Language and borders

Another possible answer to the question ‘What is language, after all?’

I know, language is such a trivial thing! We use it every day with such ease – listening to the radio news or reading the announcements about the next underground train, saying hi to our co-workers and so on. All this without any (conscious) effort or concentration. Why would we reflect on such a basic thing like language?

The many definitions of language that I have tried to present here in response to the question ‘what is language after all?’ have all been positive. Language seems to be such a blessing, such a divine wonder and gift, if you contemplate the aspects I have written about.

But there’s a weapon hidden in language too. It can work as:

  • an obstacle between people of different professions or social categories: try getting information about your illness from a doctor or about your legal problem from a lawyer; read debates on forums between participants that can hardly spell correctly and others that have visited several universities. Language is ruthlessly used as an instrument to intimidate, defy, and keep at a distance.
  • a way not to explain, but to hide meanings from those who are not ‘initiated’; I’m thinking not just of codes, but mostly of political speeches and political correctness,  jargons, or poetic discourse.
  • a barrier between people of different cultures; you still have to learn foreign languages if you need to communicate across the borders of your country, and in using foreign languages you do make mistakes and place yourself in a more-or-less silly light. A foreign language is also an unknown territory, where you are denied full understanding of things like jokes, news, political discourse, double meaning, unique personal style etc.
  • a political restriction or argument; you need to take language tests to be accepted as an immigrant, or you may fight to promote – or keep – your language as  ‘official’ in your country. Language is an argument in ethnical debates and in establishing or changing state borders and can be the battle ground for autonomous cultural identity.
  • a password that you may never control if you are an outsider; no matter if you are trying hard to become accepted as a native speaker, as a member of a profession or of a group, with one single slip you reveal your true colours and then you’re kicked out. Language is the touchstone of ‘to be or not to be’.

Language serves our purposes, but also draws uncompromising borders.

Has language been a barrier to you? What borders did it draw?

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