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Exploring the Alienating Power of Language


Language is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of social life, if not the most important. Like breathing, interacting through language is essential, yet so natural as to go unnoticed. In most people's daily lives, its role as a social connector and the power of communication it gives to human beings are generally taken for granted. This widespread indifference to the importance of language only fades when obstacles stand in the way of its ultimate goal, which is, indeed, communication. As long as you are able to go to the grocery store and come back home without any hassle or misunderstanding, everything is perfectly fine; but if you go shopping and you can't find what you're looking for because everything is in another language and you don't even know how to ask someone for help, then you just go home with a bag full of frustration. That same feeling can be experienced even in the comfort of your own country, within your mother tongue, when you can't find the words to express your thoughts or your deepest emotions. So, when for some reason you are unable to communicate, whether it be expressing your thoughts or understanding those of your interlocutor, then you are experiencing linguistic alienation. It is in these moments that the vital importance of language and communication is acknowledged. Linguistic alienation is therefore an important key to understanding the relationship between language, identity, and social inclusion. It is essential to define this phenomenon in its multiple facets and definitions, from the strictly literary and philosophical to the more scientific and social ones.



"Have you ever been aware of your own alienation from language? Did you ever think that words failed to express the real nature of your feelings? Or that some discourse had any control over your thoughts, knowledge, and freedom?" (LAU Professors, 2016). The questions asked by several professors at the Lebanese American University are essential to understand what linguistic alienation is. The second question clearly relates to the most philosophical and poetic meaning of linguistic alienation, in its most Dantean declination, while the third question can be related to wider social issues such as racism, colonialism, or the political control of language by totalitarian systems. Both questions are rooted in the definition of linguistic alienation given by the philologist Dorota Chabrajska: "the condition we deal with whenever language stops being a safe ground for an exchange of ideas" (Chabrajska, 2021). In this definition, "safe" can be understood both in the sense of "efficient" or "effective" –as she clarifies in her paper– and in the sense of "harm" or "danger-free" –its primary meaning.

To analyze the more philosophical and poetical meaning of the phenomenon in question, it is useful to consider Dante. Someone unfamiliar with Italian literature might wonder what Dante has to do with linguistic alienation. First of all, other than being a poet and one of the highest representatives of Italian literature, Dante was an eminent linguist, considered the father of the Italian language (Barański & Gilson, 2019). Secondly, in The Divine Comedy, as well as in the rest of his literary production, he wrote extensively about the very concept of "ineffability". As explained in the Dizionario Dantesco, the poet identifies two types of ineffability: "one is the inadequacy of understanding of the intellect" (Conv. 3. 12-13), "the other is the impossibility of fully expressing what the intellect understands (Conv. 3. 15)" (Murro, 2019). To him, ineffable is his love for Beatrice, comparable only to the divine. As he explains in his poetic work, he cannot fully comprehend both phenomena and therefore cannot fully explain them, even through poetry (Murro, 2019). In the cantica Paradiso, in Canto XXXIII, when he describes the moment Beatrice finally leads him to the Trinity and he sees it himself, he tries to report in words, but he can only grasp an infinitesimal part of what he experienced. These are his words: "Oh, how, to my conception, short and weak / is speech! And this, to what I saw, is such, / that it is not enough to call it small." (Paradiso, XXXIII).


Figure 1. Dante Ascends To Heaven With Beatrice (Crane, 1900).

Dante's ineffability is therefore an experience of linguistic alienation. In fact, the same concept is expressed by professors at LAU who claim, though in a less poetic way, that "words are often reductive and inadequate to transport and fully represent genuine feelings" (LAU Professors, 2016). While Dante was able to turn his experience of ineffability into a literary masterpiece, for many people it is only a source of discomfort with negative consequences (Gay, 1998). At a social level, ineffability (or linguistic alienation) occurs in various ways, ranging from the simple "I can't find the words" to more or less serious cultural phenomena related to racial or generational differences, such as colonialism or generation gaps concerning language. Leaving aside the relatively less traumatic or subjective experiences of linguistic alienation, such as the individual experience of going to the grocery store abroad and not being able to buy anything, an interesting example of a wide experience of alienation is colonialism. The phenomenon of linguistic alienation as it relates to colonial exploitation refers to the deliberate imposition of the colonizer's language on the colonized population. This imposition of an alien language disconnects the colonized people from their own cultural heritage and establishes the colonizer's dominance in the new territory. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has pointed out that language is not only a tool of communication but also a repository of memory (N.W. Thiong’o, 2008). Without a shared language, a community cannot navigate its relationship to nature or each other, nor can it connect with its own history or identity. The oppressors recognized this and aimed to destroy the linguistic and cultural memory of the local populations (Sen, 2012). As a result, in order to fully participate in the colonizer's world, they often had to first adopt their oppressors' language and culture. This could lead to the internalization of a sense of inferiority, as their own cultural heritage was worthless in the eyes of the colonizer (Sen, 2012).



Figure 2. Young African students at school (n.d.).

Under colonialism, linguistic alienation occurred horizontally, through the barrier of a completely different language and culture. But there are also more vertical manifestations of linguistic alienation, which happen within the same language: you may feel alienated by constructions of your own language that you may not understand, and this can happen to anyone, with the technical language of a sector they do not know, political and institutional language, as well as towards the language of a different generation (Gay, 1998). Author David Shariatmadari discusses the latter in his book Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth about Language, in which he debunks several myths about language, including the common idea that younger generations are responsible for a linguistic decline. He explains that “there is no such thing as linguistic decline”, and that this notion is a historical artifact used by older people to hide their fear of change, using young people as scapegoats (Shariatmadari, 2020). Because of their greater dynamism, "younger people tend to be the ones who innovate in all aspects of life: fashion, music, art. Language is no different." Thus older people, who watch the language they learned in their youth crumbling before their eyes, experience "major linguistic disorientation" and channel this negative feeling into criticism and complaints about linguistic decline. This reluctance to change is well depicted by the following Douglas's quote reported in the book:

  1. "Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary.

  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things." (Shariatmadari, 2020)


Figure 3. Generations (Duayer, 2014).

As Shariatmadari says, all languages ​​evolve continuously, and also very quickly compared to the slow process of biological evolution. So, "it's the speed of the change, within our own short lives, that creates the illusion of decline." (Shariatmadari, 2020). And this should be acknowledged by those in charge of academic institutions as well, who, like Shariatmadari points out, are often from older generations and very reluctant to linguistic changes. Examples of this fear can be found in any culture, from the English-speaking world and the academic devotion to the so-called "Queen's English", which is supposed to be the correct, more polished but also quite old way of speaking the language, to the French corridors of the Académie Française, the national institution entrusted with the regulation and protection of the French language. The traditional Académie tends to stick to a conservative form of French: less open to linguistic innovations, this institution turns a blind eye to the ever-evolving nature of language. The artificial and polished language of institutions is very different from the common language and creates a growing distance between the institutional world and the rest of society. In fact, alienation from the institutional language used by most politicians is one of the causes of the increasing apathy that people have toward politics. And when politicians and common citizens speak different languages, this can only spiral into major social repercussions.


As we have seen up to this point, the phenomenon of linguistic alienation is multifaceted and can be experienced in various ways, as it is not only a philosophical or poetic concept but also a social issue that affects people in many ways, from personal feelings to social struggles. The importance of language and communication is often taken for granted until obstacles are encountered, hindering expression or understanding. The experience of linguistic alienation is a key factor in understanding the relationship between language, identity, and social inclusion. Whether it occurs through the inadequacy of language to express genuine feelings or the deliberate imposition of a colonizer's language on the local population, linguistic alienation is a significant barrier to communication and cultural understanding. It is essential to recognize and define this phenomenon in order to create a more inclusive and peaceful society.



Bibliographical references

Linguistic alienation | LAU News. (2016). LAU | News. URL: https://www.lau.edu.lb/news-events/news/archive/linguistic_alienation/


Chabrajska, D. (2021). From the Editors. Alienation from Language? ETHOS, 34, n. 2 (134), e-ISSN 2720-5355. URL: http://www.ethos.lublin.pl/index.php?mod=products&pid=100821&mid=9&mref=404&lng=6&lng=6.


Gay, W. C. (1998). Exposing and overcoming linguistic alienation and linguistic violence. Philosophy & Social Criticism. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249625292_Exposing_and_overcoming_linguistic_alienation_and_linguistic_violence


Barański, Zygmunt G.; Gilson, Simon, eds. (2018). The Cambridge Companion to Dante's 'Commedia'. Cambridge University Press. p. 108.

Shariatmadari, D. (2020). Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language. W. W. Norton & Company. Chapters 1-3. Available at https://www.amazon.it/Dont-Believe-Word-Surprising-Language-ebook/dp/B07QGWDQ85/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=


Murro, C. (2019). Ineffabilità. In Vocabolario Dantesco. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from http://www.vocabolariodantesco.it/voce_prn.php?id=2438#:~:text=L'ineffabilit%C3%A0%20%C3%A8%20dunque%20connessa,del%20poema%20dantesco%2C%20in%20partic


Sen, Lipi Biswas. (2012) Lipi Biswas-Sen: Breaking the Linguistic Alienation in José María Arguedas' Yawar fiesta. Politics and Culture: 1–11 – via Academia.edu. URL: https://www.academia.edu/11718256


University of Oregon. (2008). Planting African Memory: The Role of a Scholar in a Postcolonial World. (N. W. Thiong’o, Interviewee) [Video]. YouTube. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz87K9l3y2s


Dante, A. The Divine Comedy. [English translation]. Vol. 3 (Paradiso) | Online Library of Liberty. (n.d.). URL: https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/langdon-the-divine-comedy-vol-3-paradiso-english-trans



Visual sources

Cover image. Boughton, C. (2020) Hand studies for a portfolio project. Carysboughton.com URL: https://www.carysboughton.com/sketchbook


Figure 1. Crane, D. P. (1900). Dante Ascends To Heaven With Beatrice (Illustration from the Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri). Branpick. URL: https://art.branipick.com/dante-ascends-to-heaven-with-beatrice-illustration-from-the-divine-comedy-by-dante-aligheri-donn-philip-crane-1900-1600-x-1112/


Figure 2. [Photograph of African students at school]. (n. d.). The practice and legacy of colonialism. Exploring Africa. URL: http://exploringafrica.matrix.msu.edu/the-practice-and-legacy-of-colonialism-expand/


Figure 3. Duayer, E. (2014) Generations. Cartoon Movement. URL: https://cartoonmovement.com/cartoon/generations-0


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