Language

This is Blog 12 in my A-Z Blogseries:
Language

My boyfriend, G, and I share a love for language and linguistics.

It happens almost weekly that some odd expression, pronunciation or unusual word makes my ears perk up (and often it is something that I see is simultaneously happening in his mind, which is obviously a huge turn on).

We then tear the matter apart, googling the heck out of it (after we’ve agreed on the best search terms, which sometimes can be challenging enough).

The last word we dove into was “psychopath“, which I now know stems from the Greek words psykhe, meaning mind and the word pathos, meaning suffering.

So a psychopath is, in the purest sense of the word, somebody who has been diagnosed with suffering of the mind.

In modern times we envision a psychopath to be a manipulative charmer that spends his days fantasizing of all the ways he could make you disappear. We would say a psychopath is more often the cause of suffering than the victim of it, wouldn’t we? I suppose we have TV crime-series and horror stories to thank for that.

G and I debated on how much empathy a psychopath really would have. I decided that they actually could have some empathetic abilities in the sense that they recognize feelings and know how to respond to them convincingly. What they lack are soft feelings such as pity and compassion (making them perfect for politics or wall street).

Another word we tried to decipher was “discussion“. Not something you would normally need to look up the meaning of, right? We came to the conclusion however that our personal definitions were quite different, with his being much more negative than mine.

In his view, there is no such thing as a “good discussion”, given that there are always two (or more) people participating with opposed opinions and no real willingness to change that.

In my opinion a debate can be a tool to get closer to the truth and changing your mind about your argument is actually allowed.

This made me realize that being in (his definition of) a discussion is an experience he does not enjoy at all. Now that I know that, I can change the way I react to him when he mentions a discussion he’s had with this or that person.

These elaborate exploratory talks we have (often during breakfast) remind me of how important it is to check during conversations if we are actually talking about the same thing.

Even when your convo partner is using the same words as you are, you may be missing the point completely because you do not know the weight it has for the person across from you.

We are a species blessed with the ability to use language, in spoken form and also through gestures and posture. Putting a little effort into the way you communicate can make life so much easier!

The power of words

[…]

Now, it is a massively difficult to get your head round; how ordinary people, – and Germans are ordinary people just like us, and if we don’t believe that, then we’ll be doing to them what they did to the jews, we will be ascribing a racist characteristic just to Germans, that is unique to them, – I think we can all be grown up enough to know that it was humanity doing something to another parcel of humanity, and that it was very extraordinary. We’ve seen examples of it in our own lifetimes, such as Ruwanda and Burundi and other places where massacres of extraordinary brutality have taken place.

And in each one of these genocidal moments, or attempts of full genocide, each example was preceded by language used again and again and again to dehumanize the person that had to be killed, in the political eyes of their owners. […] And they start to characterize them week after week after week after week, and you start to think that someone who is slightly sullen, someone you don’t like very much anyway, and you’re constantly getting the idea that they’re not actually human. Then it seems that it becomes possible to do things to them that are, we would call unhuman… inhuman… lacking humanity. Oddly enough, we’re the only species that does it…

It is interesting and important to remember that language not only guarantees our freedom.  In free exchanges of ideas, such as this, in which one is allowed to say anything in which one would hope everyone observes the decencies of debate and of good nature and is not cruel and unkind, mocking derisory, unpleasant, vicious or indeed whipping up violence, but as long as ideas are exchanged freely then we can more or less guarantee some level of stability within our societies. But the moment we begin to use special language for special people and special terms of insult to special people, then thats when, and we can see it very clearly because history demostrates it time and time again, that’s when ordinary people are able to kill.

There’s an amazing book called “Ach die schone Zeite”, which I think has recently been translated under the title “Those were the days” and it’s a horrific thing to read because it is so ordinary. It is simply the letters home from the guards and soldiers and SS members and officers of the death camps of Auschwitz, letters home to their families.

[…]

It’ so human that it makes someone kind of gasp at how this kind of happened. And language is at the root of it and I suppose that is why we have to be careful about our language or we have to be alert to it, we have to think about it…