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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The language of the self

<re narrations of our selves. When I introduced my column, I presented this as a fundamental idea in reflecting on the largeness of “small talk.” Today I’m returning to it more explicitly, focusing on language’s relationship to identity as being fluid and relative. Language’s impact on our identities is particularly salient when considering the words we use in different communities.

Being a Carl requires a special, and specific vocabulary. As a freshman, I remember the thrill of casually mentioning a late night at the “libe” or a pre- “scrunched” class. After a year of touring campuses as an outsider, having ownership of the Carleton language meant that I belonged. However, my freshman status was clear to upperclassmen who chuckled when my answer to “where do you live?” was Massachusetts, when the correct answer was Goodhue. Humor me, if you will, as I use these anecdotes to suggest that particular words signal our identification with particular communities.

In my experience, this also is true in the classroom. Let me return briefly to my freshman self, who basked in admiration at the amazingly articulate upperclassmen. Their beyond insightful ideas, and the eloquent way they expressed them, often made me question if we actually had read the same chapter for homework. Eventually, I learned that I too could use words like “reconcile” and “binary” in my comments, and sound eons smarter than I usually felt. (Disclaimer: professors tend to see through these empty word acts. Who knew?) After three years in Laird, I finally feel comfortable and fluent in the language of my major. Yet in other departments, I continue to flounder until I can decipher their jargon.

I recently found myself sitting between two rugby players talking about the rugby world, and I felt just as dislocated as I would have in a Computer Science course. I think they were having an interesting conversation, I just had no idea what it was about. It occurred to me that conversations I have with frisbee friends must have the same effect. Not only is there the idiosyncratic vocabulary to describe what happens on the field – where words like “poach,” “chill,” and “inside out,”  have serious implications – but there’s also a distinct vernacular. For example, I would never ask my housemate if he has “found his swagger” just as I would never ask a friend from home how “eighth week” is going.

As seen in these brief community case studies, language is unique to particular versions of ourselves, and it changes given the circumstances. This phenomenon holds true on more local levels too: we collect words from the people we surround ourselves with. Some of my favorite phrases have been gifts from my favorite people, gifts that they didn’t even know they were giving. And as I make their language my own, these people become a piece of my identity as I choose to narrate it.

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