You are all going to discover how fascinating language is to me as I learn more in my linguistic classes. Nonetheless, last week opened my eyes to the notion of what is normal and abnormal in relation to language, and how we try and justify the abnormal to make it normal. In language, we take a lot for granted. When we speak, there are normalities that we follow and expect others to follow. However, we might not fully recognise those norms as they are mostly subconscious and are based on a form of trust that has been created in the world around us. Contrastingly, when someone says something that is abnormal to us, may it be an answer or reaction that doesn't relate to what was originally said, it creates an untrustworthiness either in the conversation or in our own perspective.
It might not sound like much but acknowledging the existence of normal and abnormal, or trustworthiness and untrustworthiness, in this regard amplifies the power of language and the struggles that people can have with it. The trust is built on the social order we become used to and we become intimidated or threatened when it isn't followed by others. There is also the pressure of wanting to be seen as normal, which highlights another conflict that arises when a person isn't confident in their language ability or when speaking a language that isn't their first. Again, it sounds pretty simple and obvious, but once you start to see the fascinating concepts around it (or at least I hope you find it as fascinating as I did) it might enlighten you to another amazing concept in language and just how powerful a tool it can be.
I'll start with an example. You walk into a retail store and you find a product that you wish to buy. You have all the necessary money for this item and there is no reason why you cannot buy it. You walk over to the register and say 'I'd like to buy this, please' (yes, we are being polite). Behind the counter, the sales assistant shakes her head and says 'no'. If you were in this situation, you might feel confused or offended, depending on the context or what item you wished to be buying. You might start thinking in your head reasons why they would say no. You might ask the sales assistant why you cannot buy the item or maybe you start to accuse them for being rude or discriminatory. Again, depends on the context and the type of person you are. Maybe you've had a bad morning already and are displacing your anger onto the sales assistant even though it seems unfair to do so but right now it's the only thing you've got... but I don't know you or your life story so I'll leave you to decide.
Anyway, getting back to the main point, you were given an abnormal response that you weren't prepared for. Anyone in this situation will want to try and justify or make adjustments to the conversation or situation to get it back to being normal. This response from the sales assistant could also lead to repercussions, like being punished or even losing their job if it has happened before or generates a bad enough response from the customer. From using the simple word 'no' led to consequences and untrustworthiness that were not there before.
Maybe that example doesn't emphasise the power of this linguistic concept. Let me give you another. You're at school/university/your job and there are a group of people you don't get along with. You decide for one day you are going to be tolerant and act kindly towards them, not letting their sly or mean remarks get the better of you. You might compliment how they look that day and laugh at their jokes. Maybe you'll keep doing that for the duration of the day. They'll start to feel uncomfortable because this isn't normal. They'll start to try and justify your actions. 'Is this a joke?' they might ask. 'Are you feeling alright?' is another common question that would be asked in this situation. There must be something wrong with you to justify the abnormality of this, which then transforms the abnormal to normal. However, if there is no justification the group may feel threatened. Their questions may lead to aggression and so forth.
Another example? You walk to school with your child to drop them off for the day. A kid runs up at you and points. 'Wow you're huge!' they exclaim, and you feel yourself go bright red. Did that child just call you fat? No, they must have meant that you're tall... right? Someone who doesn't speak English as their first language accidentally calls you 'fat' when they meant to call you 'heavy' but they couldn't think of the right word because, again, it's not their first language. How dare they? Are they incompetent? No, but the word 'fat' has such negative connotations that suddenly the use of it in that context creates an abnormality that you will try and justify, and being such a negative word the reaction will probably be negative. Both the kid and the non-English speaking person have their own reasons for not understanding the language they are speaking, and yet we are so quick to adjust the situation by questioning the other person's capability, if they're joking, if they're feeling alright, and so on to justify the reason for the abnormality.
This can happen in any situation. Even simply questioning the meaning behind a word that is commonly known in a language or culture when someone mentions it can cause these feelings of untrustworthiness if continued on. I mean, can you imagine if you're talking to your best friend and mention you're going to get a glass of water and they ask you 'what is glass?'. You're probably going to think they're joking and laugh it off, but if they keep asking 'what is glass?', you might start to feel uncomfortable because you can't justify in your mind what is happening. I don't recommend doing this but hey, if you're looking for a bit of fun, give it a go and watch as whoever you're talking to begins to fall into a spiral of questions as the social order in their mind begins to collapse.
This extends to storytelling as well. A book might have a great storyline but if there are any conversations that don't seem to link up, it can create the same feelings of untrustworthiness and, therefore, take away the reality and/or authority of the text. Those moments can stick in your mind when reading, and the worst thing for a reader is having to back track to understand or justify what is happening.
It's an understatement how fascinating language is to me. However, I feel learning this concept of 'normal vs abnormal' is important in many ways because it can broaden our understanding of diversity and why we might feel threatened by others. It might also makes us less likely to retaliate when the abnormality doesn't have a clear solution. It's really quite remarkable how dependent we are of language and how important it is to us, even if we do take it for granted.
Let me know what you think of all this. The power of language is quite incredible to me and I hope it is for you too or that my explanations make you feel a little excited about how awesomely talented we all are with our own specific languages, may it be one or multiple. If you are interested in these linguistic concepts, make sure to keep checking back because I'm sure I'm going to learn more that I can share with all of you!
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.