linguistic labels and all that jazz

I guess I never really thought about how we establish sociocultural boundaries using linguistic labels, but now that I have begun I can see that these labels really influence my interaction with my environment, and I can see that in others, too.  I mean, apparently all Russians speak Russian, right?  The people of France are French and speak French, right?  The people of American are American and all speak American, right?  Oh, wait.  That’s not right.  We speak English.  Well, I speak English.  Some of my neighbors speak Mexican…er…Spanish.  So, I must have come from England.  I don’t know where my neighbors came from.  Some place….probably Spain.  Wait!  I didn’t come from England.  My ancestors came from the Netherlands.

So, herein lies the problem.  There is no denying that we use linguistic labels for people, even ourselves.  Those labels, however, can carry a lot of baggage along with them.  Post 9/11, if you carried the label “Arabic,” you must have been from one of those America-hating middle-eastern countries that was out to blow us all up.  Please never-mind that countries like Kuwait (remember poor little Kuwait?) also speak Arabic.  Or, remember when the nation of France gave us grief over military operations in Iraq?  Everyone that spoke French or had a French sounding name or said “French fries” was a damn frog and too anti-American to stomach.

It’s human nature to create mental groups.  In “The Great Divide” by Zerubavel, lumping and splitting are described as ways in which people group entities as similar and separate entities as different.  Linguistic labels are just one of the ways that we create lump and split people into mental groups.  I may be the only English speaker on the block with 19 other families who I have labeled differently (Hispanic, French, Russian, etc.).  It would be very easy…and it is very common…for me to separate myself from those people proximal to me and lump myself with English speakers elsewhere.  Because of my linguistic labeling, I may not interact with my neighbors at all.  At the same time, I may feel a sense of community toward people I have never met merely because we are both “English speakers.”

I guess it’s pretty easy to see the problems with using linguistic labels.  It’s also important to point out that these labels are also useful.  I have this daydream of just taking off one day and seeing where the wind flies me too.  It could be anywhere.  It could be in Kazakhstan.  Sounds nice except I don’t speak Kazakh.  It would really good to know where one of those “English speakers” was when I landed in Kazakhstan.  In the same way, it’s also good to recognize that although a lot of the stereotypes that go along with linguistic labeling are a pile of …well…stuff that piles, linguistic labeling can rightly lead us to recognizing individual differences that can cause breakdowns in communication (even more so than language barriers).  Linguistic labeling can cause us to investigate cultural idiosyncrasies; not only in others, but in ourselves.

It’s pretty easy to think about linguistic labeling in my personal life, but it almost feels like tattling.  So, I’ll let it go.  On the professional side, however, I have seen linguistic labeling in a few specific cases.  In one case, a bilingual family with Mexican heritage moved into the area.  There was some talk about expanding our collections to include Spanish language offerings.  It was discounted completely, and is one of those unspoken conversations now.  “We don’t talk about [the grandpa that cheated, the aunt that joined the circus, daughter’s drug problem, the Hispanics underserved by the library].  In another instance, a group of oriental gentlemen came into the library to use the computers.  I’m not sure where they were from, or why they were in nowhere, Indiana.  That’s the point.  I never talked to them.    Neither did anyone else except to point to the computers.  Pretty unusual.  Usually we’re falling over ourselves to make sure people know how to use Google Maps and whatever else they need.  Why not them?  Those Japanese know their way around computers pretty good.  Or Chinese.  Or Korean.  We, including me, allowed our linguistic labeling to affect our interaction with these men.

I’d like to say that now that I’m more acutely aware of how we use linguistic labeling to lump and split, I’ll try harder to actually forgo this specific type of characterization unless it’s necessary.  It seems just as important to become “tone deaf” as it is to be “color blind.”  I’d like to say that I have the capacity to be both.  I’m not sure though.  I’m not sure that I can be sure.  So, I think I’ll just hope and practice.  That seems to be how we build skill anyway.


One thought on “linguistic labels and all that jazz

  1. Josh says:

    Even in this entry, you stumble on the issue of labels, perhaps unknowingly. You say “orientals” but is that the right term or “Asians” or “Asian Americans” or…..

    It’s a difficult and fuzzy notion that we label, one that helps and hurts. But it is somethign that we must deal with.

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