The Power of Naming: Language, a Tool for Division and Unity

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Because language is fundamentally a mechanism of “naming”—that is, of determining the “who” and “what” of objects and beings—it also functions as a mechanism of distinction. In other words, by using language, one inevitably draws distinctions between people, things, groups, and ideas. These distinctions can be unifying and allow members of a society to communicate and empathize with one another. However, when the ability to create distinctions through language is given to those who wish to use it to gain power, the differentiating capacity of language can draw harsh lines of division between groups that otherwise should be brought together. The story “She Unnames Them” by Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, highlights the process of both unification and division through language. She writes that after God allows Adam (the Bible’s first man) to name the animals, Eve (the Bible’s first woman) deliberately unnames them and, in doing so, both unravels the categorization and power enacted by Adam and feels closer to those animals. By un-naming them, the differences between Eve and the animals are unmade. Eve not only recognizes that arbitrary names emphasize the differences between the animals and herself but also that there exists a power in self-determination. By removing the names of the animals, she also redistributes the power away from Adam and back to those he would label as inferior or “other” than himself. 

Another example of the power behind naming can be seen through the rhetoric used during Donald Trump’s presidency to address the COVID-19 crisis. Rather than unify a nation in the midst of an emerging pandemic, Trump used racist and xenophobic language towards Asian people to deflect blame away from himself and undermine the urgency of the crisis. He referred to the virus as the “China-flu,” a term that not only associates China with sickness but also frames the virus as being “other” or foreign. In doing this, he not only exacerbated tensions between America and Asia but also applied systems of power that benefit him and undermined the pandemic’s ability to unite humanity in the face of a common crisis. In this application of names, Trump created a situation wherein those he had ostracized—Asian Americans—have less power than he does. By weaponizing language as a tool to distance people, create barriers, and silence many from reclaiming their identities, Trump echoes Adam’s attempts to take control or authority. Moreover, by continuously denying the severity of the crisis, he not only prolonged but also politicized the virus, pitting Americans against each other and furthering preexisting political divides. In this way, Trump created discord among what should have been a unified nation, creating categories and groups of people who vehemently opposed one another. As a result, those who agreed with him began perpetrating violence against Asian Americans and viewing them as a hostile group. 

As Trump demonstrates, language can be employed as a tool by those in power in order to maintain systems of oppression. However, language can also be used by those oppressed to survive, communicate, and obtain social mobility. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a type of language spoken predominantly by Black people in the United States. Despite being internally consistent and legitimate, AAVE’s grammatical structure does not conform to mainstream American English standards. Consequently, AAVE can develop bonds and connections between its speakers and can also serve as a form of cultural unity. This is a positive form of naming—the use of a dialect allows individuals to name themselves as part of a community and identify with those they share cultural and ethnic similarities. However, because society invalidates AAVE’s worth as a legitimate form of English, the community that uses it is isolated and targeted, both socially and legally. Speakers of AAVE have faced discrimination because of false stereotypes, are commonly perceived as less intelligent, and are discredited based on their use of language. In other words, speakers of AAVE are “othered” and diminished. This prejudice even exists in legal settings, as witnesses and defendants who speak these dialects are often discredited and misunderstood by courts and jurors. The negative attitudes displayed towards AAVE and the criminal justice system’s failure to recognize vernacular language have contributed to the preservation of discrimination and racial profiling in the United States. AAVE serves as a reflection of history and culture, and refusing to recognize its legitimacy feeds into systemic racism through education, employment, and other facets of life. Faced with these inequalities, marginalized groups of people sometimes adapt their language to obtain opportunities and social advancement. This is known as code-switching, the practice of alternating between languages or dialects. Using AAVE in certain contexts and “mainstream American English” in other situations is one popular example of code-switching. Changing and moderating language allows people to transcend boundaries and adapt to different cultural groups; although this can have a harmful impact on identity, mental health, and one’s relationship to their lineage, it allows people to attain success in a society built around privilege and white normativity. Code-switching can be perceived as a form of survival because it enables people to establish a common ground with others and avoid potentially dangerous situations. 

Language, no matter whether it be in the form of single phrases or entire dialects, allows us to name ourselves and for other people to categorize us. Because society operates in this way and because people constantly use language to unite and distinguish, by understanding this cycle, we can shift or understand language to obtain power. The aforementioned figures—Trump and Eve, just to name a few—all reckon with the forces behind words and shape their language to achieve their respective definitions of power, whether or it be for self or the benefit of the common good.