This weekend I went to the 2014 Tedx Conference, which consisted of people speaking about ideas that “go against the grain.” The day focused on 15 different speakers and their stories about combating a “norm” in society, and ultimately, changing the world. A spoken word performer opened the day by performing a piece on what it entails to be a revolutionary, as well as the difference between ordinary people and revolutionaries. The rest of the day passed quickly with speakers discussing their ideas, experiences, and testimonials of challenging our society. Basically, the day was filled with a lot of words. But ultimately, words about what? And for what purpose?
The last speaker of the day, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, ironically (or not so ironically) spoke about words themselves and how they fit into the English language. As a highly esteemed professor and published author, she spoke about the extent to which words can be defined as “real” and who has the authority to dub them as such. It was a perfect way to the end the day; here I was, listening to a day full of inspirational speakers put their ideas into words, and now this woman was speaking about the actual words that makes these speeches possible.
This culmination of the day made me start to think how I use words, as well as the power of words. Frankly, if words didn’t exist, I think we’d all be a bit lost. Not only are we pursuing careers that require us to rely on words (not that every other professional field doesn’t use words), but also I think a lot of us in the Minor use words as a form of therapy.
For me, stringing words together into sentences acts as my crutch through life. I so often turn to writing when my brain is exploding with thoughts. When I’m at a lost for speaking my thoughts, I turn to writing to explore how I feel and maybe even why I feel certain sentiments. Words have been so prevalent in my life, as I love to have conversations with people (both peers and complete strangers), as well as write (in my personal, academic, and professional life). But more recently, I’ve come to understand that the words I’ve learned have been constructed based on the society I grew up in.
When I first learned words (I’m pretty sure my first word was Da-da), I was too young to question the meaning of them. And as I grew up and learned a more developed vocabulary, how to write words, and how to share words, I learned meaning of these words, defined by the dominant narrative in my world. I never questioned the meaning of words, only simply asked what the definitions were. But who was teaching me these definitions? And where were they learning their information from? Who wrote the dictionaries that I turned to, in order to gain knowledge about these words?
Could it be that even something as simple as words were, and continue to be, socially constructed by my environment?
My first thoughts is: No, of course not. I choose what words I use and how to use them, so I must have control over them.
But maybe, I’m being naïve. And most likely, I am. Yes, I can choose what words I use, but I need not ignore the fact that my definitions of the words that I use may be (and probably are) socially constructed based on my different social identities and my background. And now that I am aware of this, I don’t know how to look at words. What is a “real” word and why do we let anyone other than ourselves define that for us.
Why don’t we get to choose what words are or what they mean? Curzan argues that we do have the power to define words as they please. We just need to take control of that understanding and realize that the English language is constantly evolving, and we do have the power to define words as “real.” I use words for me, so don’t I get to be the judge?