Oberlin Blogs

Words and the World

December 13, 2014

It seems a bit odd to be writing a post about writing. However, writing is a big part of what we do here at Oberlin as students at a liberal arts college. So I'll write about it. Also, I'll recommend this piece to go along with it. Rachmaninov's Vocalise (sung here by Anna Moffo): properly beautiful, nostalgic, and ties into this post rather well...

It's the end of the semester and a lot of stuff has happened. Great stuff, bad stuff, stuff involving midnight adventures and an unhealthy amount of puns. Sometimes it's so easy to get caught up in the stuff that at the end of it all we lose sight of what we've gained because it's been growing with us, slowly, the whole time. That experience crept up on me this semester with my writing - in every class, and in every type of essay.

They told us in high school to expect a lot of writing in college and they were absolutely right. But throughout all the essays, revisions, and red ink, they didn't tell us all of what writing was - a gateway, a mirror, and a lens. All this became especially clear for me in a wonderful class that's entitled College Writing: Negotiating Language, Culture, and Power. It's simultaneously analytical and investigative, where students question how and why they write the way they do. And because writing is essentially a physical manifestation of thought, we learned to write with one eye turned inward on ourselves and with the other outward to our audience.

Throughout all the academic, biographical essays and the argumentative, persuasive essays I've become more aware of my own writing - and from there, the nature of language itself. Where we have spoken, to whom we have spoken, and about what we have spoken all inform our own speech, and from there, our writing.

Let's talk about language, then.

Language is a gateway.

Let me tell you a story. I was super uncool as a kid. Irredeemably, irrefutably, irrefragably uncool. Like, read the dictionary and didn't watch television uncool. And when I tried to be cool and talk about the shows that I had no idea about, I was super uncool. It was like my kindergarten classmates and I were speaking different languages. Even when I pulled out the big guns (my favorite juvenile show-offy word "irrefragably") I stayed uncool and incomprehensible. The end.*

This is a simple example but it shows a discourse community - a type of specialized language - at work.

*Coolness is still up for debate.

Through these discourse communities, language has a powerful potential to define people, marking them as part of a certain group. Take the musical discourse community - walk in the Con hallways for five minutes and you'll hear stuff like "in the second theme of Sergei Prokofiev's 'Classical' Symphony, Opus 25, there are distinctly neoclassical aspects at work, such as the interplay between the first violins' high tessitura and the solo bassoon's arpeggios" spewed like accidentals across Schoenberg sheet music. Doctors communicate in a sterile whirlwind of jargon. Melissopalynologists speak... er, whatever melissopalynologists speak (though it's likely to be about honey). We encounter discourse communities in class, our religion, and really anywhere else there's a specific vocabulary. In this way, language is a gateway you can only pass through by knowing the vocabulary, and you can only know the vocabulary by living the experience.

Language is a lens.

These various language gateways aren't without effect. Language has a set of implications to go along with it. My family is of Filipino descent, and a large portion of my childhood involved dancing the tinikling, devouring ensaimada, and cooking lumpia. Chatter in Tagalog filtered through my house at all hours. I could understand none of it. My grandparents, who had immigrated when they were young to study medicine, refused to teach me and my siblings their language out of fear that I would have an accent like theirs and all the effects that came with it. Because of this exclusion, I feel like I can't fully claim my heritage as a Filipina. But beyond the impact on cultural identity, my relatives' choice reveals their awareness of the way language affects perception.

Language is a lens in addition to a gateway. Unfortunately, many without academic English or "Standard English" as a first language are commonly viewed solely through this lens. Whatever limitations their English has are projected onto them as a person. All too often, immigrants who are professionals in their own country arrive here to face derision and treatment as an inferior simply because of their accented or "broken" language. And all too often, linguistic profiling goes on right before our eyes. Even worse, it goes on behind them without our even realizing it. Our lack of patience with the outsourced Indian customer service associate? Our various perceptions and appropriations of Black English? Those awful English-Only policies? Lenses.

Language is a mirror.

The first thing I'm usually asked when I tell people I'm originally from Texas is: "Well, where's your accent?" I have been free of any sort of Texan accent my whole life, and most people assume I'm a midwestern native. With this assumption come assumptions that my politics, values, and worldview match up with their expectations. Conversely, back when I lived in Texas, my non-Texan accent marked me as different among some of my drawling peers, and they automatically (correctly) assumed that our personal views were different more often than not. My language reflected my values, even if it did so unintentionally.

Once we're aware of the weight that it can lend to interactions and perception, language can become a mirror, one that functions by reflecting back the image we want to see. We can talk a certain way to gain the hidden benefits of being viewed through that lens. Some people take advantage of this by learning English to fit in with society; others, like actors, use accent coaches to make their desired perception believable. Still others have separate personal dialects for public and private spaces. It's a selective mirror that can either reflect or distort the truth.

So how does all this relate to writing?

While the white of a page can obscure someone's identity, that's not so in a world full of sight and sound. It wasn't until this semester that I realized just how privileged I am to speak what is viewed as "Standard English" - whatever that is - and not have the Filipino or Southern accent that I was exposed to for years. It's not that I don't have an accent - it's that I have the accent of the majority. It's not that I write well - it's that I write "correctly."

Language is more than talking and writing is more than getting ideas down on paper in a nice five-paragraph format. It is an act, and like any act, has overtones and consequences that we sometimes don't acknowledge. It relates to society, our place in it, and can show things that we'd rather have hidden.

We write differently when we write a scholastic essay as opposed to a blog post or a text or a diary entry. We have an eye for audience and how we expect them to perceive us. We can pick and choose which sides of ourselves we want to reveal, whether it's highlighting musical proficiency or fitting into a certain circle more easily. Our own personal choices of words can reveal the who of who's writing them, and this is an aspect that's not to be underestimated. When we learn how to do this, there's no limit to who we can touch with our words.

And, conversely, not letting the lens obscure our view, or the gateway bar our understanding, or the mirror reflect something fake is just as important in our half of any interaction.


About the music: The cool thing about Vocalise is that it's for any voice (human, piano, cello, tuba, theremin, accordion, didgeridoo [presumably]) and the lyrics contain no words - just one vowel of the singer's choosing. It's been arranged extensively (at least 36 arrangements that I know of), because it's just so beautiful and universal. This piece struck me as appropriate for this post because it's a song that takes language out of the equation. It's an idealized version of what it would look like if language actually didn't matter. Of course it does, and there are so many beautiful languages on this planet - but the quiet beauty of this song provides an interesting glimpse into language without its implications.

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