Language as a Way of Knowing, Pt 1

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

  1. Triangle: a closed plane figure having three sides and three angles that, in Euclidian geometry, must add up to 180 degrees.
  2. Love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” – 1 Corinthians 13
  3. Table: a slab supported by one or more legs.

I think that love is the hardest of these to define because love is an abstract noun (a concept) as opposed to something tangible. Things in the abstract are difficult to define because there’s nothing catholic about them: their lack of palpability makes them subject to debate.


II.            What would be the advantages and disadvantages of everyone in the world spoke a common language? What would be gained and what would be lost?



  • Everyone would be able to understand each other
  • Less lost in the transmission of works (novels, movies) from one part of the world to another. Nothing would be lost in translation.
  • Less confusion at the UN—no more need to pay translators for modern times.
  • Improved opportunity for trade.
  • A vlogger in Hungary who would, otherwise, only speak Hungarian, would be able to project to a larger audience and have the same opportunity as Anglophones.
  • Information would be free and available to everyone with access to the Internet, and people would be able to contribute to the pool at large (there could be some Hungarian might have a good deal of information to add to the Wikipedia page on the Ottoman–Hungarian Wars, but because they only speak Hungarian, their knowledge is lost).
  • No matter where I am in the world, I know that I can be understood. That’s comforting.
  • It would unite the world. Right now, what do we share? Death, sex, and breathing. A common language would be something that we’d be consciously aware that we share.
  • Ideas could travel very, very, fast, unhindered by a language barrier.
  • Easier to produce educational material for poorer areas—it is a lot easier to find tutors who speak English than it is to find tutors who speak Maasai.
  • It would be fun!



  • Language is deeply tied to culture.
  • Many languages would become endangered. I’m sure the Livonians loved their language, but because of its lack of practicality, it’s dying. What would happen to Hungarian with time? According to Wikipedia, “It is believed that 90% of the circa 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world will have become extinct by 2050, as the world’s language system has reached a crisis and is dramatically restructuring”. Even taken with a grain (or bolder) of salt, I can’t help but think that a world language would serve as a catalyst to speed up the process of language death. And when a language dies, the ability to understand that culture dies, too.
  • There would be less incentive to learn other language. Lingophiles would still learn other languages, but people just in it for the practical aspects would stop wasting their time. You could argue that this is a good thing, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
  • Translators would lose work. Yes, they could translate old works, but still…
  • There’s the practical problem of implementation. Languages naturally diverge (even within the same language… just look at Arabic in Morocco versus Modern Standard Arabic ), nonetheless considering Proto-Indo European to Modern American English. How would you ensure that everyone continued to speak the same language? Are you going to police people? Are you going to prevent the natural growth and innovation that time ushers in?


III.            What can or have you learned about your own language by studying a second language? can you provide examples from your second language which have no English equivalent? What about idioms (expressions)?

From my own second language? What about “Parler le français comme une vache espagnole » ? I ask that you translate that literally, first, and then try to figure out what exactly it means.

Now, what about other languages? They’re more interesting to me.

I’ve been saving this article for such a time as this ( I also read a book called In Other Words and I learned a good deal of good ones from that…I wanted to buy the book so that I could review it, but unfortunately I’m broke, so no dice. It really gets my goat, but maybe when I’m old (do you see what I did there? That sentence would make no sense to someone who has not studied English idioms, but to you, it hopefully made perfect sense).  Other words I live not included on the article?

I have many favorites, so it would be hard to pick a favorite…but the word that was the easiest the assimilate into my own vernacular was “tartle” (The act of hestitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name). I’m working on others, but it is surprisingly difficult for me.



IV.            What kind of texts do you think are easy to translate from one language to another and what kinds are more difficult? Can you provide an example from your study of L’Etranger by Camus?

I’m in French, so I had the pleasure of reading Camus in his original language…and there was a definite difference. I tried to place my finger on it, but I couldn’t point out anything specific. If anything, it should have been more powerful in English (I could actually understand all the words), but I feel like, in French, Camus’s voice was more powerful, and in English, his voice was watered down. What exactly changed? I don’t know. But there was something different.

That being said, L’Etranger should be one of the easier works to translate. The degree of difficulty depends on:

  • How similar the language is to English in formation/structure, vocabulary/expressiveness (richness) and overall logic. French and English, though not sisters, are pretty close relatives (thank you, 1066 Norman invasion). With a language like Arabic, which is nothing like English, it is difficult to translate ideas and still make them a) make sense and b) flow while staying true to the work. An interesting example of this is, actually, in the Timothy Moore translation of “The Doctor in Spite of Himself” by Moliere. I’d recommend reading his introduction (and justification for the way he translated it) to his translation.
  • IDIOMS. Example: In Sranan Tongo (the language of Suriname or Dutch Guyana) if you said “A sma dati abi tranga yesi” you would, literally, be saying “The person has strong ears.” Do you really mean that they have ears of steel? No, you’re saying “That person is stubborn.”
  • In non-fiction, examples are given that make sense in one language but make no sense in another. For example, I was reading an English translation of “Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles” by  Robert Flacelière (originally in French) and the work was translated very well—in fact, I didn’t even know that it was a translation until I came across a strange fact– French word for dumb-bell (haltere, I believe) is etymologically linked with the Greek verb meaning to jump (hallomai) because when the ancient Greeks performed the long jump in athletic contests, they used to do so grasping dumb-bells. I was like “okay, that’s cool, but really random” but then I came across a translators note explaining what I just told you so that an American can understand.
  • *****Cultural paradigm! *****


V.            In what ways to 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?

People classify based on

  • Intelligence
  • Likes/Dislikes
  • Looks
  • Social standing (Neighborhood/money)
  • Social skills


  • Ambition
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Nationality
  • Language-ability (ethnicity, cultural history)
  • School

Advantages: People are insanely complicated. By simplifying them by placing them in categories, we are better able to deal with the world and prevent information-overload. Sometimes my schema is wrong. But it works most of the time so meh.

Disadvantages:  Sometimes I’m wrong. I’m labeling people and judging them. I’m forcing people into boxes.

I don’t think that some ways are better than others, necessarily, because it depends on the situation.


Some facts: The United States has about five percent of the world’s population…and 25% of the world’s prisoners. By age 23, 30-41% percent of American young adults have been arrested at least once. But more disturbing than that is that of Americans released from prison, 67.5% will rearrested within 3 years. 1 of 32 Americans is in jail or on parole.

Example: Who is stereotyped as being in jail most often?

  • The poor
  • High school drop outs
  • Kids from homes with parents in prison.
  • Blacks and Hispanics
  • The mentally ill.

What’s the truth of the matter?

  • In 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics published a study showing that more than 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners have symptoms of serious mental illness.
  • 1 in 15 Black men are incarcerated while only 1 in 106 white males are incarcerated.
  •  Furthermore, seventy percent of inmates in prison didn’t graduate from high school.
  • 75% of children with an incarcerated mother have a father who also has had criminal involvement (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007) and children are far more likely to commit crime if their parents are in prison.

So what does that tell us? That our stereotypes are not always incorrect. But when do these become dangerous? When we label people and assume that they must follow the stereotype. When we write people off.  Are, for example, black people, bad by nature? OF COURSE NOT. So we need to look at the reason for our labels. Some examples:

If we simply incarcerate a convict to he “pay his debt to society,” he will likely reenter society and have to face all of the same obstacles that drove him to crime. In addition, he will have: a criminal record to impact his employment opportunities, he will be older and still without marketable skills or education and he may have become further acclimated to criminal culture. Ergo incarcerating offenders could actually make them more likely to commit offenses after they are released, and recidivism rates attest to this. In societies that maintain hierarchies based upon race, class and gender, it is the marginalized groups that tend to suffer the most from social engineering gone awry.

1 in 15 Black men are incarcerated while only 1 in 106 white males are incarcerated. Furthermore, seventy percent of inmates in prison didn’t graduate from high school. Is that a coincidence? No. Because Blacks and improvised people are disproportionably represented among prisoners, families in those communities have been ravaged by the prison industrial complex. For example, great distances typically separate children from their incarcerated parents. Women are housed in prisons an average of 160 miles from their children. More than half of incarcerated parents report never receiving a personal visit from their children. Because the average sentence of incarcerated parents is 12 years, the separation can last an entire childhood. With only one wage earner left, poverty self perpetuates itself.

You get the idea.


VI.             “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.


Basically, I’m going to begin by talking about deconstruction (a type of literary criticism based on the inherit contradictions in literature because of the dichotomies with create in language. I hope that this all makes sense because by now I’m pretty tired so my logic is pudding).

“Deconstruction involves the close reading of texts in order to demonstrate that any given text has irreconcilably contradictory meanings, rather than being a unified, logical whole. As J. Hillis Miller, the preeminent American deconstructor, has explained in an essay entitled “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure” (1976), “Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently solid ground is no rock but thin air.” Deconstruction was both created and has been profoundly influenced by the French philosopher on language Jacques Derrida. Derrida, who coined the term deconstruction, argues that in Western culture, people tend to think and express their thoughts in terms of binary oppositions. Something is white but not black, masculine and therefore not feminine, a cause rather than an effect. Other common and mutually exclusive pairs include beginning/end, conscious/unconscious, presence/absence, and speech/writing. Derrida suggests these oppositions are hierarchies in miniature, containing one term that Western culture views as positive or superior and another considered negative or inferior, even if only slightly so. Through deconstruction, Derrida aims to erase the boundary between binary oppositions—and to do so in such a way that the hierarchy implied by the oppositions is thrown into question. Although its ultimate aim may be to criticize Western logic, deconstruction arose as a response to structuralism and formalism. Structuralists believed that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as parts of a system of signs. Derrida did not believe that structuralists could explain the laws governing human signification and thus provide the key to understanding the form and meaning of everything from an African village to Greek myth to a literary text. He also rejected the structuralist belief that texts have identifiable “centers” of meaning—a belief structuralists shared with formalists. Formalist critics, such as the New Critics, assume that a work of literature is a freestanding, selfcontained object whose meaning can be found in the complex network of relations between its parts (allusions, images, rhythms, sounds, etc.). Deconstructors, by contrast, see works in terms of their undecidability. They reject the formalist view that a work of literary art is demonstrably unified from beginning to end, in one certain way, or that it is organized around a single center that ultimately can be identified. As a result, deconstructors see texts as more radically heterogeneous than do formalists. Formalists ultimately make sense of the ambiguities they find in a given text, arguing that every ambiguity serves a definite, meaningful, and demonstrable literary function. Undecidability, by contrast, is never reduced, let alone mastered. Though a deconstructive reading can reveal the incompatible possibilities generated by the text, it is impossible for the reader to decide among them.”


Deconstruction argues that Westerners express their thoughts in terms of binary oppositions. Some thing is white but not black, masculine therefore not feminine. A

Throughout the term, we’ve been looking to see how writers construct and deconstruct binary oppositions, pairs that quickly transmogrify into rigid hierarchies. To aid in our examination, we’ve begun to compile a list of binaries.


good / evil

  • original / copy

primary / secondary

inside / outside

reality / appearance

essence / accident

soul / body

pure / corrupted

father / son

male / female

speech / writing

At this point, you might want to notice how these pairs tend not merely to support but indeed to verify one another: men are superior to women, or so Genesis tells us, because men came first; speech is superior to writing, or so Plato tells us, because the spoken word is the original of which writing is a mere copy. See how that works? If so, you’re ready for some more:


center / margins

normal / deviant

natural / unnatural

straight / gay

white / black

self / other

truth / fiction

philosophy / myth

sciences / humanities

poet / critic

master / slave

teacher / student

faculty / staff

high culture / pop culture

the blues / rock and roll

rock and roll / disco

disco / techno

punk / grunge

movies / television

network TV / cable TV

base / superstructure

waking / dreaming

latent content / manifest content



So basically what you’ve presented me with is a list of words. They’re dichotomies, though not as blatant as good/bad. “Language, he said, is inadequate to provide a clear and unambiguous view of reality. In other words, the fixed meaning of an essay, a book, a personal letter, a scientific treatise or a recipe dissolves when hidden ambiguities and contradictions are revealed. These contradictions, inevitable in every piece of writing, he said, reveal deep fissures in the foundation of the Western world’s civilizations, cultures and creations.” (

For deconstruction to work, it must first recognize the binary oppositions. After identifying them, it shows that they are not so absolute and meaningless without each other. For instance, good/bad. When people talk about “good” they are still comparing it to bad, even when they don’t mention bad.

With all this in mind, I think one can look differently at the binary pairs presented in the question.






By spockinthehood

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