Let’s Talk About Language
I was visiting the doctor yesterday where I was told I had a “markedly deviated septum.” I will also be “prescribed a medical option.” If this does not “resolve the difficulty,” I will be “recommended to undergo nasal septal reconstructive surgery, as well as undergo bilateral partial turbinectomy.” To all the medical professionals out there, I might have to explain my frustration.
It took about 5 minutes of prying to get the doctor to simply explain that I have an old broken nose that is making breathing difficult.
Language is like a computer. It is extremely powerful. We rely on it every day, often without even realizing it. But most of us have really no idea how it works. In fact, the only time we really become aware of how computers work is when they break down or function inconveniently. After all, how many non-IS majors use computers? And how many non-linguists speak everyday?
I find it fascinating that we can understand so little about something that has had, some would argue, the greatest impact on humanity. Language can bring us together, drive us apart, it defines everything in our world, and can even change something’s meaning.
In our world, the world of The Eden Alternative, we see that few things are as powerful as language. Consider for a moment these phrases and words juxtaposed:
- Senior Citizen – Elder
- Facility – Home or Community
- CNA/Caregiver – Care Partner
- Resident – Care Partner
- Skilled Nursing Care – Person Directed Care
- Meal Time – Lunch
If the institution is what we are trying to fight, we will never succeed, as long as it is reinforced by institutional language. To describe a person as a “dementia patient” or “someone who is demented” we have effectively condensed that person to one condition, one dimension. By changing just a few words and saying instead, “a person living with dementia,” you have managed to convey to everyone (yourself, other employees, and the Elder) that they are a person, so much more than a diagnosis, by putting the person before the disease.
The state of language is in constant flux. We change it, and it changes us. We have the power to create new words or phrases, like “to google,” and to change old ones, like “peruse” (it probably doesn’t mean what you think it does). But in a similar way, language changes us. For proof of this, you need look no further than the prominence of euphemisms in our culture.
- Food Insecurity – hunger/starvation
- Force Depletion – Number of soldiers dying
- Income Inequality – People have more money than you
- Enhanced Interrogation – Torture
In every example, we see phrases that move us away from the humanity behind these concepts by burying it in jargon, the essence of institutionalism.
None of us have the power to change the system overnight, it takes time and practice. When I first started working for The Eden Alternative, I had to practice the language on a daily basis.
At my doctor’s appointment, I was dealing with a person who was clearly well-trained and well-versed in her jargon. She just suffered from a inability to connect the language to the person. Next time you speak, think not about the definition of the words, but of their meaning.