Liveblog: Kübra Gümüşay on language and the future

Language is the invisible system that constrains our thoughts and our ideas. Change the language, and you open yourself to new ideas.

Warning: Live-blogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling crimes against grammar and syntax. This post will be updated over the next few days.

Words are to us like water is to fish. They are all around us, they influence us and make us what we are – but we don’t think about them. What came first? Our language? Or our perception?

To know a word, to name something, is to become aware of it, to be able to notice it. Have you ever asked for directions, and then forgotten them as soon as you forget it? There’s a word for that in Hawaii. Some languages don’t have gender-specific pronouns. Can you imagine a conversation with someone about someone else, with no knowledge of their gender? If you struggle, your language probably has gendered pronouns.

Time is relative. Language changes it.

Our languages influence our perception of both space and time, based on hour structures of grammar and syntax. Those who speak Latin languages perceive time as left to right because they write left to right. Languages which run the other way create a different perception of time. One language, which can run either way, has a perception of time angle around geography, not left or right.

What if our language was less focused on us, that reinforced our integration with the environment, and our relative smallness in the universe? A language that didn’t put us at the centre of the universe, but instead centred the Earth? Would we be living such unsustainable lives? Has our language limited our view of the world to the eyes of humans? A language that didn’t relegate most of the world to an “it” rather than something that could be perceived as living and human-like?

Does the earth love us back? Can we give the earth agency? No language captures the whole world. Each language only grasps experience as far as those who have power and dominance within a language. Without terms to express sexual harassment, can we express our experiences? The advent of the phrase “sexual harassment” was tricky at first, as the meaning was vague. It was only when we came to an agreed definition that it gained power. Before that happened, the victims had no way of expressing it clearly, and the aggressors had no sense that they’d transgressed.

We are shaped by the language of place

But language is only one thing that shapes us. Our buildings define how we can move around spaces. Infrastructure creates inviable boundaries within cities that separate communities. We have hostile architecture, that forces the homeless away from our public spaces. Our governments and political systems are also an architecture that shapes our perception and view of the world.

We need to interrogate this, and then we will be able to see more problems and crises that we are blind to now. Those who speak up feel and create discomfort because they push against the boundaries of our comprehension, and show us the limits of our understanding, and the boundaries we have unknowingly crossed. It’s an opportunity to learn, to become part of the solution.

Toni Morrison wrote that racism exists to distract, to keep you from your work. There will always be one more derogatory claim to disprove. Another absurdity, another provocation that thousands of people spend time addressing rather than living their lives as they wish.

Live in error and experimentation

Mistakes are both inevitable and necessary – and an opportunity to learn, grow and change. Ideas do not have to be realised everywhere at once. Letting go of that idea, allows us to experiment with transformational ways of living, with potential utopias, that could spread. It is crucial to study alternatives that prove that things could be different. Hope is everywhere – it is a promise not that things will be better, but instead that they could be better.

Be courageous, and cause discomfort by naming the things that cause harm. Have the bravery to take responsibility for when you create harm, intentionally or unintentionally. Business as usual is not an option.

Kübra Gümüşay is an award-winning writer from Germany. In her best-selling book Sprache und Sein, she examines how language dictates politics and shapes the way we think.