Word! The Language Column
A Courtship Dance with Words

Purple thought bubble with coloured dots
Children's language has a beauty of its own | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Language is, first and foremost, an exchange of information. But it can also be used for purposes of deception or disguise – or for showing off. The latter, writes Hernán D. Caro, calls to mind birds displaying their colourful plumage for effect.

By Hernán D. Caro

Language, as I learnt in school, is a complex system of signs that enables us to communicate with one another. Naturally, “us” includes animals and other living organisms, including plants and fungi. Communication is generally defined as the “exchange or transmission of information […] in various ways and by various means” (German Wikipedia) – and, we should add, for various purposes.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari observes that the emergence of language in Homo sapiens, i.e. us humans, some 70,000 years ago enabled us to do at least three things:

–  To exchange news and views on the state of the world and, on that basis, to plan collectively, e.g. to ward off natural threats
–  To talk about other individuals (especially behind their backs), i.e. to gossip, in order to bolster a sense of community and, if necessary or expedient, to expel someone from the community
–  To talk about things that are not perceptible or simply don’t exist, in other words to articulate myths, religions and other fictions, which also serve to forge a collective identity, as well as hierarchies, power and other control structures.

Deliberate deception and disguise

But language has another, extremely multifaceted function that is certainly intertwined with all the above functions in a complex way, and which I find fascinating: it is a means of disguising our thoughts and feelings and thereby distancing ourselves or, as the case may be, getting closer to other people or to reality – whatever our intentions.
This function can take various forms: Words are often used by totalitarian regimes, for instance, to euphemize atrocities, as in “Endlösung” (“Final Solution”) and “Sonderbehandlung” (“special treatment”) for bureaucratic, state-organized genocide in Nazi Germany. Or they may be used to discriminate against certain members of society, as in the use of hollow-sounding – and yet socially all too resonant! – neologisms and circumlocutions like “Mensch mit Migrationshintergrund” (literally “person with a migration background”, i.e. immigrants or their descendants) or vindictive buzzwords like “Asyltourismus” (“asylum shopping”).
This function includes political jargon, the petty lies we tell in day-to-day life, and probably much of the language of love and seduction as well, whose purpose is, after all, to create illusions with words. For more on this head, I cannot recommend highly enough literary scholar Manfred Schneider’s marvellous and mischievous study Liebe und Betrug: Die Sprache des Verlangens  (Love and Deceit: The Language of Desire). And to quote Rainer Maria Rilke: “Sieh dir die Liebenden an, / wenn erst das Bekennen begann, / wie bald sie lügen” (“Look at the lovers, / once they start confessing, / how soon they lie”).

Drop the name-dropping and try silence instead

One specific form of “deception” – if not bluffing – really gets my goat: it’s something I often observe in people, even friends and acquaintances, who work with language professionally – writers, journalists, academics – and which I probably do all the time! It’s something we often do at conferences, editorial meetings and private dinners: instead of simply seeking to foster the “exchange or transmission of information”, we often employ fancy lingo, high-falutin’ constructions and highbrow cultural references (i.e. name-dropping – which, as you can see hereinabove, we love doing most of all!) in order to impress others, to show off, or to hold our own in conversations which actually often revolve around fancy lingo and high-falutin’ constructions. All of this reminds me of the complicated courtship displays of some birds, which can be seen in many a wildlife documentary. Their acrobatic moves are our convoluted sentences, their colourful feathers our choice words, their elaborate choreographies our outlandish attempts at a mating dance.
We live in and off language: it is our currency, our credit and, for those with great skill or luck, our market appeal. And yet I sometimes dream of organizing a sort of “celebration of silence”, in which we wouldn’t be allowed to tell our eloquent guests anything or engage in argument or bend anyone’s ears, but would have to remain completely silent whilst dining or playing party games, or we’d have to come together and interact simply by looking each other in the eye for a long time. It would be exciting to see how we’d go about communicating our supposed intelligence and uniqueness then.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every four weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.