Judge a People by Their Language?

Often people seem to judge one another by the language they use, decrying them to be ‘ignorant’ or ‘snobbish’ for simply including, or not including, certain words in their vocabulary. Words such as “ain’t” or “y’all” seem to instantly cause some people to decide the user is ignorant.

Other times, when someone uses a word out of the common vernacular the opposite happens and and they are seen to be ‘looking down upon’ the people they just used that word with. Examples here are a bit more difficult for me as I enjoy being around people that try to use their ‘words of the day’, but I do remember seeing it happen a couple of times. Once I saw a group of teenage girls chide a new student for using the word “segue” (this was quite a few years before the invention of the mall cop cart).

Another time I had dinner with a fairly large group of people and one of them continued to use his expanded lexicon, obviously intentionally and for his own personal amusement, to the point where the people around him became annoyed. Obviously this is a slightly different situation, but hopefully it get my point across.

Re-reading what I have just written I see I used the words “chide” and “lexicon”. Words I see in print occasionally but rarely, if ever, hear spoken and would surely send my daughter rolling her eyes at me.

I would like to offer up the example ‘pidgin’ languages. On the surface, they are an intermediary language created for two different cultures to communicate, however they have a tendency to create a situation where some people learn only the pidgin and then are looked down upon as ignorant and stupid. Visitors to an area where a pidgin language is prominent tend to treat the speakers of the language as inferior. In general it seems people have a tendency to treat anyone with a difficulty of speaking ‘correctly’ or ‘fluently’ as inferiors.

So why do I point this out? Was it already obvious? Well, as a writer it becomes a tool (albeit one that perpetuates the ignorance) to single out characters in certain ways by the language they use and they way other characters react to that language. It may be subtle, but it would take some work to believably write a scene where a Yale graduate with the Eastern US accent defers to the authority of someone speaking in a pidgin language. In a book it may slip right past a reader, but imagine it in a movie. It’s hard to see it played out in any way other than ‘comedic’ or (the Yale grad getting his) ‘comeuppance’.

The thing that interests me the most, though, is the hardest to find. It is the difference in languages themselves. Every language has its own sayings, colloquialisms, that don’t translate well and can offer a great insight into the people. Some of my favorites I found in Talkin’ Dirty by Les Blair, a collection of uniquely Mid-Western United States sayings. When you read these, you get the impression that the people who use these place an emphasis on humor and subtle wisdom, but phrases like ‘that’s a lot of baloney’ and ‘get your goat’ just don’t translate well into other languages and have to be explained.

Which (finally) brings me to my original thought that started me writing this. In response to small cars’ comment*, I mentioned language being a way to convey ideas. That is what it is for. When I attempted to learn to speak Russian (key word there -attempted) I learned something very interesting. The Russian word for ‘peace’ and the Russian word for ‘world’ are the same. This has become more widely known since the launch of the Mir Space Station, but was news to me when I took the language class. If you walk up to someone speaking Russian and say ‘Mir’ out of context, they won’t know if you mean ‘world’ or ‘peace’.

So here is my question: what does it say about a people that, when they are conveying ideas among themselves, their words for ‘world peace’ are redundant? (They conjugate the words when they put them together, but still…)

I know there are other great examples of language like this out there. I would love to hear them if you know them!

 *Once upon a time this was a response to a comment, and then I got spammed to Hawaii and back. (It turns out Hawaii doesn’t like both kinds of spam) I had to wipe out all of my comments and start over. I am sorry. Especially if I removed your (legitimate) comment. Please take the time to comment again.

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