Language Unbound

How the words we use influence how we think


In her wonderful essay on the pleasures and consolations of fiction, Zadie Smith includes an aside on how language inevitably shapes reality.

Language becomes the convenient battlefield. And language is also, literally, the “containment.” The terms we choose—or the terms we are offered—behave as containers for our ideas, necessarily shaping and determining the form of what it is we think, or think we think. Our arguments about “cultural appropriation,” for example, cannot help but be heavily influenced by the term itself. Yet we treat those two carefully chosen words as if they were elemental, neutral in themselves, handed down from the heavens. When of course they are only, like all language, a verbal container that allows the emergence of certain ideas while limiting the possibilities of others.

Hers is a perfectly clear distillation of some of the reasons why we should be much more critical and cautious of the inherited racial terms we use, like “black” and “white.” These terms indicate and help create abstract, artificial color categories that inscribe very real hierarchies throughout our social world. What would happen if we began, in a serious and collective way, to reject them? As Smith continues, “Aren’t we a little too passive in the face of inherited concepts? We allow them to think for us, and to stand as place markers when we can’t be bothered to think. What she said.

I see the irony of allowing someone else to make the point for me here, but in all seriousness: Yes, what she said!

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Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.


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