GUEST POST  “Language as Possibility”

By Dr. Jo Hsu

In a featured guest post for Diversity Connections,
Dr. Jo Hsu addresses the purpose of language and challenges everyone to use it the right way.


I have been teaching English for nearly ten years and have been learning new words from and with my students for just as long. My first semester of teaching, Fall 2010, also marked the launch of Instagram, which my composition students defined as a noun, adjective, and a verb. The next year, Occupy Wall Street prompted our class to consider the manifold meanings of “occupy”: to take up space; to engage; to reside in; to seize military control; or to protest via encampment—to demand attention through physical presence as demonstrators did in Zuccotti Park. Other vocabulary I’ve collected over the years include “YOLO,” “drop a pin,” “clickbait,” “GOAT,” and – more recently—“calling the hogs.”

Language, often caricatured as ancient wisdom fixed in the pages of dictionaries, actually moves, flexes, and evolves along with its users. The history of the English language is one of ongoing innovation. Shakespeare is credited with at least 500 new words including “bedazzled” and “swagger,” and J.K. Rowling introduced “muggle” and “quidditch” to the Oxford English Dictionary. The age of the internet has provided a host of acronyms from “LOL” to “IMHO,” as well as symbols (#AmWriting). Online spaces even gave new meaning to old words such as “spam,” “troll,” and “friend”— though Shakespeare verbed “friend” long before Facebook invented a button for it. Not all linguistic developments, however, receive equal accommodation.

“Language, often caricatured as ancient wisdom fixed in the pages of dictionaries, actually moves, flexes, and evolves along with its users.”

Like “friend,” singular “they” has older usages and newer ones. “They” appears as a singular pronoun in the works of Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, and (once again) William Shakespeare. It also proliferates present-day conversations (e.g. “Someone forgot their umbrella.”). Before the recent uproar surrounding nonbinary gender (which is also not new), singular “they” was already so ubiquitous that most people don’t notice it in everyday constructions (“If somebody asks for me, let them know…”). In recent years, more individuals who identify outside the male/female gender binary have adopted “they” as a personal pronoun, prompting many responses about the inappropriate use of a plural pronoun for a single person. The sudden fealty to draconian language laws has less to do with policing grammar than with policing gender. Refusing to use someone’s pronouns based on “grammar” deploys language as discriminatory policy. It contorts grammar into a boundary, manufacturing spaces where nonbinary people will be unrecognized or even unsafe.

This selective invocation of language laws has been applied across numerous language variations, almost always to devalue the discursive practices of marginalized communities. For example, double negatives appear throughout the literary canon (see Shakespeare, again) as well as popular culture (see The Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”).[1] When used by speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), however, double-negatives are often dismissed as grammatically incorrect. Though linguists, rhetoricians, and other scholars have long demonstrated that AAVE has its own sophisticated grammatical structures, AAVE is still often deemed “unprofessional” and discouraged in educational and workplace environments.[2] Meanwhile, British English, with its own deviations from U.S. English, does not receive the same stigma even within North American contexts. 

In a landmark essay in English composition, Professor Min-Zhan Lu explores how language standardization perpetuates existing power structures. Language norms, she explains, “discipline users to be preoccupied with two and only two questions: What counts as correct usage in the eyes of those in positions to withhold educational and job opportunities? How might I best learn to work English strictly according to those rulings?” Teaching standardized English as if it were a neutral, universal truth naturalizes and invisiblizes the violent histories that established and sustain these norms. This approach narrows a student’s focus to only meeting those standards instead of investigating how those standards were established and what possibilities they foreclose. While universities can and should familiarize students with the language practices privileged in affluent spaces, they are also responsible for exposing, critiquing, and reconfiguring those very practices.

In recent decades, many teachers and scholars of English have worked to transform perceptions of English education. Rather than conceptualizing language as a set of bloodless decrees, they consider English classes sites of possibility. These are places where the entanglements of linguistic and cultural histories are explored, as well as the consequences of those legacies. In such classrooms, students would learn the processes through which certain linguistic codes were deemed sophisticated and others marked as deficient. Students would not only learn to write across various contexts, but also to examine how those writing styles regulate access to educational and professional spaces. With this knowledge, they can ask: who is more readily prepared to write and speak in these codes; who feels comfortable doing so; who benefits from these arrangements and who is disadvantaged by them? 

The most recent word I learned from a student came from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows., which defines “sonder” as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness.” Neither the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows nor “sonder” are “real” in that neither are supported by any sort of institutional authority (such as the Oxford English Dictionary). Still, say that we took “sonder” and the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows seriously. Say that we imagined and inhabited a world that yearned to understand the humanity of every passerby—that granted each stranger the wholeness of a complex, flawed life shaped by the histories we inherit. Say that we wrote, read, spoke to, and responded to one another in pursuit of such a world.

Toni Morrison—one of English’s most gifted wordsmiths—describes the vitality of language as “its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, and writers.” We use language to convey what came before, what is, and what can be. In schools, we use language to transmit and to (re)shape our shared cultures. The words we elevate here reflect and refract the possible worlds and communities we’ll inhabit. What will we do with that responsibility?

Jo Hsu (They/Them) is an assistant professor of English, affiliate faculty in Gender Studies, and the Associate Director of the Program in Rhetoric and Composition. Their research and teaching focus on the interrelations among identity, narrative writing, and struggles for social change. With an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in rhetoric and composition, Jo writes with an interdisciplinary lens reflective of their educational journey.