The Power of Language and the Danger of a Single Story

Posted on: 14th February 2013

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” – George Orwell

The extent to which language can facilitate, extend, direct or limit thinking has posed a problem for centuries. Even without wading into the debate about the validity of cognitive linguistics, the notion that language and thought can mutually influence each other is hard to dispute. Yet we’re prone to isolate the two. For example, we frequently interpret metaphor as an exclusively literary phenomenon, belonging to the realm of words and stories rather than thought or action. However, George Lakoff has noticed that metaphor is relevant not only to language and literature but to everyday life, in the way we think and act. He uses the metaphor “argument is war” to illustrate his idea:

“Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I’ve never won an argument with him.”

Lakoff’s point is that the way in which we conceive and talk about arguments is also the way we enact arguments, in terms of a verbal battle, or war. “Imagine what it would be like,” Lakoff continues, “to live in a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing. Imagine a culture where an argument is thought of as a dance, the participants are performers and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way.”

Ultimately, Lakoff proposes that if metaphor is among our principal vehicles for understanding then it must play a central role in our construction of reality. Would new metaphors then, have the power to construct a new reality?

In simplified terms metaphor means using a familiar description in a new situation. Metaphor is a perspective or a frame, a way of looking at things. ‘Framing’ or ‘reframing’ is a process of communication in which a speaker selects and highlights certain aspects of an event or situation with the result that the listener accepts one meaning above all others. Here’s a ubiquitous example: ‘the glass is half empty’ versus ‘the glass is half full.’ In effect, framing adds a particular perspective to a situation. It is a very powerful method of persuasion, often resulting in profound political, social and behavioural consequences. As with every powerful tool, reframing is a knife that cuts both ways. It can be used to advance any argument or agenda.

In her talk ‘The danger of a single story’, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie says: “There is a word, an Igbo word that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. The way we speak to and about people, the language we use and the stories we tell, how they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

 

Nobody should be defined by a diagnosis, or by any single aspect of who they are. By paying attention to the important role of language in shaping our social reality we can take better care to remember when we talk to each other (and about each other) that we all have more than one story and each story has an infinite number of frames.



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