Saloma Miller Furlong
Author and Speaker

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The Language We Use

I am auditing a German class at Smith College, I am very aware of how culture shapes the language we use. The professor for this class is schooled in linguistics, and she often has us visualize something from the German perspective. It can be something as simple as which preposition we use. For instance, in German a person would say they are traveling in a train, whereas in English we say we are traveling on the train. If you were to say you were traveling "on the train" in German, it would mean that you were lying on the roof of the train. She explained that the Germans think of the journey as taking place inside the train, whereas Americans think of the train as a means of travel, on their way somewhere.

So the language we use reflects our thoughts, feelings, values, and the way we see our world and our experiences. Because I grew up among the Amish, I sometimes still find myself thinking in Amish ways.

Today at church, there was a group of people who did a presentation about their Appalachian Service Project (ASP). This was a group of adults and high school youth who undertook a project together and they spoke of how it changed them. They also talked about how they all became family, not only with one another, but also with the family whose house they worked on.

Hearing about this project reminded me of what it was like to attend a "frolic" when I was growing up. Most people know the Amish work parties as barn raisings, but in my community we always called it a frolic, and it could be for any construction project. And there was always good food and a close community feeling throughout all that good will.

I got to thinking about the difference in values between the mainstream culture and the Amish. The Amish value the community, the family, and the individual, in that order. In the mainstream culture it is the opposite: the individual, the family, and then community. I find so often people use the word "family" to describe when they feel a bond in a group of people. And "community" is not strong enough to describe the bond, so they use "family."

Among the Amish there is a very distinct difference between family and community. "Family" describes blood relations, and who belongs to whom. "Community" describes each church district or community.

Perhaps a more accurate way of describing the expereinces of the ASP group is to say that they formed a strong community bond. And that is not to diminish their experience… especially if we value community as much as we do family.

I've seen the word "family" misused and overused. My coop bank wants to say we are part of family by being a member. No. We are members of a coop bank. That is not a community. And it certainly is not a family. The word "family" is so overused in the corporate world that it takes away the meaning and it becomes a mere platitude.

I still think of people I'm related to as my family. I think of friends as being part of my group of friends. And I consider groups of people coming together for a common cause a community.

And as for my values now. I would not be able to rate my group of friends, community, family, or myself as an individual in any particular order. I value them all. And I like to use the terms for each of these appropriately.

I've often wondered. Do our thoughts shape our language? Or does language shape our thoughts? Or some of both?

What do you think?

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