Chapter 7: Language
Can You Say That
“Hey guys, what’s going on down by the student center? It looked like protestors or something when I drove by, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying just a bunch of chanting or something.”
“I heard it’s a group called ‘Reclaim Your Heritage.’ Apparently, they’re protesting against any nonwhite exchange students who are attending school here. I saw a poster that said ‘Ship ‘em back in a sack!’ That’s just sick!”
“Why doesn’t somebody do something about them? Can’t they throw their sorry butts in jail for inciting a riot or disrupting the peace? Can they even be on campus if they’re not students?”
“Well, as much as I agree, they have the right to free speech, and as long as they have a permit to gather, it’s all legal. This is a state university, so it’s not considered private property. I don’t like what they stand for either, but I think it’s a slippery slope if we begin telling people what they can and can’t say, you know?”
“That’s all well and good until somebody gets hurt. You know how stuff like this escalates. First it’s marching around with posters. Next thing you know, there’s a fight, and somebody’s dead. I know it makes me mad, and I’m not even affected by all this. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be one of those exchange students.”
“Whoa, look at this pamphlet they were passing out. I can’t believe this! Look at this one line here, ‘Reclaim Your Heritage will stop at nothing to cleanse our country. Spilled blood’s a great cleanser.’ Isn’t that a threat if they talk about killing someone? Couldn’t they be held accountable if what they say causes someone’s death?”
“What they’re using is inflammatory language. They’re using strong language to purposefully stir up emotions and make people mad, but the courts have always ruled that you can’t be arrested for that. Talking about violence is not the same as an actual violent act. After all, it’s a free country.”
“Yeah, well tell that to those exchange students. Half of them will be afraid to leave the dorm now. Some kind of free country they’ve found!”
If you think about it, language is fascinating for so many reasons. Infants initially begin to use language by listening and responding to those around them. Like tiny tape recorders, they are able to mimic not only the words they hear but the nuances, the accents, and the inflections in the language as well. Studies have also shown that twins have been known to create their own private languages to communicate a language complete with sounds, meaning, and interpretation known only to the two of them. Talk about being creative! Add to this the use of slang, workplace jargon, and regional language differences and you can see that language has a central role in our lives from infancy to adulthood.
While we often take communication for granted, we cannot imagine functioning without it. If language and its impact is crucial to us as everyday citizens, consider how much more important language must be to the success of a public speaker. It is probably obvious that the words you choose as you speak to an audience must be clear and concise. As a public speaker your audience holds you to a higher standard; they expect proper grammar and pronunciation and carefully chosen words.
As a speaker public or otherwise your words do more than convey a message; they can be used to stir the emotions of your listeners, bringing them to tears or inspiring them to change. As the scenario at the start of the chapter illustrates, language can also be used to inflame and to incite. Powerful words can be used to bring about good or evil. This power in language is one of the areas that we want to discuss further in this module. We’ll also address why miscommunication between the speaker and the listener so often occurs. Finally, we’ll add a few new terms and concepts to your growing vocabulary by discussing the difference between connotative and denotative words, encoding and decoding, and a person’s cultural frame of reference.
Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:
- Discuss the use of inflammatory language and freedom of speech issues in society
- Discuss how language and word choice can affect the listener’s emotions
- Distinguish between connotative and denotative word meanings
- Describe why miscommunication occurs between speaker and listener
After reading this module, you should realize how powerful and fascinating language truly is. Researchers from many disciplines have focused on language, examining everything from public speech to hate speech. What these studies have shown us is that there are many subgroups and subcultures utilizing their own specialized brands of language slang, twin-speak, baby talk, hip- hop, jargon, and rap are just a few. Mastery of language within these groups means acceptance. And isn’t that what communication is ultimately all about?
This module has attempted to reveal to you the wonder of language with all its idiosyncrasies. Ironically, the idiosyncrasies of our language often become our barriers to effective communication. Miscommunications are common even when we listen carefully, use similar terms, and share a common cultural frame of reference. The process of encoding and decoding further complicates communication between the sender and the receiver. An understanding of this process should help you to be more aware of the gap that often exists between a speaker’s intent and a listener’s interpretation. If speaking clearly and carefully has not been one of your primary goals as a speaker, it should be now. Finally, we hope that what this chapter has conveyed is that meaning is not found in the words themselves but rather within the people who hear and use the words.