Words have power. Image Source: Laurent Francois

The disagreement if whether or not language exists independently from politics is little to none. Conservatives think that language per se is free from politics but they do agree that the attitude of people toward the use of language is strongly political.

The Nature of Language

Is language really responsible for shaping the ideologies of this world? Or are ideologies responsible for shaping language? Is language a stable system of signs as Ferdinand de Saussure has established in his theory of structuralism? — Particularly called “linguistic turn” or is it instead unstable based on Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction? Though Saussure and Derrida might have opposing views about language’s structure, they do run parallel on the idea that the way we make meaning or sense of language is through differences.

The nature of language is also tackled by Foucault whereby he conceptualizes it as “discourse”. Discourse has varying definitions—it is either defined as a conversation or discussion. It can also pertain to the process of rational thinking or in Descartes’ case, discourse is considered as a systematic written document about a particular field. Foucault, just like Gramsci does not exclude the activities of daily life, as well as institutions from politics. In Foucault’s case, he used language specifically discourse to describe various objects from everyday life and from fields like medicine, sexuality and biology. Meanwhile in Gramsci’s case, many debates also exist surrounding his notions of power relations—including those who think that he is preoccupied with Marxism (economy and production) and that his writings are not suitable for understanding “new social movements” because of the assumption that the proletariat or working class should be the leaders for any revolutionary change. These debates all follow from the premise that language is a non-material entity as opposed to the economy, production and commodities which are considered non-linguistic, material entities (Language and Hegemony in Gramsci, 2004).

Hence, language, though agreed upon as political is still mired in the issues of how it’s supposed to be defined, analyzed and utilized.

Culture, Power, Meaning and Language

Needless to say, English—which has become the language of capitalism is considered one of the most prominent effects of globalization. Then again, it depends on one’s perception and place on the world (relativism) if English is used as a tool for oppression or modernization.

With English considered as the global language—some questions have popped up with regard to its nature. Is language (i.e. English) transformed by culture? Or is culture responsible for the transformation of language? As in the case of the politics of language, some argue that the English language has been sullied due to politics. For instance, George Orwell in his essay, “Politics and the English Language” written in 1946 mentioned that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” With this in mind, we can safely think that the way people communicate affects the way they act and thus, it also affects how culture is transformed. Or to consider the other side, the kind of culture people have, the way they act and the way they communicate clearly reflects what and how they think. Orwell therefore in his time, was not only criticizing the degenerating quality of the English language used in political speeches, statements, writings or debates but he was in fact, targeting politicians themselves whom he considered as vague and only out there to please.

In a sense, Orwell makes a good point about political language may it be in speech or writing. Gramsci also actually noted how language usage is influenced both by state and non-state actions/activities in civil society. Gramsci actually distinguishes between two grammars, the spontaneous grammar and the normative grammar. This is in relation to how Gramsci uses language to understand consent and coercion which are important to his theory of hegemony. It simply explains how the language structure enables humans to spontaneously express their freedom or creativity but at the same time, the existing norms also inhibit us and in other words, we cannot operate in a vacuum. Individuals are allowed to introduce unheard of or new concepts and can even provide or shift political realities through the use of language but not within the constraints of the existing language. Doing so might cause a misunderstanding or miscommunication if we cannot adapt to the cultural nuances of a language. Such dynamics welcome the barrage of meanings that can necessarily affect how people view one another.

Speaking of meanings, this is where Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of language games comes in. Wittgenstein in his first book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) argued that for sentences to obtain meaning, must have a logical structure which can be broken down into atomic parts and be based on empirical evidence or facts. Sentences which cannot be broken down in a logical manner and cannot be corresponded to simple objects or facts are considered meaningless. But after a few years, he had come to be critical of his earlier work as seen in his succeeding work—Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein here changed his argument into maintaining that language meanings cannot be found between the simple connections between words and simple objects but rather how words are used in the language. He thought up the idea of language games where words gain meaning according to its relations to the other words within a system, a game or in other words, the set of rules or norms and practices in that culture.

Language and Policy-making

After briefly discussing the nature and various theories of how language operates and the possible explanations as to how it is integral to politics, the concrete question remains: “Can language pave the way for or get in the way of policy-making?”

Going back to the concept of globalization, there is at present the struggle between which language should be used in order to communicate effectively in the international arena. Even within alliances such as the European Union, there is the existing debate if English should be the standard language used by its members. Some critics have mentioned how the English as the standard would only cause further inequality among the members. This issue is not an isolated case. In many countries which use English in almost every aspect of life, there exists the problem of marginal exclusion of minorities. Particularly for countries which have more than one language and a number of dialects, it has been a problem since it causes domination of another language over the other in favor of global competency.

This problem of language domination is just the tip of the iceberg especially in the international arena where different contexts, histories and other linguistic challenges exist making future policy discussions and reaching agreements more difficult. The power of language is unwieldy yet it is also a tool easy to manipulate. With the presence of organizations and alliances, countries and its people will have to invest more time and effort in actually listening to each other carefully, instead of just having endless ‘talks’ in order to establish a cross-cultural understanding of shared meanings and language.