Language matters – we need a hurricane of critical thinking!

We use language to make sense of the world. We create narratives to get to grips with reality. We need to see ourselves in stories to understand our past and to envisage our future. Language is the tool to let us do all this. The better we understand how language works, the better we understand our society and the world we live in. In a nutshell, that’s why I have become a linguist.

There are different views on language – and different types of linguistics. For me, a fundamental tenet is that meaning and form are associated. Language is patterned. It reflects routine behaviours. As human beings we like routines. If things work well, we will do them again. The people in the coffee shop on campus can attest to that – I always order a large latte with only two shots. And I don’t invent new ways of ordering my coffee – my order has a repeated phrase “Large latte two shots”, so much so that the nice barista often just says “The usual?” and I nod. That’s a general thing about language. We use and reuse bits of texts all the time. We recycle language. We might like to think that we are very creative but then creativity only works if there are patterns, too. Common patterns are the basis for creative language use. Or put differently, creativity is deviation from norms.

Now, the thing about common patterns is that they are so common or familiar that you likely don’t notice them anymore. Would you know how often you said “I don’t know” today? Or are you able to tell what the most frequent noun in the English language is? Well, this is where things get interesting. If we are not aware of exactly what we say – what wording we use – that’s where bias can creep in, that’s where we might perpetuate views of the world because they’ve always been like that, that’s where we might not question whether there are alternative ways of doing things. There are plenty of examples when it comes to sexism, racism, attitudes towards the environment, etc. Becoming aware of language is becoming aware of our view of the world. Awareness is the first step to positive action. When you look closely at what is said – and how it is said – that’s when critical thinking starts. Language matters! Maybe look out for some examples in your language recycling today!

A way of becoming more aware of what we say and how we say it is by counting the words and the repeated patterns we use. In today’s world, it’s not difficult to do that. A lot of language use already happens digitally and there are plenty of tools out there that track what we say. Once repeated patterns are identified there is great potential for deliberate ways of reusing them. Ultimately, what AIs like ChatGPT do is identify and recycle patterns of language use. What these tools illustrate is that frequency is part of the meaning of words and phrases. When we work out how best to use them, such tools can help us to understand patterns better. As with most things in life, there are two sides to each coin. The challenges of using AI tools deserve a whole separate post. Here just so much: the downside of the ability to track and produce masses of language patterns is that such patterns can be used to influence and even deceive people. The more people hear phrases like “a hurricane of mass migration” the more such phrases become common – they become normalised. Making divisive language the norm will lead to actual division. We do things with language. From words it’s not far to actions. The masters of propaganda have always understood this (with or without the support of AI). Equally, the masters of propaganda don’t want others to understand how language works.

So, I’d say, we’d need arts and humanities education now more then ever! And maybe a hurricane of critical thinking.

Image: Tropical Cyclone Jasmine, taken by NASA 

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