We Do Language

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.– Toni Morrison

I think the reason Toni Morrison’s epigraph stands out to me so much is the oddness of the phrase “we do language.” The idea that we “do” language is really unusual to me, because I had always thought of language as something that surrounds us, that we are brought up inside of language. Maybe that’s a privilege that comes with growing up in a place where my first language (English) was the default language, where I was read to and encouraged to read. Language was something that existed all around me, not something that was done.

However, in this statement Toni Morrison presents language as a practice, as a deliberate act. And the more I thought about it, the more I considered the way language can reflect cultural norms and violences. For example, Dr. McCoy mentioned in class that she is trying to rid herself of the casual second-person plural: “You guys,” which upholds male as the default pronoun. In the same way, I’m constantly surprised by the violent undertones in my own unexamined vocabulary—the word “gypped,” someone told me recently, has its roots in an ethnic slur against Romani people. Even in my casual conversations, language does a lot more than convey my particular meaning. Words can be weighed down with a significance I have never needed to question—another privilege, maybe.

Bernice Johnson Reagon described how the Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement were always sung in the first-person “I.” She describes the pronoun “I” not as an isolation, but as an act of communal expression. According to Reagon, the pronoun “we” only provides a cover, a means for people to participate in the Freedom Songs without taking on any personal responsibility. To sing “I’m going to- I will-“ was both an act of community and an individual offering. This was such an incredibly small shift to me—“I” instead of “we”—but Bernice Johnson Reagon explained the huge shift in cultural significance, even just within those two small pronouns. Even in the most simple sentence construction, choices are being made, language is being done.

In class, we discussed the recursive quality in the definition of possession: Possession, as defined in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The America Play,” is both “the action or fact of possessing, or the condition of being possessed.” I think that in an English class, we often find ourselves thinking of language as something we can physically possess. When we read aloud, we claim “our parts.” At the same time, to participate in language asks us to participate in a structure that often goes unexamined; simply by using common language, we are being possessed, or made agents of language. My goal going forward, prompted by Toni Morrison’s words, is to engage more actively in the practice of language. I don’t want my unexamined words to continue to enforce or reflect structures of power and oppression. To consider “doing language” as an action asks us to consider agency and object—who gets to do language and who is language being done to.

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