Tag Archives: language and culture

What Happens When Language Changes.


The French woman was adamant.


The Swiss woman sat, staring at her. The English couple, from Trent, lifted their chins just slightly. Next to them, the German husband arched his back. His wife wilted, averting her downcast eyes, and the American’s widened.

These all sat around the dinner table, in Zurich, on a Sunday. It was a Bible conference weekend, but this was a bigger deal.

The French woman was talking about language.

She said you have to live among the people, and learn the language. Only then will you know the culture. Because, and she closed emphatically, the culture is in the language.

That was 1984.

* * * *

In 2019, we might be members of a culture whose language remains a leading means of discourse among the powerful. But, as English speaking people, our culture has changed.

There are words which have been added to our lexicon which have become so embedded in it that we hardly realize there was ever a time when they were not there.

Here are two of them, taken separately.

“Reproductive” and “rights”.

Reproductive — having the capacity to reproduce.

Rights — (n.) moral or legal entitlements to act.


But, taken together, they form a term, embodying a concept. “Reproductive rights” refer to a specific entitlement, that being: to bear a child.

The problem is, this term has evolved to become broader in scope than one might have initially perceived. No longer merely representing the right to bear a child, it has come to also mean the right not to. And, this evolution has been driven by social forces.

Plus — in the present day, not only are we talking about the right to or not to bear a child, this term has actually become one which encompasses a concept never actualized by humans born before 1930. Reproductive rights have come to represent the option to cease carrying a child already conceived.

In our language.

In our time.

The intractable problem with this is: now, the public debate tosses this term to and fro, throwing it around as a tool supporting any number of arguments from the right to receive compensation to emotional support, counseling, products, services, and all manner of supplemental medical procedures. Now, women fight to preserve their reproductive rights, their choice as women to make exclusive decisions about their bodies, decisions which are exempt from anyone else’s decision-making power.

Reproductive rights have melded into one argument, when they are actually two, distinct and even unrelated. And, the fundamental problem is one of conflation.

Somehow, the right to make independent decisions affecting one’s body, as a woman (or, as a man) has become conflated with another right, that of the option to dispense with a conceived embryo which has nested in one’s uterus, having begun the process leading toward birth. While the female body belongs to one, independent person, once conception occurs that independence is, in part, forfeited — because another life exists inside of it.

There are English speaking women to whom the term”reproductive right” is moot. These have already acknowledged that, once fertile, each of them bears both the ability and the responsibility of conceiving another human being. As such, they exercise only the right to be that vessel, should conception occur. To them, there is no other right. The right to bear a child is beyond the right they have over their own body. There is no argument. There is only the honor of a higher calling.

And so, embodied in its language, the very culture is divided. And, living amongst its people, this disparity is palpable.

Someone once said that the English language is the most inconsistent on the planet, riddled with exceptions to the rule of order.

Does this also reflect a problem within the culture?

If she could, would the French woman speak to this, and what might be said?

One wonders whether silence would be required by all.








© 5/25/19   Ruth Ann Scanzillo.



Single Inflection.


[ final edit. ]


Single — def.

  • not having, or including, another ; only one.


Defining words in any language is an exercise in understanding culture. This is unavoidable. So said the Swiss woman, at the head of the dinner table around which were seated: a younger, blonde French-Swiss woman; a middle aged, married couple from Kent, England, she with her brown hair rolled up away from her neck; a tall, good-looking, traveling salesman from Stuttgart; a young, bespectacled Scottish girl enrolled at university; and, one American woman of about twenty seven years; in 1984.

(There were no indigenous French represented at table, during that meal. Had there been, perhaps the conversation would have taken a decided turn.)

These had all convened around a common theme: one annual Bible Conference for the purpose of intensive study of the Word of God, held in a Zurich high school, complete with headsets and translators for those who had come from countries not fluent in Swiss-German.

I was the American woman.

That year, having embarked on my maiden voyage to Europe by way of Scotland, I was alone; meaning: nobody I knew personally had accompanied me on my trip.

Yes; according to a definition established by Merriam and Webster in the initial year of their copyright, I was a single woman. I knew it, most acutely, seated beside the two boys from Princeton on the flight to Frankfurt; the sassiest, plugged in to Purple Rain on his earphones, turned off to me as soon as I declined the gin. Failing the Test of Immediate Compatibility, here was a sure sign that I would be proceeding solo.

Not that I had any inclination to attach myself to either of the Princeton boys. I simply never figured in the equation established long ago by the Ivy League; their blood was blue, mine was too but, to them, a critical – if colorless – social component was missing .

The Swiss woman was dogmatic; the only way to truly know a people was through their language. One had to experience them in dialogue, to derive any understanding of their way of life. Inflection, the Swiss woman insisted, was the bearer of meaning.

(A decade hence, I would return to this table, after hearing a Japanese maestro articulate the meaning of his own name in his native language; he’d pointed out, none too subtley from the concert podium, that pronouncing his first name with the emphasis on the wrong syllable would render him nothing short of a hemorrhoid.)

I recall sitting and looking around that table at each guest, wondering, in my American English silence. Try as I might, I could not name a single descriptive adjective, noun, or verb in the language of my birth which, when pronounced differently, rendered a completely distinct meaning. I was able to call up several words, however, which had dual connotations but no alteration in their pronunciation. There were also words which were pronounced the same, but spelled differently according to their meanings.

With this realization came the sensation that singled me out: how could an American understand anybody from another country? Even the Brits, with their occasional syllabic de-emphasis, were a challenge to a fledgling on foreign soil. Here I was, singularly alone, and obviously about to make absolutely no connection whatsoever with any of the people in the room.

But, I had left a boy at home.

Long having moved on to pursue another skirt he had, however, managed to create a scandal in his wake. Here, in Switzerland, the home of his mother’s birth, I was supping with associates of the American employer she’d embezzled. Yes. I may have arrived alone, but there were those my presence represented who, after my departure, would remain; I had carried both of them with me, all the way to Europe, into a household diningroom of Christians in Zurich.

And, it didn’t matter to anybody that I wasn’t married to his mother. He would follow me for years thereafter, like a lurking shadow in the mirror, beginning the moment I left the premises. No one among any of those in attendance at the Zurich Conference, whether known to me or not, would be able to think of me in any terms thereafter without his name entering the conversation. Criminal behavior knew no cultural boundaries. No matter the country of origin; no matter the language spoken.

Recently, I became reacquainted with somebody I had only known in passing decades ago. A well and world-traveled American, he calls himself “single”. But, I beg to differ; his attributes draw the curious, the needy, the broken, the unfinished, the yearning. He works in the healing arts. His life has incredible, unmeasurable meaning in those of countless others. By the definition of any culture, he does not exist outside of their realm. He is, rather, spectacularly singular – part of the great Singularity.

None of us travels alone. We are never single, lest we attempt breath in a vacuum. If we do, we’ll be crying for help. And, we had better get the inflection j.u.s.t.right.






© 3/25/16 Ruth Ann Scanzillo    All rights those of the author, whose story it is, and whose name appears above this line. Thank you for your respect.