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The entwinement of language and world

Work inspired by the disclosive function of language

Published onAug 31, 2020
The entwinement of language and world

When asked what I do, I often reply I am a ‘sociolinguist’. This, however, is still too complicated a label, so I want to try and say more about what I mean by that.

The study of language gives up on reality, whenever language is presented as a purely conventional notation—something like an empty form—in which any content can be poured. This portrayal of language as a ‘cultural construct’, potentially interchangeable with any other ‘cultural construct’, fails to account for how reality isn’t just ‘labelled’ through language, but accessed and disclosed through it. The vibrant excitement of Helen Keller, a deaf youth remembering the moment she was first introduced to language (and to the world made accessible in language), has had a profound impact on me:

I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!1

This is how I would explain my interest in the ‘disclosive’ dimension of language: its being a doorway to reality that manages to be ‘more than just linguistic’ … but never ‘non-linguistic’.

In the context of the Research-in-Action Community, we often say that our work is to make visible realities that remain unacknowledged in language, for instance, when they remain ‘rationally invisible’ under the routine assumptions that people come to take for granted in their life together. At the same time, I am not persuaded this question is one that can simply be solved through a more refined ‘linguistic politics’. What it calls for, instead, is a different sort of work: to ‘visit’, together with others, the places for which we are short of words … this work is a bit like Keller’s teacher bringing her to the water and writing w-a-t-e-r on her palm, until Keller found in the word a name for her experience, and could grasp that experience through the word. This is how I approach the work this Community tries to nurture.

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