Correspondents and Dispatches from the Frontera

We Need a Whole New Language

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein

I.

Do you remember when you first learned the language of hate?

Was it in elementary school when they explained the meaning of the phrase remember the Alamo to a room full of Mexican and Mexican American kids? Or perhaps you learned the language of hate in the Church of Christ while sitting on the hardwood pews, looking up at a white Jesus hanging from the cross. All the while, the pasture explains that light is good, and darkness is evil, and you can’t help but look down at your mahogany skin.

Perhaps, you learned the language of hate when you uttered a sentence in Spanish, and your teacher reprimanded you by slapping your hand with a ruler. If you spoke in any language other than English in El Paso schools, you would be punished.

Here on the edge, on the border, the lines of language are a mess, and your language is always under scrutiny.

Language on the border has become a microcosm of examination where your economics are displayed with every sentence. And both sides love to scrutinize language. Both sides are complicit. You could say it’s a show of power. Is your English good enough to be on this side of the border? Is your Spanish good enough to be on this side of the border?

Control the language, control the people. Erase the language, erase the people.

If you destroy a people’s language, you destroy a people’s traditions and history. During the European colonization of the Americas, priests would burn our written languages, our codices, because people without a past and without a history are easier to subjugate.

In place of our Nahuatl and Uto-Aztecan languages, the colonizers enforced their languages at the point of a sword. They primed and loaded muskets and then pointed them at our ancestors before asking them to speak.

Our languages and histories were replaced with the Anglo-Frisian and Latin tongues. Our history burned in a pit and turned to ash. With that ash, the priests blessed us and ushered in a strange new language and a history not our own. Those who fought and resisted the new language were offered up to the pit of Western Civilization and sacrificed.   

“No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he or she doesn’t understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language.”

-Jacques Derrida

II.

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure theorized that there exist two types of written language.

1) an ideographic system where each word is represented by a single sign that is unrelated to the component sounds of the word itself. Each written sign stands for a whole word and, indirectly, for the idea expressed by the word. The classic example of an ideographic system of writing is Chinese.

2) The system commonly known as “phonetic” tries to reproduce the succession of sounds that make up a word. Phonetic systems are sometimes syllabic, sometimes alphabetic.  

“Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience, and written words are the symbols of spoken words.”

-Aristotle

Because of this divergence of language, words in the phonetic system are representations of sounds that represent the word of said object. For example, the word cat is a phonetic representation of the spoken word cat, which in turn represents the actual cat. While in ideographic systems, the symbol for a cat is not derived from stringing together the phonetic sounds of the actual word cat.

Western Civilization adopted the phonetic system. The proper pronunciation of the phonetics of a word determined one’s ability to properly read and write, thus exposing the inherent privilege and power structure built within Western languages.

Western Civilization’s languages are based on phonetic sounds rooted in emotion and communication: happy versus sad, good versus evil. Each of these has opposing phonetic sounds creating a binary system of language. You are either happy, or you are sad. You are either good or evil.

As Western Civilization spread, so did its power structure within the language.            

English is privileged over Spanish, and Spanish is privileged over Calo. When Western languages create an inherent privilege –in this case, one language over the other— the merits of the perceived lesser are overlooked.

Built within the English language are subtle nods to the privileges of race, religion, and social-economic status. For example, the word citizen is favored over immigrant, which is favored over illegal immigrant. In each of these words, you can see a degradation of social status and the loss of humanity for practitioners of Western Civilization’s languages.

 

Republican / Democrat. Black / White. Pro Choice / Pro Life. Citizen / Immigrant.

 

Thus, we need a whole new language because we have found ourselves trapped by the limits of the language of colonization. We need a language that builds rather than destroys our communities. A language that frees rather than enslaves. We need a language that gives back stolen land and stolen ideas. We need a language that dismantles cages. We need a language that welcomes people.

We need a language of ideas, a language of compassion, a language of empathy. We need a WHOLE NEW LANGUAGE.