Last Updated 02 Apr 2020

The Power of Language: Overview

Category Language, Slang
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Language is to power as words are to books, with one comes the other. The use of language correctly and fluently gives the speaker power over others; this brings about a moral obligation to use the power given correctly, as well as an opportunity to help others in many different ways. Malcolm X’s autobiographical essay, “Coming to and Awareness of Language”, William Lutz’s “Doublespeak”, and Gloria Naylor’s “Meanings of a Word” are all on the subject of language and power and how that power can be used.

They all talk about context, all use personal examples, all are trying to teach or inform, and all only use their own personal learning. They differ in their approaches to writing and the audiences they are trying to reach. All three of the writers talk about how language gives one power and how that power can be used. Malcolm X talks about how he needed to learn to use language because he was trying to reach men in power (X 22).

He knew that for him to gain any sort of sway or compulsion over these men in power that he would have to get an education; he describes this process as “slow” and “painstaking”, also saying that he duplicated the first page of the dictionary and it took him an entire day accomplish this small task (X 23). Gloria Naylor states that the use of the N-word by African-Americans was a way for them to take a word used to degrade them and turn it into something of a compliment or a group term for people who had broken the social norm (Naylor 127).

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She tells the reader how her family used the word to either commend a man for being successful in something or using it as a term to identify those who “overstepped the bounds of decency” (Naylor 127). William Lutz asserts that doublespeak is a way to get around the meaning of a word, or a way to confuse someone (176-181). Lutz provides four distinct types of doublespeak: euphemism, jargon, gobbledygook or bureaucratese, and inflated language (176-178). He also says that the use of doublespeak is almost always to deceive; therefore, the use of doublespeak is deplorable and should be avoided (179).

The use of doublespeak to mislead people should be abhorred by all. The usage of doublespeak to deliberately misinform is a complete misuse of the power of language. An example of this use of doublespeak would be if a car mechanic used jargon, which is a specialized language within a group of professionals, when talking to a customer to deliberately confuse him/her (Lutz 177). Another example Lutz uses is the gobbledygook/bureaucratese, or “piling on or overwhelming the audience with words”, used most commonly by politicians to dodge answering questions (178).

This technique of using gobbledygook or bureaucratese to dodge answering questions is commonly used when a difficult question is asked of the official; this is evidenced by the response of Jesse Moore when asked about the Challenger catastrophe, Mr. Moore replied with a paragraph of jargon spliced in with gobbledygook so that he appeared to have answered the question when he had in-fact completely confused and distracted the audience (Lutz 178). Naylor also discusses the misuse of the power of language in her essay when she references the little third grade boy calling her the N-word (126).

This is a misuse of the power of language because the boy knows that that particular word is used to degrade and hurt black people. Even though the N-word was turned into an empowering word by Naylor’s family, it should not be used at all (Naylor 127). Naylor’s family’s use of the N-word shows the reader how important context is. Use of the N-word among her family members was ok because they were using it as a tool of emancipation from the oppressive use of the word by whites (127).

Used by a white person this word is completely derogatory, this is because the word is not used in the correct context. The only correct context in which this word can be used is when a black individual is talking about someone in a complimentary manner or referencing a group of people that have done something bad (Naylor 127). The context that doublespeak is used in is very important as doublespeak can be used in the correct context and not be a misuse of language.

This context would be using jargon amongst one’s peers in a profession or using inflated language to make a jest of a less than savory job such as saying sanitation engineer instead of garbage man/woman (Lutz 179). On the other hand, using doublespeak in the correct context can also be a misuse of the power of language. Lutz makes this clear when he tells of how Chrysler called firing 5,000 workers “[initiating] a career alternative enhancement program. (179)” Malcolm X’s essay is the best example of when and where to use what type of language.

He relates his experiences of when he did not know to speak proper English and attempted to write to men in power (X 22). He could not accurately convey his feelings in his letters because he could only speak in street slang, this use of street slang would have been acceptable if the men he was trying to reach were also black men from Harlem, instead they were white men in positions of power (X 22). Even when he was trying to reach other black men from Harlem, he could not write effectively because the language he was using was not something that could easily be put into a coherent written structure (X 23).

This is an example of using language in the wrong context because a letter was not the place for the type of language he was capable of using, but once he learned by writing and reading the dictionary he was entirely capable of using language in a letter and this gave Mr. X power (X 24). The reason that X was trying to reach his friends in Harlem even when he couldn’t write was to inform them of the teachings of a man called Elijah Muhammad (23). Once he became educated he began to write more coherently, he was able to inform people once again.

This time instead of telling them about Mr. Muhammad, he wrote about his own life and learning experience to show others that it can be done (X 24). Naylor also wrote her essay to inform others but she wrote to show how a word can affect “the human psyche (Naylor 125). ” She explains that her family and other black people used the N-word as a way to throw off the oppressiveness of the word (Naylor 127). In the same way, Lutz tries is explaining to the world how doublespeak can affect them.

Lutz says that instead of helping to “develop and advance”, doublespeak breeds “suspicion… and, ultimately, hostility (Lutz 179). ” All of the author’s purpose is to inform and teach but to do this they had to learn something also. Malcolm X learned in prison that language in context is very important, he couldn’t speak the way he did to his friends in Harlem the same way as he could when he was trying to write letters to men in power (22). Lutz had to learn to identify each different type of doublespeak so that he could tell where they were appropriate and where they were not appropriate (Lutz 175-179).

Naylor learned through her family the different ways the N-word could be used but she had to learn from a little white boy how it could hurt her (126). She tells the reader that used in the correct context, the N-word can be uplifting (127). To inform people of something important the authors had to choose the correct audience for their papers. Each author chose a different audience with the hope of informing that specific demographic on an issue that affected them most. For example, X wrote an autobiography that he knew many other black men would read.

In his essay he talks about how his appearance of education is entirely due to “my prison studies,” this is showing that if he can do it in prison then anyone can do it (X 23). Another example of this is on a broader spectrum is Lutz’s essay, which was written for everyone. Lutz provides information that is easy to understand, such as examples of doublespeak and ways to spot doublespeak effectively; making his essay easy to understand for anyone who can read (175-179). Each author’s examples provide information regarding to language used in the correct context.

Lutz’s examples of doublespeak are all aimed at showing the dangers of doublespeak when it is used in the wrong context, he talks about politicians using it to confuse the population and professionals using it to mislead their customers (177-178). X’s examples show that to communicate effectively he had to learn a new language because the men he was trying to reach didn’t speak his street slang (23). He couldn’t use his normal language in the context he was attempting to write in without being ignored (X 22).

Malcolm X’s essay shows the world why language is so important; without the power of language it is easy to be ignored or forgotten. Malcolm himself is a perfect example of this, he went from being a random hustler on the streets to being one of the most influential men of the 20th century. Without the power of language he would have been widely ignored and forgotten about in time but because he used language so powerfully he will be remembered forever. Without language one cannot have power and without power one cannot be successful or go anywhere in life. Without the power to change people one can do almost nothing in the world.

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