The Long Arm of Inheritance, or, How Language Affects us Whether We Like it or Not

Welcome to a post where I apply random bits of knowledge gained from my doctoral studies to theology. Why? Because I figured my readers could probably use a decent nap. Comfy? Got a pillow and a glass of warm milk? Good.

Time to begin

Out of all the various factors that go into forming our personality, there is one that is particularly tricky. Language. Language is far more than simply a functional system so that we can spare ourselves from having to point at the doughnut we want to buy at the coffee shop. You know the one, it’s got sprinkles. Everyone loves sprinkles.

A great many words in any language come with hundreds of years of emotional baggage. My last post looked into this somewhat by using Novalis to re-orient our perspective of the nighttime and darkness. This ability of language to shade our emotions when talking about something is particularly powerful given that many people never stop to consider the phrases or words that they use in many situations. It takes place subconsciously.

And, as language is a cultural construct, these emotions and feelings connected with words often have more to do with our surrounding culture than with our own more reasoned ideas. That is to say, if we were to sit down and have a think about why we associate a particular emotion with a particular word we might find that there is no explainable reason. It is instead something that we have unconsciously done because those around us have done it as well.

Here’s an example: Jesuit. Now pair it with a derivative of the word: Jesuitical. If, like me, you are largely the product of the history of Protestant England/America, then you may already have some negative feelings about this word. The reason for that has to do with the long history of Catholicism and the Reformation in England. Take a look at the second definition that appears when one uses the word jesuitical. “Practicing casuistry or equivocation; using subtle or oversubtle reasoning; crafty; sly; intriguing.”

This is a definition born of a particular period of time in British history. It is also a time when England was entering the colonial game, specifically in North America. Hence, this definition has jumped over the Atlantic and entered into American usage as well. It’s especially interesting to me because this negative definition also seems to me to reflect an anti-intellectual strain of thinking. “They’re using fancy words, but we speak plainly.” (Look at American politics and you can see that “intellectual” has sadly come to be an insult.)

Thus the Jesuits, in spite of all their scientific and educational work (or perhaps because of all this work), remain associated with this sometimes subconscious definition. Thankfully there is a solution. But it’s not easy.

Seriously, it’s not easy. Thanks a lot Derrida.

The solution is to attempt to maintain an awareness of our language, the words and phrases we use, and the affect these words and phrases have on us. No problem! Perhaps this is why many of the mystics seemed to instinctively grasp this truth about language. Vows of silence or just an insistence on using the minimum necessary words make a lot of sense when you’re faced with the enormity of the task. After all, using words with certain subconscious associations frequently can reinforce those subconscious associations whether they are of a positive nature or a negative nature.

Obviously not all of us are going to be making vows of silence. Although observing days (or other periods) of silence can be spiritually and emotionally beneficial regardless of your particular belief system. But at the very least, by being aware of this we can hopefully guard our mouths and perhaps think a bit more than we speak. After all, Jesus said that it is what comes out of our mouths that has the tendency to defile us. It’s all a part of living a life of virtue and self-examination. Socrates once said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And the world could use a bit more self-examination and thoughtful speech. If you don’t believe that, you’ve obviously never looked very far around the internet.


~ by crossingthebosporus on August 24, 2012.

3 Responses to “The Long Arm of Inheritance, or, How Language Affects us Whether We Like it or Not”

  1. I think anyone who writes on the internet has experienced the nuanced emotions that ill-phrased sentence or misused word evokes in our comments. It at times can’t be helped as we are not privy to the emotional bias of another country or culture. But your advice is good. Sometimes, less is more when trying to get your point across. Sound thinking, I think.

  2. Good thoughts my friend. Picking one’s words should be done with the same care we ladies pick our shoes 🙂

  3. Language also affects our ways of expressing the metaphysical reality, which a majority (if not all) show a leniency towards Aristotelian metaphysics. 😉

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