Language as a WOK: Intro

“Almost all education is language education.” –Neil Postman

I would agree with this assessment. At least in our current schooling system, the majority of education one receives is not in how to actually, physically do something (classes such as Physical Education would be the exception). Rather, they teach us how to think about a certain subject. Of course, all our thinking is done in a language-based form.

To exemplify this, try to imagine education without language. I think PE could probably be handled with unlabelled diagrams, demonstrations, and grunting, but other than that, it’s impossible. Unimaginable. Classes such as English and History, which tell stories, are obviously not feasible, but even classes such as Math and Sciences could not function. These subjects have their own sort of language that is being taught through the classes. Think of all the classes that you’ve learned new vocabulary for. All the classes that once assigned you to go through the textbook and copy down the definitions of important words. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that this encompasses all of your classes. Whether the words you’re learning are symbolism and alliteration or parabola and derivative, it’s a type of language education nonetheless. Without this language, we couldn’t educate ourselves in the subject areas at all.

Linking Question: How many arguments turn out to be about the meaning of words?

I chose this question because I immediately thought of my experience in debate when I read it. When constructing cases, it is extremely important to define important words in the resolution to clarify exactly what you’re debating. I have had more than one debate come to practically a standstill because we cannot decide upon a definition and so our cases are simply addressing different issues. “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms,” said Voltaire. I thought this website was interesting in that it showed the kinds of terms that need to be defined in order to have certain kinds of arguments, apparently the type of arguments that this person publishes on their website.

Blog Questions:

Try to define as precisely as possible these words: a. triangle b. love c. table. What is the difference? Which was the easiest to define?

A triangle is a two-dimensional shape consisting of three lines and three angles (hence tri-angle). The interior angles of a triangle add up to 180°. The lines can all be the same length, two can be the same length, or they can all be different lengths. The angles will, in turn, be all the same measure, two the same measure, or all different measures.

Love is an abstract idea which expresses extreme enjoyment and appreciation of a particular thing. Its scope is broad, encompassing romantic infatuation, familial closeness, fondness for a particular activity, the preference for a favorite food, and everything in between.

A table is a piece of furniture which consists of a wide, flat top which is typically used to place objects upon and some number of legs (typically four, but it can vary) which support the top at a certain height above the ground.

Defining love was the most different from the other two as it is an abstract concept that cannot be seen or touched. In addition, I think that many people define love individually, for their own purposes. In addition, even individual people define love differently for different situations, depending on if they’re talking about their love for their parents, their new shows, or their dog. Triangle was different to define from the others because it was something that has been defined for me in the past so that I could understand the concept. Love and table have been words that I was raised around, that I have heard as I was growing up in everyday conversation. This made triangle easier to define, as I knew a specific definition of what made a triangle a triangle from geometry.

When Bill Clinton entered the White House in ’93, his wife Hillary wanted to be known as “Presidential Partner”, not “First Lady”. What is the difference in connotations? If a woman ever would become president of the USA, what do you think would be an appropriate title for her husband?

The difference in connotations is that “First Lady” must, of course, be a woman, whereas “Presidential Partner” could be any spouse of the President. The importance here is that using “First Lady” to define the spouse of the President implies that the President will always be (as it always has been, so far) a straight male. In addition, “partner” implies a kind of equality between the spouses, whereas a “lady” is defining a person by their gender. I think that the country would be reluctant to make the switch to “Presidential Partner” for both husbands and wives, as we’ve becoming very attached to the term “First Lady”. I think that the term “First Spouse” or “First Person” could be a gender-neutral term, or we could use a masculine term to define the husbands of future presidents, such as “First Man” or “First Mister”.

In what ways do we classify people (e.g. astrological sign, race, nationality, music choice, etc.) and what are the advantages and disadvantages of this? Are some more natural or better than others? How many ways can YOU be classified via language?

We define people by using certain terms that describe them. Some terms have certain connotations. We often use words that describe gender, sexuality, place of birth, ancestry, skin color, other physical attributes, age, personality traits, and interests. The advantage of classifying people is that people need to be classified in some way because we are all intrinsically different. If we don’t classify people, are we supposed to just see everyone as neutral, genderless, grey blobs? However, when we do classify people, we run the risk of making assumptions about people based on these classifications that may or may not be true. The most “natural” classifications would be those based on things we are born with that are easily identifiable, even without human constructs such as nations and interests. These would be things like sex and race. However, I wouldn’t say that these are better than others. In fact, I would argue the opposite; classifying people based on things they are born into, that don’t necessarily affect the way they will act or live their life, is the worst kind of classification to base assumptions upon.

Personally, I can be classified as a sixteen year old American girl of German, Scottish, and Ukrainian ancestry. You could describe all of my physical attributes with language (blonde, white, blue-eyed) as well as my some of the activities I pursue (student, dancer) or my personality traits.

A lot of advertisers describe products as “natural”, because there are connotations that “natural” or “organic” is good. Can you give examples when “natural/organic” is bad?

Many companies describe their products as natural or organic because these words have a connotation of being healthy and environmentally friendly. I’m going to focus on natural in this response, because organic does have a specific meaning that is regulated by the FDA, whereas natural does not. The dictionary defines natural as “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind”. Now, depending on how you choose to interpret the definition, it can encompass anything, or nothing. All the food we eat is composed of atoms that existed far before humankind and will continue to exist far after humankind. No matter how many times it has been processed, the food is originally from a plant or an animal which is a part of nature. Even humans themselves cannot be separated from nature; we are natural animals ourselves, and so it is unfair to consider our creations different from the creations of other organisms. On the other hand, every type of food that we eat has been affected by humanity in some way along the process. Even if the organism is not made unnatural on a genetic level, it is still unnaturally grown on a farm and harvested in an unnatural way. Natural, therefore, means very little.

Then there are examples of places where our conventional definition for natural is bad. For example, there are very many poisonous plants and animals found in nature that can kill you, just as effectively as any manmade toxin. Many times, the natural version of a plant, before many years of selective breeding and sometimes genetic modification, is of poor taste, nutrition, and size. In addition, unnatural additions of genetic modifications to a plant are done for a reason, to make it better in some way. For example, the Golden Rice Project is attempting to genetically modify rice so that it can provide vitamin A to developing countries with high rates of morbidity and mortality due to micronutrient deficiencies.

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”- Analyze the way language is used in each of these pairs of expressions: Pro-life/pro-choice; genetically-modified food/Frankenstein food; free speech/hate speech; “Blocking your child’s access to objectionable material on the Internet is not called censorship, it’s called parenting” (Al Gore); piracy/file-sharing

In the first pair, both sides use words that express their viewpoint that are very, very hard to disagree with. Everyone likes life and everyone likes choice. That’s why pro-life and pro-choice are used for opposite stances although the words themselves are opposites; no one wants to say they’re pro-forced control of a woman’s body or pro-death.

The second pair deals with two views on exactly the same thing. Genetically-modified food is a simpler, perhaps more scientific moniker which doesn’t seem to express a viewpoint one way or another. Over time, I think this term, but especially GMO (genetically-modified organism), has taken on a negative connotation, just as Frankenstein food has. The second term is obviously a negative view on the issue, referring to the monster hobbled together from corpses and reanimated. It wishes to impress upon the listener or reader that these foods are unnatural and even monstrous, whereas the first simply tells you what it is.

Free speech means allowing the expression of any opinion, while hate speech means the expression of a derogatory, offensive, and hateful opinion. Free speech is a right we hold near and dear; there are laws in place to prevent hate speech. However, there are places where the two overlap and where it can be very difficult to draw the line. A person who makes an offensive statement can claim it is free speech, but the offended may claim it is hate speech. Obviously, the two have very different connotations, even when they can sometimes encompass the same things.

The quote from Al Gore compares two different terms: censorship and parenting. He claims that blocking a child’s access to some material on the Internet is not censorship, but rather parenting. Of course, it is undeniably censorship; censorship means to suppress parts of public communication (such as the Internet) which are deemed unacceptable. That doesn’t mean that this censorship can also be a part of parenting. I believe he made this statement hoped to eliminate the negative connotation that censorship has (involving oppression and Orwellian governments) and replace it was the positive connotation of parenting (involving just guidance and strong familial relationships).

Lastly, piracy and file-sharing are two different names for exactly the same thing, but they sound completely different. This is piracy and this is sharing. One involves cannons and pillaging and scurvy, while the other is something we’ve been taught to do since preschool. However, I think that piracy has become an accepted cultural practice and so that’s why people have no problem saying that they pirated a film (they don’t attempt to say they downloaded it from a file-sharing service). It’s only when it is being debated on a legal, political platform that there is really a distinction between the two.

The “Political Correctness” movement has been popular in the past two decades, striving to use language to change attitudes to the oppressed or disadvantaged. What examples can you give of “PC language” or a “PC incident” and what are your personal thoughts?

The incident I immediately thought of after reading this question was an attempted interview with Kriss Akabusi, a British 400m runner. The transcript reads as follows:

“So, Kriss, what does this mean to you as an African-American?”

“I’m not American, I’m British.”

“Yes, but as a British African-American…”

“I’m not African. I’m not American. I’m British.”

The fact that we have decided that African-American is the politically correct version of black leads to situations like this, where the reporter simply doesn’t make any sense.

Another incident that comes to mind is this interview with Samuel Jackson about Django Unchained, a film he appeared in recently. The interviewer is too politically correct to say the word nigger despite the actor’s repeated insistence that if they’re going to talk about the issue, he should be able to say the word, instead of skirting around it uncomfortably. It really exemplifies the power we give certain words (in this case, in terms of political correctness). However, this isn’t to say that words don’t have power, only that it is the intention that determines the power. Saying that word in an interview doesn’t make you racist any more than saying slut in an analysis of misogyny in our current society makes you sexist.


Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography on Language: This video basically picks apart so-called “Grammar Nazis” and encourages the beauty of language eclipsing the exacting grammar rules of language. In general, I agree with this idea. Language has many beautiful aspects and grammar is not one of them. I do think that grammar and vocabulary is necessary at some level, for the sake of clarity. However, if clarity is achieved, there shouldn’t be any reason that the, commas need to be in the correct places, the Correct letters need to be capitalized, and the spelling needs to be corect. I think his best point is that different types of language have different places where they can be correct. If you’re texting or on Facebook, you can probably say “u r so kool” if you don’t mind the judgment of your peers with “Grammar Nazi” tendencies.  If you want to appear intelligent, you’ll probably choose a different vernacular. I choose to use grammar correctly to the best of my abilities, but if I say “good” instead of “well” or split an infinitive occasionally, who is worse off for it? Correcting grammar is an easy way to feel intellectually superior (I will admit I’ve certainly been guilty of it on numerous occasions) but it doesn’t actually address the higher intellectual function of language.

Fry’s Planet Word Interview: This video brings to light what an incredible neurological feat language is, how it is the single largest divider between us and other animals. I never really considered how amazing it is that we can master language so efficiently. Imagine the size of your vocabulary (according to this article it’s about 50,000 words). That is a ridiculously large number and I’m incredibly impressed that we can do that, not to mention those who learn multiple languages.

Stephen Fry on Swear Words: He raises an interesting question about why some words are “bad” and why some are allowed in casual conversation. At some point, a word that has become vulgarity loses its original meaning. We aren’t actually hoping that God will damn the table we stubbed our toe on. One of my first thoughts after watching this video was of Quebecois sacres, or vulgarities, the strongest of which are words and expressions related to Catholicism and its liturgy. Despite the decline of Catholic influence in the area, the sacres remain. Why do many of our curse words revolve around sex? Perhaps it has a similar religious cause; our country was, initially, quite Puritanical. Despite the gradual cultural acceptance of sex, the words remain. I’d be interested to see “bad words” in different languages in cultures that differ significantly from our own.

The Birth of a Word- from Gaga to Water: As I mentioned previously, the fact that humans are capable of speech is extremely, extremely impressive to me. The speed at which we learn new vocabulary when we are young is even more impressive. The sheer volume of the vocabulary that children learn in the first few years of life is incredible; I can’t imagine how much we could accomplish if we retained that ability later in life.

Partner Group Presentation