Watch What You Say: How we can use language to our benefit

By Shane Hulsey

What makes up language? The words we say? How we use words? A set of characters, words, and symbols? The answer really is some combination of these three.

The first definition of “language” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is as follows: “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.” The first and second parts of this definition seem pretty obvious and self-explanatory, but the third part, “the methods of combining them used and understood by a community,” is a little trickier. There are so many combinations of so many words that can be used in so many contexts. Also, do we really understand them?

Assistant Professor of English Michael Keller, Ph.D, ascertains that, in the grand scheme of things, we never can truly understand language.

“Every time we try to understand language, it slips away from us,” he said. “Language is always changing. Words mean different things from what they used to mean.”

It doesn’t change in any specific way, either.

“There aren’t these ‘prescribed rules’ that dictate how language evolves,” Keller said. “Language evolves, and we describe it, but how it evolves is up to us.”

But if the language comes from the right place, we are in good shape.

“If it evolves from a place of empathy, I think it will also make us more empathetic people,” Keller said.

This empathy can also evolve from something as simple as reading.

“The very act of reading, particularly reading someone else’s work, increases empathy,” Keller said. “I think reading literature, discussing it, digesting it, creates the kind of environment and the kind of people who will be always evolving and becoming more empathetic.”

Language changes in both good and bad ways. As for which is changing faster, it’s almost impossible to tell. Keller said he has noticed an increased propensity to revert to demeaning language online without any fear of consequence. This tendency, he said, has discouraged valuable conversation.

“I don’t know that it’s happening more or less, but I know that online, when people are hiding behind their Twitter eggs and stuff, they feel much more comfortable saying rude and demeaning things because they know they’re not going to get punched in the face, or that they’re not going to have to reckon with actual conversation,” he said. “They can just take things up and leave in a way, which damages discourse.”

What should this discourse look like? Keller points to an interaction between SEC guru Paul Finebaum and Dan Le Batard, a TV and radio host from Miami, as an example.

“Paul Finebaum referred to the University of Miami as a ‘third-world program,'” he said. “Dan Le Batard just put out there, ‘Hey, what did you mean by that? Can we talk about this?’ Finebaum ended up apologizing and saying, ‘I was wrong. I need to do better,’ and Le Batard was like, ‘cool.’

“That’s good. That’s how discussions should work. ‘I said something without thinking, out of ignorance or flipancy. I didn’t think of how it could affect somebody, but now I understand it. Now I’m going to do better.’ I think people need to have that posture,” Keller said.

So what strategies can we take toward achieving this posture? Quincy University President Brian McGee, Ph.D, said it’s really not that difficult.

“Think before you speak,” he said, “and recognize that you are always surrounded by people who might potentially misunderstand what you say if you’re not careful with your choice of words.”

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