The Impact of Language

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”— Toni Morrison, 1993 Nobel Lecture


One thing we are sure of in this life, if nothing else, is that our life, at some point, will come to an end. Toni Morrison describes death as the meaning of life and language as the measure of our lives in the quote above. Upon first reading this course epigraph, I struggled with how I would tackle this quote. This could be for various reasons such as not feeling like I had the tools to respond to this quote at that certain point in time, or not wanting to search/reach out to find the tools. As the semester comes to the end and I reread the course epigraphs, I am able to recognize the beauty in Toni Morrison’s words. The various readings, discussions, and crafting of several blog posts is part of the reason I am able to finally tackle this quote, but first I am going to define language and meaning to help explain my interpretation of this quote. 

When looking up the definition of language on Google, there are three definitions that come up. I decided to define language as “a system of communication used by a particular country or community” because language comes in forms other than writing and speech. There are people who dance, draw, act, use Sign Language, etc. as their language, therefore, I believe this definition is best fit. Deciding on a definition of measure was a little more complicated when trying to compare Google definitions to how I interpreted it in the context of this quote. I decided that in this context, to measure is to “estimate or assess the extent, quality, value, or effect of (something)”. Although this definition came the closest to my interpretation of measure, it is still not a satisfying explanation. My interpretation of measure, in this context, is the way in which we carry out our lives. From the time we are born, we are able to learn through stories our families tell us, books we read in school, things we hear on the television, etc. The way we decide to interpret the information we are given is a strong determining factor in the path we end up on. Therefore, language is a strong factor that determines the way we decide to carry out our lives, the measure of our life. Focusing heavily on the novel Big Machine and our blog posts throughout the semester gave me a solid ground where I can interpret Toni Morrison’s quote.

Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle, begins with Ricky Rice receiving an invitation to Burlington, Vermont with a note attached that alluded to a promise that he had made years ago. The audience is unaware of what the promise was at the time but it was evident that it was important because it swayed his decision when choosing whether or not to accept the invitation. We later find out that after a series of events where he felt as though he failed those that he loved, Ricky promised himself to be brave. The experiences of his past, followed by the acceptance of the Washburn Library’s invitation, support Toni Morrison’s claim of language being the measure of our lives. There were class discussions where we questioned Ricky for trusting a note/invitation from people he did not know asking him to come to a place that is predominantly white when he is a person of color. Thinking of this discussion in the context of language as a measure of life, it makes more sense that he would risk trusting an unknown source when he promised himself that he would be brave and face his fears. That one promise dictated Ricky’s choices from that point on, because he wanted to dedicate the rest of his life to fulfilling that promise to himself. Language becomes even more significant in this plot when we discover towards the end of the book the reason for Ricky sharing his stories of his past life and experiences when joining the Washburn Library was to pass it along to his child. Towards the end of the novel, Ricky says “And I’m worried, let me admit that…What will you know about your father if I don’t tell it” (Big Machine, 355). This is an example of language that is passed on as a story from generation to generation that is meant to serve as a family legacy, or in Lavalle’s words, a testament. Since we have not read what happens when Ricky finally gives birth to his child, we are unsure of what this story will mean to them in the future. The scenario can go in some many different directions; the child can choose to look at their father as a role model and follow in his footsteps, or they can choose to ignore Ricky’s experiences and go through life the way they wish.

Throughout the semester, our class has been writing blog posts to reflect on different areas of the course based on our preference/what we found interesting. This is the first time I was exposed to writing a blog post, one that everyone is able to read even if they are not taking English 337, and INTD 288 since I was also registered for this class as well. Therefore, when I first starting forming these blog posts I did not take much precaution when I wrote because my focus was on appealing to the professor alone. After getting feedback from my first blog posts, I started to realize the importance of saying what I mean, leaving little room for assumptions. I had not considered how small things, such as saying “guys” in a blog post, can actually offend another individual. For example, in my very first blog post I mentioned how African American and Western European culture are completely different, which is not necessarily true. Dr. McCoy pointed out how I did not fully unpack why I made this statement or where the idea is coming from, therefore, there was room for someone else to read this blog post and possibly assume something different than what I really meant with that comment. As I look back on some of my  previous posts, I can see the change in my writing in the sense that I am starting to slow down and really unpack what I am trying to say. There are times I look back at a sentence in my blog post draft and realize that it sounds too generalized or one sided, so I reword it to make it clear that what I am stating is relevant to my own experiences. I believe that my experience with blog posts are a direct reflection of Toni Morrison’s quote because it shows the shift in my behavior as a result of language. It is not to say that before I was reckless with how I spoke or how I wrote, but these blog posts have helped me to become even more sensitive to other people’s feelings not only in writing, but in my everyday use of language.

Toni Morrison said we do language which may be the measure of our life, which I interpreted as communication having an impact on the way in which we carry out our lives. Learning more about how being too general can offend someone, simply because they are unable to get inside my head, and not only being able to apply this to my own behavior, but share it with others, shows the the influence of language on lifestyle. I have also been able to see how language can influence through Victor Lavalle’s Big Machine through the character of Ricky Rice. The way in which he used his promise to make the most out of the rest of his life, and then write his own story for his child in order to pose some type of impact on them is a  reflection of how language can be used to shape our lives. Everyday as we are learning new information and processing it, we are also deciding how to interpret it and figure out what it means to us. We can either digest the information and use it as a tool for our future and/or to influence those around us, or we can completely disregard it. Either way, language is shown to be the measure of our life because of how it can influence our lifestyles.


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