue, disappointed. 
“She’s been kidnapped,” he says. And I couldn’t help but laugh.

The strange sense of displacement I felt growing up was not unique, and the most palpable manifestation of this sentiment appeared in the form of my broken Vietnamese. Throughout Safia Elhillo’s spoken word poem, “Alien Suite,” Elhillo explores the relationship between language and identity which, for many such as myself, has always been an unclear connection.

In the beginning of the poem, Elhillo juggles the meanings of Arabic words in a kind of self-test and ends with two choices for one word: stuck or home. The inconclusiveness of the question signifies the ambiguous space in which children of immigrants usually find themselves, a space wherein they do not belong wholly to one culture. Later in the performance, Elhillo asks if it is “wasteful or wistful to pray for [her] brothers in a language they never learned,” echoing the regret that so many parents feel towards their children, who they felt would benefit more from speaking without an accent than from retaining their mother tongue.

Those children, Elhillo continues, would leave the country and have “daughters full of all the wrong language,” daughters who were unable to speak with their own mothers without at least one of them tripping over words.

In both Sudan and America, Elhillo is foreign, and this is in no way due to her ambivalence about who she is. Instead, it is because in both countries, she is assumed to have an accent. No matter how imperceptible that accent is, people from either country regard her as someone who does not belong. Her Arabic is “not bad for a foreigner,” and though “the American slur settle[s] back to coat [her] r’s,” she is still just a “brown girl” to the New Yorker.

The element that empowers Elhillo is her agency. In an interview with Blavity, a media platform targeted at black young people, Elhillo says “[she] believe[s]…in reclaiming and mutating language formerly used to oppress and alienate.” While the sociopolitical implications of language are inescapable, there is solace to be found in the capacity of all language to yield art which truly belongs to its maker.


In retrospect, it’s quite clear that the beauty of language lies in its versatility. For the same reason that the idiosyncrasies of a language allow one to gain an understanding of that culture’s worldview, speakers of less prestigious languages or languages of oppression have been able to create a sense of self by re-fashioning the language they were presented. Over time, their new forms of self-expression have manifested as art, music, and even new dialects, the fruits of their labor blooming with the same possibility that language offered them.