Language is an arbitrary system of articulated sounds made use of by a group of humans as a means of carrying on the affairs of their society (Francis 1958:13) [my emphasis]
I think that’s close to the definition my mom shared with me over three decades ago as we discussed reading, writing, and the power of both. I was in elementary school then and am relying on memory now, but the impression it made on me has kept 80% of her exact wording intact despite no active effort on my part to remember it.
We are so used to using words, we sometimes forget that words in and of themselves have no inherent meaning. One doesn’t go digging out in the desert and uncover the word “Dog”, or even “Sand” for that matter. Rather we develop a system where we can make an utterance that another fellow user of that system will understand we are talking about dog and sand if that is what we are needing to convey to them.
Persons who oppose marriage equality often accuse me of redefining marriage. But that’s misunderstanding how language works. Definitions, like cultures, are never static. They come out of society’s need to communicate certain ideas, not the other way around.
This need is society dependent. As such, between any two societies there can be whole swaths of words that are utterly absent from one or the other, or are at the least quite cumbersome to translate if they can be translated at all.
For purposes of this blog entry, the Yanomamo tribe of Indians comes to mind. Familial relationships are important to them in carrying out their affairs. So where we use the generic word Aunt and Uncle to describe a sibling of either our mother or our father, they have a separate word for each, instantly letting the listener know with a high degree of specificity what the person’s exact relationship is to them.
Likewise, when I am allowed to use the word husband to describe Gary — which I am prevented from doing so in the course of filling out any number of heterosexist forms, such as taxes — any listener or reader in my culture instantly knows where he fits into my life.
They know we are not shacked up. They know I’m not referencing a business partner. They don’t think he is just one of many others in my life who are significant. Nor do they think I am referring to a fellow member of a union that requires dues.
And they sure as heck don’t think I’m talking about the davenport in my living room, the Internet, or cell phones.
Only someone being deliberately ignorant would claim to be confused by my use of husband. Only the slyly disingenuous would say they do not know what I am meaning when I say, He is my husband. Only those who are being maliciously incendiary would assert that I’m using the term husband in some wholly foreign way comparable to using it to refer to a tree or a rock or a box turtle.
For we as a society have a common bond of shared language that allows this effective, and wholly unambiguous, piece of straightforward — and honest — communication:
I am married.
I have a husband.
His name is Gary.
Three simple sentences that you don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader to understand. Nor do you need a dictionary for comprehension.