How do language and power interact?
All of our exchanges with other people are mediated by language. Language can transmit information and knowledge, but it can also influence us—even manipulate us—in unexpected ways.
What is “power” and how does it manifest in language? According to social theorist Michel Foucault, power is not only about CEOs or politicians making rules for their subordinates. Instead, there are different forms and nuances of power that are exerted by all people in everyday situations such as conversations with friends, lessons at schools, and reading the newspaper or engaging in social media. Importantly, power in language is both ubiquitous and sometimes hardly perceptible.
What does this mean? Control and dominance through language are not obtained only in a conversation between adults and children or between a teacher and a student. They are actually achieved in every kind of communication, ranging from written and oral texts (e.g., newspaper articles, books, and presidential speeches) to informal Instagram posts, and even comments from passersby (e.g., catcalling). Language expresses the beliefs of a single person or of a group, and can change or reinforce the points of view and opinions of everyone involved in the interaction (writers and readers, speakers and hearers).
Making language powerful can be a matter of the social position in which we find ourselves as participants in a communicative event. Language can become more powerful or less powerful depending on the economic position, the education level, the gender, or the language of the speaker/writer in relation to the listener/reader. There are many stable processes of communication in society that we take for granted but which clearly express and maintain power relationships related to the social factors listed above. One manifestation of power can be found in the grammar and lexicon of languages which use what linguists call “the T-V distinction”, i.e., tu/Lei in Italian, du/Sie in German, or tu/Vous in French. Using them is a matter of subscribing to and reproducing different social norms and rules of behaviour. (Try to imagine using them for a day not in the “right” way and think about what consequences this might incur).
However, power does not only manifest in structural aspects of language. It depends from communication stemming from different cultures, histories, social contexts, and on a sense of belonging to a group and a community. Power relations are not only created in personal exchanges, but also occur at the level of systems and institutions. Especially language that creates information, such as a history course in school, a speech by a politician, or even a thread on Twitter, can have different influential power on us. That is, we may treat the most experienced teacher at our school as the most trustworthy source of information on history, or the politician speaking on the biggest news platform as the most trustworthy source of information on economic matters. This trustworthiness and the power gained from it goes beyond the individuals involved in the interaction to the institutions and ideas that these speakers represent.
Looking behind the scenes in all of these types of powerful communication, how they are constructed, and how we sometimes easily take for granted their dynamics, can give us all the power to question problematic communicative power structures and eventually weaken them.
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