Words have a shape, a colour, and a tone… Part 1 (by Sumanthra Govender)

“Words matter. They join into phrases which make up clauses, which build sentences, which become conversations, debates, literature, and ideas. There will continue to be disputes on how the words we say influence the way we speak.” (Why words Matter, BBC World Service)

Anytime I tell someone I’m a linguist, I usually get asked about how many languages I know. I speak one language really well and two other languages rather receptively. However, my interest in linguistics lies with the study of language itself. I like learning about how language, culture, and ideas come together, and I am curious about how words can teach, bind, and divide people. To me, words have a shape, a colour, and a tone.

I recently stumbled across “The Why Factor” a radio program put forth by the BBC World New Service. In the program “Why Words Matter,” commentator Lane Green highlights how the “language we use can give us a greater understanding of our politics, our debates, our cultures and even our own minds.”

“We use our words to tell our story, but can be used to tell one story in many different ways.” (Why words matter – Lane Greene -09:07).  I realise that my experience with words range anywhere from expert to complete novice, but recently I’ve come to experience an uneasiness with how some words I know are being used, words like tolerant, native, diversity, or culture identity.

 Growing up, I remember feeling that it was important for people to be tolerant of others. In the sense that it is important to be aware of others difference and open to helping them or getting to know them. I liked the intention behind the word native of feeling connected to a place because your roots are grounded there. Diversity, I consider myself privileged to have grown up living through the idea that regardless of a person’s background, that many lives and lived experiences make up the whole. Culture was like a badge of honour that was to be celebrated, shared, and experienced. Identity, who I am and who you are, felt simpler in terms of knowing the person.

Through my experiences in life, these words have deepened in their rooted meanings for me; they have become richer, but in several ways, they have become darker. As a sociolinguist, I can work my way through nuances of the words, but I am also aware of how the subtleties word can be divisive.

Tolerance for me is no longer only about being aware, its now about others know that people are willing to try to be accepting of some of your differences and of some elements of who you are. Essentially, the feeling of “we will put up with you.” Native is now being argued as who has the right to own or have this title. Many people are vocal about who “truly” can be native to a place. Diversity is being challenged as something that should be masked or hidden in order to fit in. Culture needs to be diluted to reflect the majority, and unique identity is lost in the ever-occurring rhetoric of the need to be “neutral.”

The flavour of these words have changed for me, as I have become more acutely aware of how words will be used to shape the minds and discourse of the day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *