Recently, in Cultural Anthropology/Linguistics 272: Language and Society, we were assigned a chapter of Laura Ahearn’s book, “Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology,” which discussed institutionalized conformity through language. It stuck like gum on the bones of my ribcage. It won’t come off.

Ahearn discusses an article by linguistic anthropologist Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” and describes how Cohn spent a year living among nuclear strategists. Ahearn notes that in this community, “(Cohn) was required to learn a new way of speaking — lots of acronyms for types of missiles, for example, and many euphemisms and abstractions for describing nuclear war.” Like babies, Cohn picked up on how, through speech, she had become a competent member of the group. She found this new way of speaking seemed to rewire her brain. For example, instead of people, weapons were most commonly the subjects of her sentences. 

Different languages and language styles work in different ways. The problem is not learning something new, but what you leave behind.

I read on: “Cohn reports that in order to be taken seriously in this social and intellectual environment, she had to learn how to speak this ‘technostrategic’ discourse — but as soon as she did, she found herself at first unable to articulate her anti-nuclear sentiments, and then, frighteningly, unable even to think about her anti-nuclear opinions.”

Here at the University of Michigan, while many of us are not going to be in direct contact with nuclear technology and therefore will not learn that specific language, we all change how we speak in order to better fit the environment. When one speaks to fit a specific environment, it is called “code-switching.” However, when people change their thoughts to fit into a different language or style of speech, their thoughts are limited as Cohn’s was among the nuclear scientists. When one feels forced to express oneself in a way that may not even allow their true thoughts, something about that situation seems potentially dangerous.

In high school, we learned there was one specific way to write an essay, an exact formula to get an idea across effectively. There was a recipe to any persuasive essay: introduction, evidence, evidence, evidence, counter-argument and conclusion (make sure you restate your thesis). College application essays should be done a proper way: Make sure you show who you are, but not too much of who you are. Make sure to use proper language, language that makes you seem like a fit candidate for academic life.

The University is no exception to the afflictions of society — the homogenizing of language undoubtedly limits the sharing of ideas on our own campus. We all begin thinking quite uniquely and change to fit whatever society we belong to — in our case, the University of Michigan — and so we cannot tell where our current ideas lack.

Together, the ideas of social scientists Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf have been combined into a commonly known, though not formally recognized, hypothesis that states: Language, thought and culture are a triad of concepts. Language influences culture and culture influences language. Both culture and language influence and are influenced by thought.

Here at the University, in particular, smaller discussions or seminar-oriented classes, I feel as if I cannot speak how I speak, but instead, I think over each of my ideas, changing them to effectively fit into an “academic-worthy” style. I think in long, varied strings, like two infinite roads that fork in opposite directions. Because of this, it takes me a while to form a concrete thought, an idea that will easily make sense to my peers. It doesn’t translate, and so I always miss my chance of being relevant, and am left wondering how what I had to say may have changed the conversation. How do we fix this learning environment where only one type of conversation — one that is fixed, fast-moving and loud — can thrive?

I can see where some may think this must be solved first by our country’s entire education system — that our educators need to teach us how to fix this. While I agree that this problem is bigger than us, it is also bigger than education. It is the cultural construct; our culture and society expect us to behave and learn and express ourselves in a very specific way. And so we do.

I am tired of being afraid that my voice — slow, clumsy and without an accent of academia — will not be taken seriously (not to mention that my participation grades are paying a cost). The only suggestion I can offer: Let’s just start talking like ourselves. In time, my English professor will understand.

Payton Luokkala can be reached at payluokk@umich.edu.

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