A Universal Language?

It seems that there is always talk of a universal language: a way to communicate with everyone, no matter where a person may be in the world. The simple answer as to why it has not occurred has to do with language’s relationship to culture. The extended answer being that Earth will most likely never have a universal language because of technical, scientific, as well as cultural factors.

In Thomas Devlin’s article, What is Esperanto, and Who speaks it?, he states that there are more than 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. With all of these languages existing around us, a Polish medical doctor, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, created the language known as Esperanto, which was meant to “bring the world together as one (Devlin, 2).”

Esperanto was created on the roots of Latin in order to make it easier for those who speak languages that were born from Latin (Russian,Polish, English, German). Zamerhof’s idea was to receive feedback from others to evolve the language, and not place restrictions within it like other languages tend to do. While Esperanto seemed to have some advantages, those whose first language did not have strong European influences, such as Asian languages, were at a complete disadvantage.

Conspiracy Theory Keanu Reeves Meme On Animals Speaking a Universal Language  Language is identity. According to Jason Koebler in his article, Why a Universal Language Will Never Be a Thing, “for many groups of people, having a specific language is to say, ‘I exist’ (Koebler, 3).” Languages are important to culture and the way that those who practice said culture identify themselves. There even some languages, like Basque and Kurdish, that protect and preserve their language through enacting laws.

Languages will continue to evolve. As time passes and new generations come along, language will continue to change. Change can come from differences in pronunciation, new words being invented or borrowed, morphology’s disappearing or the meaning of old words become something different. As we continue to evolve and grow, so do our languages.

There are people who believe that universal language is portrayed not through spoken language, but on other mediums. Some believe music is a universal language; others believe love holds that spot; poetry is also considered to be a universal language. So what would categorize a universal language when comparing these three examples? They are all factors that move people, no matter one’s language or culture. Music, love and poetry may be the universal language. However, spoken language will never become one idea; that’s the beauty of it.The Arts are the Universal Language - Meme on Imgur

Commodification of Black Identity

Emojis, memes, and reaction gifs are a form of writing—maybe a bizarre opinion, but it’s a hill I’m willing to die on.

And no doubt, writing is a powerful tool. Certainly it’s a factor in determining and perpetuating both stereotypes and power dynamics. Does this mean, then, that memes (and emojis and reaction gifs and various online behaviors) aren’t just harmless jokes but actually powerful tools for easily spreading dis/information, opinions, and ideas?

Tweet saying, “Is digital blackface a form of policing our freedom of expression? Or does it perpetuate harmful stereotypes?”

Well, yeah.

(If you need more convincing, then don’t miss my upcoming post on memetic warfare.)

Now that we’ve laid some groundwork, I’d like to talk about Digital Blackface

You know, when non-Black people use digital spaces to “try on” Black identity. Sometimes people make entire social media profiles; sometimes it’s as seemingly-innocuous as sending a reaction gif. In both cases, Blackness—as in, Black social identity and culture—is performed in an exaggerated, often harmful and stereotypical way.

I won’t rehash the many, many arguments that have been put out there. More appropriate, more experienced people have tackled this subject. So, especially if this is unfamiliar territory, I definitely recommend you check out their articles. (After you’re done here of course!) 

What I do want to do is offer another layer to the conversation. 

Tweet from @BriannaABaker saying, “Why is it that when a Black man expresses emotional vulnerability, he’s made into a meme?? #DigitalBlackface” with Google search results for “crying meme” underneath.

Identity commodification is damaging yet simultaneously unseen and ubiquitous. Safiya Noble shows us in her article on Google’s search engine algorithms why this is such a serious problem:

“Black girls are sexualized or pornified in half (50%) of the first ten results on the keyword search “Black girls”… What these results point to is the commodified nature of Black women’s bodies on the web—and the little agency that Black female children (girls) have had in securing non-pornified narratives and ideations about their identities” 

Both Digital Blackface and Google’s search engine results commodify Blackness. They give control to non-Black people over the construction of Black identity. I’d say that’s a pretty big deal.

An American Sense of Reality

“To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.”
                                                                                              – James Baldwin

The singularly most omnipresent entity amongst the American populace is that of mass media. It leaks into every facet of our lives and defines how we perceive others and construct our own identities.

Adult reaching out to baby through phone screen

It has been proven through various studies that mass media is a powerful influence that commonly causes people to undergo an identity shift. An identity shift is defined as “choosing to change your current identity because you want to become a new person and experience a new life.”

The most susceptible group to media influence and identity shifts is adolescents. This is because the adolescent years are the most formative in identity formation for a human.

TikTok is a great example of a mass media venue that constantly encourages impressionable youths to undergo identity shifts. These identity shifts can be relatively tiny, such as a person basing more of their identity around a harmless fandom, or substantial, such as a person adopting an antagonistic language and attitude towards certain groups of people in order to mimic their favorite creator.

Kirkland & Jackson, in their work “‘We Real Cool’: Toward a Theory of Black Masculine Literacies,” offer another great example of the ability of mass media to influence adolescents’ identity. They specifically investigated the role rappers and rap media played in determining the language-in-use by “cool” African American adolescents. In specific, they traced how the group of “cool” children altered their language, social views, and clothing choices in order to align more closely with what rap media portrayed and perpetuated as cool.

Picture showing off a child's drawing that exemplifies Hip-hops's cultural influence on the way children speak

The pair also provide context on why specific mass media have a more significant influence on certain groups over others. In their study’s case, African American children formulated their “cool talk” and identities around African American rap artists and media because the community they inhabited deemed said rap artists as representative of what a “cool black man” and/or “black masculine cultural model” is.

I think moving forward as a society that it will become more and more important to encourage persons to distance themselves from media consistently in order to allow themselves the ability to maintain and reinforce their own personally constructed identity separate from overpowering external influences. Otherwise, I think that events such as the recent uptick in white supremacists specifically targeting racist media at adolescent boys in the hopes they will form their identity around normalized racism will become much more commonplace.