In this post I begin to look at the first of my three tribal pillars from Native America, language, since it is so fundamental to our identification with and experience of community. In subsequent posts, I will talk more about first pillar techniques that you can use to strengthen your group’s identity, but since language is such a large topic, I wanted to start with a post focused on the power of language.
We are often not conscious of how much language is a part of our communal identity. However, many are familiar with the disorienting feeling that can hit us when we are surrounded by a language we do not understand.
In the story of the Tower of Babel, God says:
Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Genesis 11:6 KJV
God destroys the powerful unity of the people by giving them all different languages, so they cannot speak with one another. This led to the destruction of the community and isolation.
If you have read any of my previous posts, you know I have a thing for 3’s. So here we go:
I had the opportunity to be an exchange student in Germany and become fluent in German. The experience of framing all my thoughts in a different language was eye opening. I realized how much the structure of a language, the vocabulary and idioms shape your perception, humor and even the connections you make. One example from German that comes to mind is the word “Schadenfreude.” It is a word that expresses the joy one finds in the misfortune of others. To me this word expresses the high value German culture places on unflinching honesty regarding the human condition.
Even though I became fluent in German rather quickly, full mastery of communication in the language took much longer. I struggled to express my sense of humor. Humor simply didn’t translate easily. It took me a very long time to get comfortable cracking jokes in my second language and I am sure many of my German friends just thought I was goofy. :D
I have begun taking classes in my tribal language, Chickasaw. Chickasaw was not a written language. It is very dynamic and there are lots of variations in vocabulary and speech. This language of my people is rich with expressions from a very different experience of the world. What time is it?: Hashi’ kanalli katohta? is a question about where the sun or moon is in its movement across the sky.
The word for chair, aaombiniili’, literally translates to “place for sitting” or “where one sits.” The word okchamali means both green and blue, the color being clear within the context of a discussion. I am still wrapping my head around the implication of the fact that colors are verbs, not nouns, in Chickasaw. Perhaps this was due to the ever changing quality of the natural world: the grass is greening, yellowing, the sky is bluing, and so on. Many of the Chickasaw in my part of the country say chokma meaning “good” as a greeting. If you say chokma to me on the street and I respond in kind, we instantly know one another, we know how we relate, what we share.
The influence of language on our perception of the world is so integrated that it is hard for us to step back and reflect upon it. Language and that shared perception ties us powerfully to one another. Some fan groups adopt a fictional language, like Klingon and fantasy languages from Tolkien, as a sign of dedication and insider status. However, language isn’t really something you can spin out of thin air and I absolutely am not suggesting anyone try!
Then there is the creation of specialty terminology. I started my career in high tech at Sun Microsystems. There were so many acronyms and technical terms, it felt like learning a new language. It took me more months than I want to admit to feel somewhat fluent in the jargon.
The first 1:23 minutes of the Leeroy Jenkins video is a great example of specialty terminology dominating communications to the point of incomprehensibility to the “outsider.” This entire video meme became insider jargon throughout the gaming community. Calling out “Leeroy Jenkins” sharpens a sense of belonging, demonstrating competence in gaming culture.
Language is not only expressed verbally but also through symbols. Consider the pictographs for writing Chinese.
Regardless of the language you speak, if you can read the symbols, you can communicate and share a common culture visually with one another.
A mystery that always irritated me is the meaning of middle ages’ still life paintings. I learned that it was believed everything in them was symbolic, that they conveyed a message. To this day, I stare at them in frustration, wishing I “spoke the language” and could “hear the story” shared with people of that time.
In addition to an exploded use in specialty terms, Twitter’s symbolic language is critical to the flow of conversation: #, @, <3, ». Twitter and texting have lead to an explosion on emoticons and other symbols. \_/> Coffee anyone? Please add more examples below in the comments. :-)
So how does a group harness the power of language to tighten communications and solidify group identification? The topic of my next post, Naming, will introduce tools that can be observed and deployed. Naming can be done intentionally and it has a profound impact on individual identification with a group or digital tribe.