Languages are not livestock

‘Parlay petty fronsay,’ said my colleague, as he jocularly replied to the French teacher at our school upon exiting the staff room.

No sooner had the door swung shut than one of the teachers roared, ‘He’s butchering the language!’

Of course, this was a joke. But there’s something about that phrase that aggravates me. The idea that language is some kind of sacred cow, some unassailable bastion of purity that must not be sullied by the butcher’s knives of the linguistic proletariat.

Something I’ve been realising over the past few years is how important metaphors are to my writing, my thought process, and to life in general. I first had this awakening when I read Metaphors We Live By, a fantastic book which lies in the magical intersection between academia and great writing, presenting the groundbreaking ideas within in an accessible and tantalising way.

I’ll sum it up briefly: whether we are aware of them or not, a large part of our language use is built on implicit metaphoric systems. For example, we perceive arguments as buildings. Don’t agree with me? Then why do we talk about buttressing arguments? Building them up? Tearing them down? Defending and attacking them?

Argument is war – you either win or lose.

Love is a shared piece of art. You make it together.

Time is a place. Days are surfaces (“on Tuesday”), hours are locations (at “three o’clock”), and months are containers (“in May”).

Metaphors are important, because they betray the cultural trappings of a place and time. What if we didn’t perceive arguments as wars, but rather collaborations? What does it say about love that we consider it art, given how derisive much of society is towards the arts? How much of the cinematography of time-travel is influenced by its linkage with physicality and place?

If any of this strikes a chord with you, I strongly recommend you read the book. To get back to my original point: saying that someone is “butchering a language” implies it is livestock to be protected, or an innocent people threatened by bloodthirsty barbarians.

Language is neither of these things. It is a tool and a conduit. It is the wellspring of our thoughts and feelings that allows us to communicate them to others. It is a shield and a weapon. And it definitely does not need to be protected.

Language perseveres and flourishes. In Nicaragua, a new sign language was formed simply by deaf people coexisting in a community. Paradoxically, as more and more languages die out due to the dominance of colonial tongues, these speech-robbed peoples re-form the language unto their own, sowing the seeds for the development of new dialects and languages entirely.

By accusing others of butchering a language, we are like overzealous gardeners trying to box in a wily plant. Nature always finds a way, even if it has to spread its roots in unconventional places.

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