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Do you really love language?

Imagine you take a kid to Sea World, to see the Killer Whales, and they tell you they love Killer Whales. You don't say this out loud because they're just a kid, but in your mind you're thinking, no you don't. Because you don't really know Killer Whales.

Killer Whales are wild animals, fundamentally uncontrollable. They don't perform tricks for you until they've been broken in first, and tamed. In the wild, in their natural state, Killer Whales do ugly things. They eat seals. Sometimes they play with them first. Have you seen a Killer Whale play with its food? There's a video you might be able to find of a Killer Whale tossing a live seal around in the surf before chomping down on it with its jaws. And Killer Whales hunt in packs, for other, bigger whales, like Blue Whales. They like to hunt the babies, because they're weaker, more vulnerable. That's how Killer Whales got their name. Before they were Killer Whales, they were Whale Killers. Do you still love Killer Whales now, that you know this? You should do, if you really love them. That's just what Killer Whales do. It's what they are.

People who say they love language because they love reading books, or they love hearing certain famous orators speak, remind me of this hypothetical child who claims to love Killer Whales. They don't really love language. They love a certain voice, which people of a particular class and upbringing have. But language is fundamentally wild, fundamentally uncontrollable. And in its natural state it does ugly things. Tenses are dropped, verbs don't agree with their subjects, and vowel distinctions fail to matter. Words get mixed around in sentences, pronounced differently, borrowed from other languages. There is swearing involved sometimes, and most frighteningly, the speaker is often someone very different from you. Sometimes you don't even understand them, even though you're ostensibly speaking the same thing. Do you still love language now? When it is wild, and free? You should do, if it's truly language that you love. Because this is just what language does. This is what language is.

Language is ephemeral. It lives inside of its speakers, and therefore is as messy and as varied as they are. Language is only "right" when somebody in power, somebody like you, says it is. And then they tame it, put it in a cage, make it do tricks, and call it beautiful. But it's not language anymore, then. Not exactly. It's something else.

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Copyright © Kevin Wong