Language is a type of magic. This is literally true: practitioners of magic understand their power as something rooted to the articulation of spells—words, phrases, sentences—the source of which is buried in their imaginations. Whether one believes in magic or (more likely) not, the power of language cannot be denied. Words have the power to conjure ideas, and the power to shape and distort them. Throughout human history, those who understood this power and learned to master it were able to direct destinies, build empires, and generally control the lives of men.
Resent research has cast doubt on the belief that communication is a uniquely human trait in the animal kingdom, but our language system is indeed one of a kind and continues to be a key tool we use to define ourselves, to locate our place in the world, and to shape our worldview.
The development of symbols and then alphabets to create written language was one of the most important milestones in human development. For many, this is the first entry in the definition of civilization. But, when writing first appeared, many ancient scholars feared the impact it would have on humanity: this technology would change the way we think and communicate, and it would destroy our memory. And they were right. The inherent danger of written language was so well understood that literacy was often isolated to the elites and to the priestly or scholarly classes. This may sound like ancient history, but last year's award-winning film 12 Years a Slave reminds us of similar fears held in the American South as recently as the 19th Century. The film's protagonist, Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is constantly warned not to reveal his true identity or his ability to read and write to the slave masters who would see it as a threat. For the sake of survival he complies. Similarly, mainstream news reminds us that even today, in places like Afghanistan, the education of women and girls is often viewed as a threat to conservative regimes and obstructed through force.
Here in Korea, over 20,000 native English speakers are employed as language instructors. This same phenomenon is occurring throughout the region, and the world, as English continues to function as the international lingua franca. This has become controversial due to fears it will contribute to the eradication of the estimated 7,000 languages on the planet. Language training can be viewed as a soft-power colonial strategy that has been implemented, often in tangent with hard-power tactics, repeatedly throughout history, from the pre-Columbian empires in South America to English settlers in Ireland. Just as in the past, the language instructors today bring with them their perspectives, values, and culture.
Perhaps we are lumbering through a slow reversal of the ancient confusion of tongues, one vocab test and conversation practice at a time, heading towards some new universal language: not American English or British English, but something altogether unique. Judging from Korea, it is more likely that the same force that created the myriad of dialects and languages that have defined and separated us for eons will now contribute to the birth of new variations of language, like Konglish or Spanglish.
To help you wade through these constantly shifting tides of language (and through the ideas and narratives drifting therein) we offer you The Post American # 8--The Sea of Tongues Issue. Use this issue as your lifeboat as we dissect the meaning hidden within Chinese characters, question the practicality of English education, and witness the fury of linguistic xenophobia. As always, feel free to contact us. We welcome your words in exchange for ours.
This month's cover features an illustration by Δ.