About the power of human language

Human language is what makes us human, in my view. It’s what shows the amazing power of our human minds to create, not only imagined worlds, but above all, realities. The 20th century, with its astounding development of human knowledge thanks to the development of a more observant and empathetic way to see the world (in social and natural sciences, in art — which started to look inwards and outwards in new ways –, in social movements, that flourished as a result of grasping the idea of human rights) gave us the precious idea that language is intimately connected to thought (we can’t think fully without words)  and to human relationships (society). However, we still connect violence to specific realizations of violence, and continue to be blind about the power of language in the construction of nonviolent answers to problems and about the role of language in the construction of violence in our human worlds. This does not mean we are actually incapable of seeing all of this — we do, when we look, and meditate, when we communicate, too, at times.

Identity is a key issue for humans, and the world we have created is always judging and condemning identities, creating exaggerated images of the identity we support (myths, heroes, martyrs), which leads us away from a more realistic human world. We learn that people whose identity is different are a threat and not a source of curiosity, communication and negociation. It is as if we were not able to build our identity without comparing everything to another identity group and making it clear we are better, we are right, and others are wrong. As if life were that simple! In this way, “the Other” is a threat, and the less violent action we undertake is not a true nonviolent answer: we choose to ignore all about that group, we refuse to know and learn, to communicate and negociate. Violent answers take less time.

So we have to do a lot of thinking, a lot of learning about how we use violence through language in our everyday lives.

The other day stand-up comedians came up, and I mentioned Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues (and how she managed to bring up a taboo topic which unleashed a universe of topics that were silenced just because they related to women’s experiences and in patriarchy women’s issues are second-class interest topic for knowledge, politics, history!) and Lenny Bruce’s monologue on the viciousness of words. Here is the link to that monologue. The audio is just of the first part. Unfortunately we can’t listen to him saying the final part, which is — in my view — very powerful, deeply moving. See what you think.

How can we word our views to facilitate communication with people who have different views? And coexistence! Why and when do people feel offended and justified to exert which kind of violence in “self-defence”? When people’s reaction is a problem people have with listening to different views and when is it because our wording is violent? Why refuting somebody’s ideas is felt as violence? Is there a difference between refuting ideas and using verbal violence, or conceptual violence? How can we be violent in our use of language and how can we solve problems through a nonviolent use of language? Why don’t we pay attention to the positive power of language in our everyday lives and in how we organize coexisten, society, and allow instead the negative power of language to operate at all times (but we seldom want to see/realize that)?

If you wish to explore this topic, The Power of Language, you could attempt a reasoned opinion, if you like! ❤

Last, my position against what the Real Academia de la Lengua’s role (a prescriptivist institution) in our society parts from my criticism to its cruelty — a terrible kind of cruelty because it tells people something cruel and inaccurate about language and their language, which is to say, their identity, their status in society — because traditionally it has used language in classist ways, which is not something Modern Linguistics sets to do, in contrast! That’s why I included in the pack some notions about What’s correct, functional translation and functional grammar, all of which comes from Modern Linguistics, not RAE, of course.

An interesting book to read, by linguists, and perhaps you could choose a chapter/topic, is Language Myths. Check it out (I even recorded one of its chapters) and if you want to read one of its chapters, let us know. Perhaps we can design an activity.

Language awareness: How to form negative words, from past to present (edited by teacher)


This post is aimed at expanding a bit what we discussed the other day about the origin of negative prefixes. / This post intends to clarify a bit what we were discussing the other day in class about… Well, let’s start by revising how we form (indirect question) words in English. The English language (and probably most languages in the world) has three main* ways of creating (coining is the technical term, really posh) new words:

  1. By adding an affix to a root or base, see:

e.g. unhappyly

The particle that goes before the base happy, is a prefix, and the one that goes after is a suffix. The former changes the meaning of the base (in this case the opposite meaning), the latter changes the category of the word, from an adjective to an adverb.

So far so good?

  1. By changing the word-class of the base, without modifying the word, see:

a happy person (adjective)        The happy is dancing (noun)

  1. By combining two bases, i.e. forming compound words:

the happy-hour

Now, we will focus on the first possibility, which is one of the commonest mechanisms to create new words, and particularly we will refer to the case of negative prefixes. To do this, I have necessarily to tell you something about the history of English. So, let’s travel back in time.

The English that we know and use today is like a salad with three main ingredients: An Anglo-Saxon syntactic core, plus the addition of few but very frequent Norse (Viking) words, all this dressed with an avalanche of Latin and French words introduced after the Norman conquest in 1066 (this is another story). So, if you think for a moment about ten or twenty English words, you will discover that many of them sound really familiar, really close to Spanish. Bingo, they come from Latin or French which are Romance languages too. So, those words (or part of words, like prefixes), coming from Anglo-Saxon and Norse, are considered native of English, while those coming from other languages, e.g. Latin, French, German, are considered non-natives of English. Going back to negative prefixes, there are five possibilities to “reverse”  the meaning of a particular word  in Present-day English:

a-, as in asymmetrical. It comes from Greek, used mostly in technical words.

dis-, as in dislike, it comes from French (also de-, as in debone)

in-, as in incompetent. It also comes from French (it also could appear as il-, ir-, im-, as in illiterate, irregular, impossible)

non-, as in non-sense, guess what? yes, you are right, French/Latin origin.

un-, as in uncountable, the only negative prefix authentically English.

Normally, but not always, the non-native prefixes, i.e. a-, dis-, in-, and non-, occur attached to non-native words (those that were “imported” from other languages). On the other hand, the native prefix un- can be combined with native and non-native bases. Why? Well, there is not a straightforward answer, but basically this is because non-native prefixes entered in English as part of foreign words, e.g. incomplete (from French incomplete), and therefore speakers generally associated that prefix to a non-native word. Once the word was made so common in English, speakers started to use the same prefix in combination with other bases, but normally from the same origin. On the contrary, the native prefix un- was always in the mind of English speakers, they knew its negative meaning, hence they used ­un- to form negative words or to express the opposite action of a verb (reversative meaning), i.e. do vs. undo. So, for native speakers this form was freely re-usable with native and non-native words.

The problem is that there is not a rule** to know whether a base combines with a native or a non-native prefix, just like what happened the other day with unpolite* and impolite. As I said before, generally non-native prefixes occur with non-native bases, but there are exceptions as in dislike, or distrust, among others. So, if the word sounds similar to Spanish you could guess that it can be combined with a non-native negative prefix, but this is not always true, because un- can be attached to non-native bases too. Then, we have no option but to look the word up in the dictionary. To make things worse, occasionally some bases combine with two different prefixes, e.g. undigested (adj.) and indigestion (noun). This occurs because at some point in the history of English the same base was used with both prefixes, they competed, and eventually both forms remained in the language though with different use and/or meaning.  Last but not least, it is necessary to bear in mind that some of these prefixes have other meanings too, for instance in- is also used with the sense of ‘in, within, internal’, as in inside; and dis- occurs with verbs “having already a sense of division” as in disjoint (information obtained from the Oxford English Dictionary online, OED,

The following table shows some of the most common words in news published online for each case (source: The NOW corpus (News on the Web) contains 3.3 billion words of data from web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present time,

I hope you enjoyed the post, and find it useful!♥

Un- Dis- in- Non a-
Unfortunately Discovered Inappropriate Non-profit Atypical
Unlike/ly Disclosure Inevitable/bly Non-governmental Apolitical
Unable Disorder inequality Non-existent Asymmetrical
Unusual Disable inadequate Non-stop Ahistorical
unknown Disagree independently Non-fiction Abiological
Unemployment Disappeared inaccuracy Non-exclusive
Unveiled Disability inconvenience Non-violent
Unprecedented Displaced Incorrect Non-compliance
Unfair Disadvantage inconsistent Non-resident
Unexpected disregard Indirectly Non-traditional
Unclear discharge Insane Non-commercial
Uncertainty Dissatisfied insufficient Non-native
Unnecessary Discomfort intolerance
Uncomfortable Disproportionate ineffective
Unhappy Disqualified
Unlimited Disconnect
Unaware Dislike
Uncovered Discontent
Unrest Dishonest
Unlawful Dismantle
Unbelievable disrespectful

* There are more ways to create words – see my workshop on Lexical Creativity)
** Well, many languages don’t have Royal Academies establishing rules, and this happens in English-speaking countries, and this is not a problem. Linguists (people who study the language scientifically) create dictionaries, and that is why English dictionaries are so good: they include the words people use, and the spellings that are being used, and the meanings that are being used, in contrast to what prescriptivists like those in Spanish-speaking Royal Academies do — an anachronism in the world of Modern Linguistics. The problem is not that there are no rules, the “problem” if we should call it so, is that human languages are a wonder of creativity, and that languages change all the times depending on use, not on rules. Life is full of “irregular” processes! Do you see what I mean? Let me know or post comments here, on this too, if you like! 🙂 So — the most truthful, accurate, useful approach in language learning is knowing there are tendencies and also lots of exceptions! 😀

Last, I deleted “the” in the title (from the past to the present) not because it’s wrong, it isn’t, but because it’s a post title and we tend to leave out “small words” to make that shorter.