In 2024, it’s vital we examine the way we think about language

Understanding the fallibility of language could be the revolutionary act we need

We are born into language – and it’s one of touch, gestures, sensation. From birth, a baby learns the language of their environment through a series of cues, by testing actions and response. They arrive with their own language too – different pitches of screams, movements, coos. There are entire manuals to help parents to decode this, because even bilingual intellectuals can be left on the edge of sanity if they’re unable to discern what a fretful baby wants to convey.

A baby learns by mirroring, and well before their first birthday they usually understand that parents are emitting a complex array of sounds to communicate with them. They will therefore try out their first words, wallowing in the joy and admiration they receive for their efforts, which will compel them to quickly learn more. Verbal language begins to take precedence. Slowly, thankfully, as it does, the screeching and tantrums begin to subside.

Humans have thrived because we learned to cooperate and communicate. And we did so because we gained, through evolution, complex brains with an intricate and highly effective language system. When this works well, we can have conversations so sophisticated that they result in people landing on the moon or cures for diseases. When linguistic communication isn’t effective, we become so frustrated that we resort to myriad versions of violence, individually and collectively. So now, if we are to thrive with the perpetuity of 24/7 Internet communication and the onset of AI, we need, more than ever, to have urgent conversations around the limits and inadequacies of our language. Because what if language, and the way we use it, is essentially flawed? How else can we be making such incredible progress in the fields of medicine and technology, whilst ignoring irrefutable evidence that our natural world is sinking into an irreversible decline? How else can we be squabbling endlessly online, to a global backdrop of bombs and carnage and lives degraded to nothing? Perhaps the words are there for us, and we don’t know how to use or interpret them; or perhaps language itself is inadequate for the moment.

When I wrote The Hush, I was frustrated by the fact that the vital ideas around feminism had been taken over and fractured because of the fallibility of language, which can be turned around and weaponised to undermine itself. Many older women no longer wanted to assert themselves as feminists – i.e. simply naming their essential belief in equality – scared they would be seen as angry man-haters. Swathes of younger women derided the idea of feminism – becoming anti-feminist, talking online about why feminism sucks. The degradation of feminism has had burgeoning, terrifying legislative consequences in the US (with the overturning of abortion protections from Roe v Wade) and China (where the government has called for women to return to the home) and undermined progress on a global scale. For all women, a collective, vital sense of autonomy has been confused and derided by semantics. That’s why, in The Hush, I chose to depict my mother and daughter characters communicating without words at key moments in the story. And ever since I began to study the limits and complexities around language I’ve become more interested in this theme and the need to discuss it.

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