Language Talks About the Culture

The truth is that languages dances ever so lightly on thought. One proof of this is how terminology’s meanings quickly bend according to thought patterns. University of California linguist George Lakoff, for example, has notoriously suggested that the Democratic Party could attract more voters by altering the labels they apply to things of political import, such as calling income taxes “membership fees” and trial lawyers “public-protection attorneys.” Lakoff’s idea has seemed less urgent since the Barack Obama phenomenon created a Democratic ascendance on its own, but the idea could have had at best a temporary impact. Terminology doesn’t shape thought, it follows it.

Consider terms such as affirmative action, now so conventional we rarely stop to parse what the actual words composing it mean: “affirming” what? What kind of “action”? The term was artful and gracious, giving a constructive, positive air to an always controversial policy. Note, however, that political opponents soon came to associate the term with the same negative feelings they had about the policy it referred to, such that today it is uttered with scorn by many. Welfare is similar. The contrast between the core meaning of the word and its modern political associations is instructive, in that one can easily imagine a Lakoff in the 1930s proposing exactly the word welfare as a label for government assistance. Notably, another term of art for the same policy, home relief, rapidly took on the same kinds of negative associations. Similarly, if an issue commonly attracts dismissive attitudes, those accrete to any new terms applied. This happened quickly to urgently intended terms such as male chauvinist and women’s liberation, as well as special education.

Changing the terms can play some initial role in moving opinion, rather like God getting the globe spinning under the deist philosophy. But what really creates change is argumentation, as well as necessary political theatrics. Mere terms require constant renewal as opponents quickly “see through” the artful intentions of the latest ones coined and cover up the old label with the new one, applying to it the attitudes they have always had. Only in an unimaginably totalitarian context that so limited the information available to citizens that constructive thought and imagination were near impossibilities could language drive culture in a lasting way. This is why Orwell and 1984, expected references at this point in my discussion, are not truly relevant here. In the real world, language talks about culture; it cannot create it.

John McWhorter, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, p. 159-160

Here’s John McWhorter, saying something that has relevance to every church debate I’ve ever heard about whether to call the congregation’s primary gathering space the worship center or the sanctuary, or the piece of paper handed out at the door the bulletin or a worship folder. Is it evangelism or outreach? Are we Christians or followers of Jesus?

When disagree over terms, or when their is some push to change them, we assume that be changing the terms we will change the culture. But that’s not true. As McWhorter notes, changing terms might start a conversation, “But what really creates change is argumentation, as well as necessary political theatrics.”

I’ll confess that I’ve been a leader who has shifted terminology or made changes in the effort to create an institutional shift, while neglected to enter into the debate with fellow congregants about why a change in approach is needed. And in most every instance, that move has resulted in tension. Thinking I was putting a shortcut into effect, instead, needed changes could now only be enacted after taking an even longer way around.

I do think language is important, and I wonder if McWhorter is amiss that language is far more descriptive than generative. It seems to me that shifts in language can result in new ways of seeing, and new ways of action. I think the way that we pray, the words that we speak, and the terms we apply matter a great deal. I also think that the language of faith is not only a spoken form of communication, but that it must also be embodied in habits of individuals and the community.

I think the important here is that getting the words right is not enough. There must be a culture, a way of being, that accompanies the words that describe it, and the description must accurately match the reality being described in ways both concrete and abstract.

2 thoughts on “Language Talks About the Culture

  1. Great conclusion. I agree that language has an impact in shaping how people think, but there need to be clear and well-communicated intentions alongside it – and as you say, a culture which is consistent. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Right. Clarity is key. And well developed arguments help others understand our point of view. Thanks for the comment, Isobel.

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