(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
I find words and accents interesting. When I was in college, the linguistics professor said he could tell where someone was from by listening to them speak. He was very good at it, but not perfect. I am most intrigued by other English speakers. It’s not just the accent, though. It is the choice of words and the order in which they choose to employ them. That was what would throw my linguistics professor off. As a child, I learned to speak with the accent the people used wherever I was living. Even today, falling into the accent of the person I’m speaking with is fairly easy. Walt will glare at me to stop it, but its more a reflex than intentional. Word choice and order are far more difficult. That comes from your environment and practice. It’s how you think. Yet, especially in a polarized society such as we find in our country today, most of us need to become more aware of the words we choose.
When I taught Eighth grade US History, I would begin each year with an exercise in word choice. I opened by explaining to my new charges that everyone had a point of view. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone had a bias. We all thought that our point of view was correct though others might find our bias wrong.
I’m sure that you have already seen the difference with my word choice in the last sentence. In each case, the individual in question had at least developed a feeling toward a topic that they were willing to express. Those who agreed would deem that opinion a point of view, while those who felt differently believed it was a bias, or worse bigotry.
Next step was a discussion of the denotation and the connotation of the words we use and how we employ them. My husband refers to it as the value of a word. Does the word create a warm fuzzy feeling? Maybe it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Is it’s exact meaning different than our common usage of it? Once I felt they understood the concept I then would ask them to open their texts to a passage that described difficult, even violent interactions between Native Americans and English Settlers in the then wilderness of Virginia. I would divide the board into two columns: words that showed good intentions or protectiveness, words that showed aggression or vindictiveness. For simplicity’s sake I used Good or Bad. We had words such as slain, murdered, executed, massacred . . . As many of my students were English-second-language, we sometimes needed to use the dictionary and thesaurus and a bit of discussion to explain the connotations. When we were finished one column was considerably longer than the other. The next step was to go back into the passage and see which word was used for which group. Did one group have more of the protective, or self-defensive words while the other group was left with those words which showed a more war-like or greedy nature? As the students were then beginning to blame one of the groups, the group with the more derogatory terms associated with it, for all the violence that ensured throughout our country’s story I would stop them. We would then change the position of many of the words and reread the passage. If it had been written that way, how would they interpret the intentions of the two groups?
It was then that I told them what they had really discovered was not the original intentions of either group. Both had individuals with good and evil motives. What they had really learned was what the authors of their text book thought about the two groups. I emphasized that that wasn’t bad in itself. After all, everyone has, and is entitled to, an opinion. What they were to take with them was that it was their job to understand what the interpretation of the writer or speaker was and how it affected what they said. That I, too, had a point of view. In my role as teacher I attempted to tamp it down, but it was there. It was and is who I am. Whereas, I would promise them, that my facts would be true, and that the facts in their text should be true, they needed to think about what was said. That was part of their growing into educated adults. That they had opinions, too; and as long as they expressed those opinions politely, I would listen.
Most of us do not lie. At least we don’t mean to do so. Oh, maybe, occasionally, the “little white lie” to protect someone’s feelings or sensibilities. However, many of us do not recognize the color our words paint over what we say, or we feel that our word choices speak “truth to power”. In reality, our word choices tell our listeners about our biases. A skillful speaker uses his ability to employ words to create “spin” to what he says without arousing our antipathy. If he engages our enmity, we will disregard his point of view. These are degrees of variance. One end of the continuum causes us to put up an emotional wall, the other gives us room to agree, at least in part. Those who do not learn to choose their words by their emotive factor are condemned to experience disagreements that can grow into heated arguments. Not all “spin” is negative. A good salesman employs it to close a deal. A competent teacher uses it draw a student to consider a point of view. A clever politician uses it to attain a compromise. A crude salesman can use it to perpetrate a scam. A devious teacher can use it to brainwash a student. And lastly, a demagogue can use it to twist and inflame entire populations.
Let’s all be careful of the words we choose, and listen meticulously to the words chosen by others.
The last word:
Most adults need to understand this lesson as well. Try the exercise at your next social gathering, or yourself the next time you read an article in a newspaper, magazine or on the Internet.
Keep your sense of humor.