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Why language matters more than ever

This originally appeared in The Globe and Mail

Alice, having passed through the looking glass, meets Humpty Dumpty on his wall. He explains his use of language to the interloper.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things – that’s all.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Like Alice, we have all passed through the wonder of the initial engagement with language. In Canada, we pride ourselves on literacy as a mark of our civilization. But literacy does not mean that we use our ownership of language in order to make words mean what we want them to mean. Why can’t we?

Well, for one thing, we then take away the universality of language and the basis upon which we understand each other. We start out from the cradle, as Noam Chomsky indicated half a century ago, with an innate ability to acquire language. We don’t have to be taught the grammar of our first language. As part of our humanness, we are able to process meaning. We develop vocabulary and are able to communicate in varying degrees of adequacy, intelligence and even brilliance with each other.

When we deform language, when we choose words and make them mean what we want them to mean, then language becomes loaded. The whole human purpose of language is lost. Referring to doctors’ patients as “clients” puts a whole new meaning on the relationship between the healer and the to-be-healed. At the very least, it subverts the Hippocratic oath.

If we become lazy, obfuscating and malicious, we subvert the very means by which we communicate with each other. When we kidnap language and Humpty Dumpty-ize it, we are saying that we no longer want to really communicate, but that we simply want to state our point of view, or put forward propaganda.

In a country like Canada, it is particularly important that we understand the meanings of words. Diversity is our strength. Diversity can also cause division.

In Canada, we do not use citizen in the same way as it was used when it came into its modern context, as a result of the French Revolution – when the people became a power in and of themselves, without reference to any hierarchical structure. From the 18th century on, we were not prepared for the consequences of overthrowing an order that had been in place for centuries, however shakily and however flawed. And now, more than anything, the idea of personal responsibility entered into the consciousness of the people post-Revolution, and it is today still part of the consciousness of Western societies.

In the Canadian context, a citizen means being part of a collection of people who are not related to each other by blood, religion or even shared history. We understand what it is to have at the heart of our citizenship an act of imagination. We believe that by acting together, we start in this country not with a political status quo from which the idea of citizen devolves, but with an idea of citizen from which a nation evolves.

We cannot have a country in which we do not have a common vocabulary and an agreement on what the words mean. A country of Humpty Dumpties cannot be put together again once it has fallen off the wall.

In Logico-Philosophical Treatise, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argues against “private language.” He points out that language is primarily social and words get their meanings by the way they are used by communities of users. Humpty Dumpty – who is actually a fragile egg – sits all alone and means what he says and says what he thinks things mean. It is the very opposite of what we must have for a society in which citizens understand each other. Language must not be privatized; words should not be kidnapped.

In the Bible, we are told that Adam named everything appropriately. Humpty Dumpty-ization of language means that there is only subjectivity to legitimize language. We must all try to use words correctly, and protect them from the shiny patina of misuse.

The 6 Degrees Dictionary, a new project of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, offers a user’s guide to inclusion. Read the 6 Degrees Dictionary.