The Language Trap: Otherness and Reality

Jana and I love comparing language differences when we visit the UK.

In America we stand in a "line," in the UK it's a "queue." In America we "sleep in," in the UK you "lie in." American cars have a "trunk," UK cars have a "boot."

In the UK when things are "all set," "all done," or "all good" you say "sorted."

In the UK instead of "awesome," "great" or "wonderful," you mostly say "brilliant."

We've been "faffing about" and have needed to take a "jumper" along because it might be chilly. We ask directions about where the "loo" is. I requested "builder's tea" when I didn't want any fuss about the drink. We asked for "rubbing alcohol" and got blank stares until we asked for "surgical spirits."

And don't get me started on what "pants" mean in the UK.

All this is great fun, but at the HOST conference I was reminded about the power of language by Tim Nash's presentation and a comment made during a Q&A by Mark Sampson.

In Tim's presentation about language and Otherness he made two points. First, using Chinese versus English as his illustration, Tim made the point that language is a way of knowing, a gateway of perception. Second, only about 6% of the world's population speaks English.

Those two observations lead a profound point: English speakers don't know how most of the world thinks or sees the world.

Related to the relationship between language and perception, Mark's comment about language at HOST had to do with economics and reality.

Economists like to trump conversations by saying that the language of economics is simply describing "the real world," the world "as it is." This gives the language of economics epistemological power, as "reality" is the ultimate trump card. The person who describes "reality" is the one who is telling the truth

But Mark's comment was this: "Economic language isn't descriptive, it's performative. It doesn't describe the world, it creates the world."

This notion that language is performative won't be new to many readers, but I don't think many church going folk think about language in this way, that language creates as much as it describes reality. At least our perceptual reality.

All that to simply say this: Language can trap us.

Tim pointed out how language blocks us English-speakers from knowing and understanding how 94% of our fellow human beings see and think about the world.

And Mark's comment points how the language of late-modern capitalism blocks us from imagining a new, different and better world.

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