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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37 thoughts on “The Language We Use”

  1. Good question and I don’t have any answers. It makes me to ponder what my perspective is of family, community and individual. I often struggle with using “in” or “on” and now it makes sense why I struggle with this.

    1. Katie, I felt the same way when the professor was explaining this. And that is not the only thing I struggle with… often I have to reread what I wrote and look at all my prepositions. The Germans use them so differently than we do in English.

      Katie, it is always such a treat to hear from you.

  2. Good example of the preposition choice–if you’re unable to walk, do you move around “in” a wheelchair or “on” a wheelchair”?

    And, on the “family” term, I grew up using the term “my church family” meaning all the people that attended the church I attended. Recently I heard some opposition to that term because “family” seems “exclusive” and not “inclusive” so some might feel unwelcome. I don’t know that I agree with that thinking, but I suppose it might be something to think about.

    1. Carol, that is a good question about moving around in or on a wheelchair. My inclination would be to say “in” but I cannot say why.

      I think “my church community” is more accurate than using the word family. And it is also more inclusive. So perhaps that solves two things at once. I think we need to find ways to value community more… perhaps one of the ways we do that is by using the term more often.

      1. I’m enjoying the conversation. Has church historically been referred to as a “family” or is it a more modern term? If so, could it be that many neighbor hoods have lost that sense of community so that the word holds less meaning to today’s culture, but family still holds meaning. And considering that many families are scattered across the country and the world, people long for a sense of family and are drawn to the word. And… talking about whether culture shapes words or vice versa… The suggestion of the idea of family creates that expectation and then when community is experienced, their mind/emotions connect it to the word family.

        1. Aleta, I don’t know the answer to your first question, but off hand I would say that church family is a more modern term. I don’t remember hearing that when I first left the Amish thirty-some years ago.

          You make good points about what family and community means in today’s world. You and I both came from a heritage where there is more cohesion to families than in the mainstream culture. Perhaps you are right about people’s longing for it.

          I am enjoying this conversation as well. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Hmmm. I hadn’t analyzed my thoughts and feelings about this.

    I am a musician and several times a week I get together with other musicians to make music. Most of them I have known more than 20 years, although from time to time we add new ones to the mix, and I love them and I love the music. We may have few other interests in common- and I think of them as ‘family.’

    I have a number of other people in my life. These are people with whom I share beliefs, whether political or spiritual or personal. They are also the people I can go to with a problem and they do the same with me. These people I call ‘friend’.

    ‘Community’ to me generally refers to my greater world. I think my town in Alaska is a special one, progressive and aware and caring. They are my community.

    As I think about it, it all makes sense. :)

    Thanks, Saloma, for helping me think about words and their individual meanings!

    1. Elva, thank you for your thoughts. I have a question for you. Do you think it would diminish the bond you have to call your fellow musicians your musician community, rather than call them your family? This is precisely what I am getting at.

      So glad you found it helpful to think about the meaning of words. I love etomology… the root meanings of words and how they relate to other languages.

      I am so glad you enjoy your community in Alaska. I get goose bumps just thinking about how cold it gets there in winter!

  4. I would say that language is initially shaped by how we think and then the next generation’s thoughts are shaped by that language.

    1. Aleta, that is a very interesting way of thinking. So we are shaping the thoughts of the next generation by the way we use our language today. And our thoughts are shaped by the words of our ancestors. Now that is some food for thought. It really makes me wonder: when we change the way we think do we change the way we talk. Or does changing the way we talk change the way we think? If I were to answer this myself, I would say that the change in thinking comes first.

  5. How language affects how we think has intrigued me since college. What I remember from that time was the idea that because of our language we tend to think in either/or, dichotomies. Other languages and cultures don’t see the world that way. Which came first, the language or the way of seeing? Certainly being raised in a language and culture of yes/no, good/bad, etc, makes it hard to think in continuums. The default seems to be an either/or.

    Concepts of community and family are pretty messed up in our culture. Families (as in blood relations) are scattered, varying levels of connection and commitment between members. Yet it is an ideal that your church group was reaching for when they called their work group a family. And you’ve talked about the concept of community, comparing the Amish experience of it with the English or non-Amish ways. If the word ‘family’ is thrown around (like the ‘family’ of people who bank in one place, a public relations gimmick), so is ‘community’. We have the Northampton Community Garden, where, in fact, few people who garden there know more than a handful of people who might have a plot near theirs. It is a pretty loose community, with a small group of people who work to make the whole thing function. I guess my Quaker meeting has more of my sense of community, with people who care about each other and do the work of the meeting together as well as worship together.

    Here’s another view of family, wrought by gay people who have been used to their biological family rejecting them – there’s your biological family and your logical family, the latter being the friends that serve the functions that your blood relations refused to do.

    I see my community, the one that’s with me for the long haul, as the people caring about the same issues and struggles with whom I work and/or socialize. Someone I know in two other contexts does significant work in the Community Garden. Someone else does a show at the community radio station and I see her in social justice actions. It involves personal ties as well as doing the same things.

    Lots here – could go on for a long time on this one. I look forward to what others have to say.

    1. Johanna, you have raised some good questions here. I have heard that too… that in this culture we tend to think in dichotomies. The Amish do too, for that matter. The ultimate dichotomy is the Christian thinking that there are only two choices for the afterlife — heaven or hell. I wonder if our soul’s journey after death is as unique as what it is here on this earth.

      The definition of community is a topic I will take on later in another blog post. But I don’t think that the Northampton Community Garden is a misuse of that word. The “community” is the people who live in the city who also garden in that spot. Community can mean “where two or more are gathered.” It can mean we are living in the same area or town. It can mean we worship together. It can mean so many things.

      I didn’t realize you and I are practically neighbors. We should get together sometime. You always leave thought-provoking comments.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Wow! You’ve opened up a whole can of worms here for thought. Speaking in a grammatical sense, the European language is different from ours. As an example, we would say “Go upstairs and get my hat” whereas in some European dialects it would come out as “Go upstairs and my hat bring me down.”

    Also, the meanings of words have changed so drastically in the past 50 years. Back then, things were “queer” (odd, different). Definitely not the connotation it has today. The term “Cool, man” has got nothing to do with a male being chilly or cold.

    Also, I’ve seen “Church families” that were standoffish and not at all “friendly” if you weren’t considered their type of person.

    I have to go over your comments again because there is still more to think about and delve into.

    1. Kristine, I have been enjoying the comments coming in. Thank you for stopping by and adding your thoughts. Your example of the language of bringing the hat downstairs sounds like Pennsylvania German translated literally, not grammatically.

      I know what you mean about the connotations of words changing over time. Gay and queer had whole different meanings even one generation ago. It’s too bad one cannot use gay in it’s original meaning. It’s a great description of someone who is happy and carefree.

      Thank you again for dropping by. I look forward to the ongoing conversation.

  7. My friends and I use the terms “family of origin” and “family of choice” to distinguish between blood (or legally adopted) relatives and those among our friends who serve the functions traditionally thought of in relation to family.

    Many of us are geographically separated from our families of origin, and/or alienated from our families of origin for a wide variety of reasons. Some of us have found that in our personal histories, blood has not been thicker than water.

    Our families of choice are those confidants with whom we are interdependent in our daily lives, to whom we turn in times of hardship, and with whom we often celebrate special occasions like birthdays and holidays.

    1. Julie, I sure do know what you are talking about. Since my first book was published, communications with my siblings ceased for two years (their choice). Now I am in touch with one sister.

      I think of my family of choice as my husband and my sons. And the people I go to during times of hardship or confide in are my close friends. And I don’t mean to diminish the value of my close friends by not calling them my family. On the contrary… I would not be who I am without them, and I am forever grateful for them.

      I love the quote from Joyce Carol Oates, “Blood is memory without language.” No matter how much we have been hurt by our family of origin, we are still connected to them. And sometimes this can add to the hurt we feel when we are estranged from them.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  8. Saloma, you’ve raised some interesting points. Now I’m wondering why I sit “on” a chair but Grandma is “in” a wheelchair. I put something “on” the buggy, but have a driver drive me “in” his car. One that often mixes me up is “this week” and “next week.” I think of the week starting on Mon. morning, so on Sun. I might say “I have off on Wed. of next week” but my wife sometimes corrects me saying, “Oh, you mean this week.” And on and on. Smile! It really is interesting how we talk all the time but don’t often really think of the little parts of speech that glue our phrases together and how they can change depending on culture or context.
    I see community as being two things: I live in a community made up of many different cultures and businesses & homes, but when I think of “our community,” I’m thinking of Amish homes within the geographical community we live in. I wouldn’t think of a church or business as “family,” but see our church people as being “like a family.” On the other hand, we have friends that are much closer than some of our family-by-blood. Interesting points.

    1. Mark, thank you for your comments. You make good points. And I’m with you… I think of Monday as the start of the week. My community thought of Sunday as the last day of the week…. modeled after God working for six days to create the world and then taking a day of rest.

      Would you call the people in your church group as a “church family” or “church community”?

      Yes, Julie also made that point about friends being closer than family-by-blood. I agree with that, but at the same time I dont call my friends “family.”

      Thanks for stopping by, Mark.


      1. Quakers call Sunday “First Day”, so that’s clearly the beginning of the week. This started in England where Quakerism started.

        1. Sunday is “first day” to Quakers, but the last day of the week to the Amish. It’s really like a circle… one week turning into the next… who knows where the circle starts?

          Thank you for stopping by.

      2. The comment about the week starting on Monday is interesting to me and might answer why for many years I thought subconsciously that the week began on Monday. Then I started realizing that I must be wrong as the calendar shows Sunday as the beginning of the week :) I grew up in the Brethren In Christ denomination and now I wonder if I assimilated that thinking from some teaching of the church or my parents. It still feels to me like the week begins on Monday :)

        Also, when reading the comments about the “church family” as being relatively new, the song by the Gaithers “Family of God” came to mind. It starts out “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God”. I wonder if that had anything to do with it.

  9. I would call the people in our church district “unser gmay leit” or “our church people” or just “our church.” I also don’t call our close friends “family,” but in a few cases I’ve said “They seem like family to us.”
    We were talking about this here at work and one of my co-workers mentioned a saying she once read: Friends are family we choose for ourselves. I see what it means, but I’d still feel there is a difference in family-by-blood and close friends.
    Keep up your good work here, Saloma. It makes it well worth the time to stop by!

    1. Mark, thank you for your appreciation of my posts. Comments like yours that make it well worth it. Thank you.

      I’m with you. Calling my friends what they are does not make them any less dear to me. Bosom friends are kindred spirits, and they may not be found in our family of origin. Though I am very grateful to say that I have that in my chosen family with David. Spending one’s life with a kindred spirit is one of God’s most treasured blessings in our earthly lives. Not everyone has that.

      Thanks, Mark, for your kind comments.

  10. I think culture influences how language evolves, but language very strongly channels how we think.

    Take humor, for example. Germans are not overly renowned for their sense of humor. That’s not to say they don’t enjoy laughter, but I think the extreme rigor and structure of the language doesn’t lend itself to the confused thinking and ambiguity that so much humor hinges on. English, by contrast, is incredibly chaotic and rife with potential for misunderstandings. Bad for getting a precise point of view across, but good for laughter.

    1. You make interesting points, Ian. Having grown up with a dialect of German and then switching my thinking to English in my twenties and thirties, I can tell you that English is my “feeling” language. I can express my feelings so much better in English because there are words to describe them.

      Many of the Amish do have a really earthy sense of humor, though. But you are right, if you want to make a joke using a play on words, English lends a lot more opportunities.

      I hope you are doing well, Ian. Great to see you here.

  11. That is such an interesting question regarding the language we use for church/family/friends/community. When I began attending church in this Mennonite community almost ten years ago, it was the first time I ever heard the phrase “church family” and it was confusing to me. It’s more common in the Mennonite church to say our “community” unless you live in a densely populated Anabaptist area where the word community can then be used to describe the whole of the different plain communities. Anyway, I had a hard time thinking of my church people as my family. But community is also multi-faceted and can mean the people in your town, the people who are also members in certain organizations you belong to, and people you share a common interest with. I agree that the word “family” has been abused in modern culture, but wonder if it has anything to do with the breakdown of many families and people looking to fill a void by creating a family when they have distant or disrupted connections to their biological relatives, or even none at all? Just something I ponder.

    1. Welcome to the discussion, Monica. I think you are probably right about that… people crave family, and so they create them. Community is multi-faceted, and I will be writing a post on that soon.

      Thank you for stopping by… stay tuned for more discussion about community.

  12. My mother tongue is german, my husband is from Turkey – so I started learning turkish. And I was very surprised: The german language is not very romantic but the turkish is. They don´t have too many words (with 3000 you are already very good) but one word often has more than 5-10 different meanings, depending on the situation. And the have 3 different words for “love”.
    Other languages are always fascinating!

    1. Aurora, that sounds fascinating. I bet you are having fun learning Turkish. Three different words for love… and in Pennsylvania there is a word for love “lievve” but it is a noun only. So you can’t actually say, “I love you.”

      I wish you lots of fun and success in learning your new language. Thanks for stopping by!

      1. Thanks for your answer, Saloma, I always enjoy reading your blog. Maybe I should write in german so you can pratice…???

        In turkish you also have a few words for “friends”, you can identify how close they are. We don´t have this in german, there´s not even a word like “sisterfriend” – it´s just “we are as close a sibling”. Maybe this is why the germans are a little bit… stiff?

  13. Have you ever read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”? One of the things the oppressive government does is take certain words out of the dictionary, in order to limit people’s ability to express rebellious ideas.

    1. I have read the book you mentioned. It is very bleak, isn’t it? Language is a key component in suppressing and opressing people, including the “doublespeak” language. I have a hard time reading books in which evil overcomes good. But in real life, good doesn’t always overcome evil. The school shootings in the last fifteen years is a good example.

      On a happier note, I hope you are enjoying your autumn.

  14. I must interject here, because this reminds me of how we seasoned Christians can be guilty of speaking “Christianese” to either our unchurched friends or new believers and expecting them to understand. Our Christian culture teaches us to speak in this language that can be very confusing to the them. Since I was raised in an evangelical home, it is second nature to me to speak of “knowing my savior,” being “born again” or “saved” or “washed in the blood.” There are probably thousands of similar phrases or words that can really confuse people we are “witnessing” to. See? That was another one!

    1. Do you mean that people tend to use jargon and catch phrases in many situations? I find when we want to express that which has heart and meaning, we normally speak in language authentic to who we are and the jargon falls away.


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