The indelible nature of language

sopranosCan you be my psychiatrist? May I admit something? I’ve always had a severe sensitivity to language – especially the proclivity to pun incessantly. I kid you not – full blown Foerster’s Syndrome. It is under control but today I’ve had a hard day with the word, “indelible”. It has been in every second sentence and almost every thought.

I looked it up:

Definition of INDELIBLE

a : that cannot be removed, washed away, or erased
b : making marks that cannot easily be removed

a : lasting
b : unforgettable, memorable
— in·del·i·bil·i·ty noun
— in·del·i·bly adverb

I don’t know why but I keep thinking of how indelible language is.

Language effects us, subtly and its invisible fingerprints are all over us. Wish I had an infra red scanner to show the marks of language. It plays with us and effects our behavior. It taunts and teases us with possibility. Ah, how marvelous this ability through word to make things appear that are invisible! Yes, it is possible. Think, “cheesecake” – there, I made it appear, I even made you taste it, in your own fashion.

Now, (and as any of my prior professors certainly know), I am not a Sapir Whorfian. Those kooks that believe that because language DOESN’T contain something, you are lacking in certain faculties of universal make up. My god, Stephen Jay Gould never tackled them, but certainly is laughing in his grave. That I don’t have any numbers above 7 in my language – does not mean I couldn’t ever understand the concept of “a million”.

But I don’t intend on arguing Sapir – Whorf. I just would like to say that despite my crticisms, as a poet and a man who suffers from a sickness of “words” – there is power to language and it does effect us humans who use it and take it in. It does transform. But not in the resolute way culture does, that I’m not certain about. However, it changes us in the way we behave as language speakers. Language effects language and we are so unaware of its power over us. Let me relate 2 experiences to clarify this.

One. I remember walking into a kindergarten in Korea where an Australian teacher had been teaching, hardly teaching. (that’s a pun – got to stop it! But all kindergarten teachers should be hardly teachers). I remember walking in and participating in the lesson and being utterly blown away by the Australian English accents of each and every Korean tyke. Here, they’d been learning English less than 6 months and were speaking like they’d just walked out of the outback.

Two. I used to work as a steel worker. Loved walking the beams and did it throughout university and for 3 years after. One summer, we had a big project and hooked up with another team. (usually our crews were light, 3 main guys and 2 helpers). Well, this crew cursed and swore with the best of them. Every second word was “Mother this” and “F that” . I was always the gentleman but one day while visiting my sis and family, my sis pulled me onto the patio and said, “David, you got to stop speaking like that or you are going home!” I’d picked up the swear words and was giving it like the best of that crew.

I’m remembering this after watching the Sopranos for the past month. Trying to debrief and just chill a bit. Now, I must admit, I’m the only guy on the planet who has probably never seen or heard of the Sopranos. But I downloaded P2P and have finished 2 seasons so far. And I’m speaking like Tony! OMG.

Which brought me and brings me to the sneaky and indelible nature of language. It effects our language behavior and as a teacher – we really effect our students, in the time we spend with them as language models. So often, we unindelibly (is that a word, spell check say no) want to effect our student’s language and language behavior, however, language will have its own way. It will act and effect you, “indelibly”, be warned. Language is powerful – it can throw men off cliffs and make others machine gun crowds. It is a sneaky thing.

I guess that is why those Hindu’s of old used, “OM”. Best when dealing with IT, to keep IT off guard.

If interested in this, you might like this article…..


Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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3 Responses

  1. ‘sticks and stones may break your bones, but words may never hurt you’ that was the first thing that came to my mind while reading this post, and I recall it from Lullaby, an excentric book by Chuck Palahniuk, so I guess this book was quite indelible cause I read it in 2003.

    I remember me trying to emulate Italian-American English after watching the trilogy of The Godfather, and also when touring for two weeks in northeast Brazil I had picked up their intonation, sounded really awkward when I listened to a voice recording of it a month later.

    In spite of all that, this indelibility depends a lot from person to person. I have a feeble accent personality, but some of my friends spent a half-life in a foreign country and still have brazilianisms in their English.

  2. ddeubel says:

    Great story and more “proof for the pudding”.

    I think it all says something about the importance of mimicry and copying, especially when it comes to pragmatics and pronunciation. Direct instruction isn’t too effective.

    I read a great article recently about this, describing a part of the brain active in replicating virtually, the reality we encounter. I’m not a big one in believing much about what gets asserted about the brain these days but this hit me as common sense. Language that “sticks” gets replayed within and changes us.

    Your story about “sticks and stones’ even more forcefully shows how we aren’t that “in control” of our learning when it comes to language. It has its own way and power.

    You reminded me – I have to get to your blog and reply to an old post! You know how it goes, you mean to and then it just drags and suddenly you don’t!

  3. In response to your first experience: Everytime people ask me to describe my English, I always say it’s a cross between Philippine and American English / accent. What can I do? I was born and raised here in the Philippines, English is not my first language, and I was taught by different teachers. And now I’m teaching English — my English. Talk about evolution, half-breed, devolution? (Wink!)

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