For many people, particularly those with limited life experience and fragile psyches, difference, that is differences in language, culture, socio-economic status or religion, mark boundaries of superiority/inferiority. For them, life is a zero-sum game, where there is only good/evil, right/wrong, inferior/superior, win/lose, and not a shade of gray anywhere in sight.
As vast and varied as American culture is, there are many who despise and fear its variety, preferring to hoist themselves on a self-created pedestal, defining their own experience as normal, while denigrating ideas, cultures and languages different from their own. Language is a particular weapon for the culture police, as they band together on their leaky boat, pouring gasoline over the fires of social conflict and identity confusion.
While the mainstream media occupies itself with “English Only” vs. “Spanish Spoken Here,” there is another battle going on, right beneath our very noses. That battle is the battle of the dialect.
When European colonists reached what for them was a “New World,” the Americas already had culture, language, civilizations which were thousands of years old. The geography, biological diversity, climate and native cultures were unlike anything the colonists/invaders/new citizens had ever seen.
Mighty rivers, which made their European counterparts look like mere streams. Lush forests that covered the land for thousands of miles. Buffalo herds so vast, that the end of the herd was too distant to see. And, people. Tens of millions of tribal people who, at the time of Columbus, comprised more than 500 nations and spoke hundreds of languages, and thousands of dialects. Even more remarkable, some thousand miles from the Atlantic oceans’ shores, the Plains Indians’ sign language permitted conversation across tribal and linguistic boundaries.
The awesome power of language, the wondrous gift of communication, the creation of abstract concepts, which we share with others. Sometimes we get too caught up in minutiae and trivialities to really understand how wondrous the written and spoken word really are.
Think of those who have never been able to speak, the mute, or those who once had speech, but lost it due to illness or injury, such as stroke or traumatic head injury. When it comes right down to it, we who can speak, and who can translate our spoken words to written communication have a mighty gift.
Ours is a gift, which can be used to empower or denigrate. We have the power to inspire humanity to reach new heights, to touch new concepts of human consciousness, to delve into shared experiences, to rise above our animalistic beginnings and enter into a broader consciousness. All because we were endowed with the power of speech.
Unfortunately, we forget the purpose of communication when we allow our egos and false sense of superiority to blind us. We make fun of people for being “country,” for speaking in a Southern dialect, for being an Okie, for “talking like a hillbilly”, for “being ghetto,” and, yes, “for talking white.”
We really don’t understand how privileged we are, not only to have the power of speech, but to share our thoughts, wishes, wants and desires through the spoken and written word, with those who are just like us—the child of the South, daughter of the Midwest, son of the high mountains of Colorado.
Several hundred years ago, the great Cherokee linguist Sequoyah, created the Cherokee alphabet and gave his people the written word—in Cherokee, thereby preserving the language and its culture. Today, the Cherokee are a vibrant community, with their own tribal government, newspaper, all of which is enhanced by the gift of one of the most remarkable human beings who ever lived.
On the other hand, while the Cherokee written language empowers and emboldens the Cherokee Nation, other tribes are losing touch with their past because their native speakers are dying off. Having no written form of their languages, no alphabet for youth and outsiders to learn, many of the nation’s tribal languages remain endangered, alive only within the memory of one or two elderly native speakers, and when mortality claims those speakers, their native tongues die with them. Thousands of years of collective culture, gone, with the last breath of the last native speaker.
And so it is that the language loonies, the wanna be word police, the hauteur, the walking bags of protoplasmic arrogance who, dwell among us, do not appreciate the wondrous, enchanting, enlightening gift of language. In their narrow world, they would confine language to their own limited experiences, taming the wonder of communication, confining the joy of the spoken and written word within their own cultural perimeters.
When we look at language, and see how fragile humanity and human communication really are, this should be nothing less than an abomination. Shutting down, shutting out and shuttering language because you don’t like the way it sounds, because it does not “measure up” to your limited understanding of what language is, is truly a crime against humanity.
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