Talk Matters #1 - Taken for granted assumptions

This is the first of a series of postings that are concerned with talk – language in use.  The focus of the series is the language that masks the institutional racism imposed by colonists making it seem a natural state of affairs that we can do nothing about.  For that reason I start by sketching why language in use is important.  

It’s very easy to overlook the effect of words - most of us do that most of the time. It’s as if we think words and language are simply convenient labels for people, events and situations that we already know about.  That way of thinking about words and language makes sense, so much so it seems obvious yet there are serious problems with it.  Most important of those problems is the presumption that our knowledge about a person, an event, or a situation is separate from or exists apart from any talk about it.

 head in sand


Think about that taken for granted assumption.  All the time we are getting information about the world around us that includes the people, events and situations we meet and are in.  That information, that data, comes through our senses that detect or respond to the flows of various forms of energy.  And energy flows, unlike airline luggage, do not carry tags explaining who they belong to, where they came from, or where they are meant to be going.  All that labelling, sorting, and interpreting – converting the energy data into comprehensible information – goes on in our brains.


Whatever language or languages we use provide both the foundations and the means for making those energy flows comprehensible.  The processes are so slick: we ‘see’ this person is young, male, off-colour …, it’s difficult to imagine there is any processing involved.  It is easy to understand why so many people choose to accept the idea that our senses tell us all these things directly.  Fortunately, there are ways to test that assumption.  Just think of an occasion when you were in unfamiliar surroundings: with people you had just met, in a new town or part of the country, or perhaps overseas, where people were doing something you didn’t understand.  At those times you were probably aware that of struggling to make sense of what you saw, heard and felt.  Making sense involves classifying what is going on: is this a dance, a fight, or an act?  Is this person shy, angry with me or do they expect me to do something? What are they doing? What am I meant to do? All these questions are about trying to find the right categories because we understand people, events, and situations by classifying.  It’s like a doctor looking for a diagnosis that will provide the basis of their treatment.


That’s why, all around the world there are growing numbers of people who recognise that how we experience our world, how we know each other, how we understand events and situations, is grounded in the languages we speak which, of course we learnt from those around us who used them and those speakers learnt those languages from the speakers around them.  Those languages provided categories and ways of knowing the world that we grew into using – it is as if we always live in a world that is spoken into being.


 Dr Raymond Nairn




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