Language is our most democratic tool

By Studio
12 October 2019
4 min read
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We spoke with Vera Gheno about the Power of Words

Language is the House of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.

With these three short sentences from his 1946 “Letter on Humanism”, German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, stated that discursiveness and being are not identical but are in fact, equivalent. In his opinion, language is much more than just a tool that is ready-in-hand for our personal use. More specifically, we indeed live in our language — that is, we live the lives it dictates.

In conclusion, we are discursive beings.

While this may seem obvious, it is undeniable that language — what distinguishes us from most other animals — has always been, first of all, a means of communication between beings. A tool used to declare war or announce peace, to marry two people or finalize a divorce, to let someone live or sentence them to death.

In this role, our words have become increasingly encoded, creating sometimes a prison that diminishes our potential for mutual interaction. Just think about the way a lot of people, from all walks of life, consider the dictionary: a sort of codex that dictates the rules of their respective language. A weapon to point at the enemy to strictly correct her/his mistakes.

Credits: Shutterstock

For the sake of clarity on this issue, we, at Imille, invited Vera Gheno, “a wandering Sociolinguist” specialized in computer-mediated communication, to one of our Digital Heroes Talks held in Italy. Vera teaches linguistics at the University of Florence, translates from Hungarian and has worked, for many years, with Accademia della Crusca (the most important center of scientific research dedicated to the study and promotion of the Italian language) handling, in particular, its social media presence. Through this and her other experiences, Gheno has followed — and is still following — the debate on the contemporary development of the House of Being. The title of her last book is, not surprisingly, «Potere alle parole».

The central idea of her work is this: the better use of a skill that is at our disposal, language, giving us more power in our everyday lives. The main problem that she diagnosed is that we take our linguistic expertise for granted, we usually don’t pay attention to how we speak and write (probably only the most creative of us are actually capable of doing this) and (as if that’s not hard enough) not exploiting all the possibilities of speech, this way.

Those whom Vera Gheno considers her teachers — Lorenzo Milani, a Roman Catholic priest and educator of disadvantaged youth and Tullio De Mauro, an Italian professor emeritus of linguistics and current politician — have always affirmed the importance of the so-called Democratic Linguistic Educationa series of policies and practices sought to address the injustices that exist in language pedagogy. A matter essential to act as a principle of equal dignity for all citizens, as ratified by the 3rd article of Italian Constitution: «It is the duty of the Republic to remove those obstacles of an economic or social nature which constrain the freedom and equality of citizens, thereby impeding the full development of the human person […]»

This is valid also at an international level. The Education for All Global Monitoring Report published by UNESCO is clear and eloquent, affirming that «the empowering potential of literacy can translate into increased political participation and thus contribute to the quality of public policies and to democracy», especially for the youth and adults.

The practice of literacy may also produce other kinds of benefits, related to factors such as improved self-esteem, empowerment — especially in women — creativity and critical reflection. These “human” benefits are intrinsically valuable and may also be instrumental in realizing the social benefits of literacy: improved health (also in terms of infant mortality), increased political participation, gender equality and so on. (UNESCO, Education for All Global Monitoring Report, 2006)

Moreover (as anyone working in communication should be particularly aware of), possessing a literacy suitable to its context is a precondition to actively participating in the current multimedia information society in which we all are drowning in together.

Enjoy the interview below with Vera Gheno, recorded during our Digital Heroes Talk (original audio in Italian, subtitles in English).

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