You might be a problem

July 15, 2018

English is one of the world’s most successful languages, a pigeon to be sure, but one whose population of speakers extend to all corners of the globe. It is the world’s first second language, and this this near-universal adoption has highlighted it’s capacity for finding space for previously unfamiliar concepts. One could also say that it steals words. Or as a student once pointed out, “schadenfreude is in all the dictionaries now.”

But English does contain a number of important traps. The concept “you”, for example, is has a universality that is fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. Why? Because most networks of English speakers lack a distinction between the singular and collective “you.” While this seemingly minor distinction can vanish in to the folds of context easily enough, it raises a dialectical quandary between listener and speaker, and even more so between writer and reader.

I mean, who are you anyways?

You can’t know where you is pointed unless there’s some clarity as to where its interrogator, me, is coming from. Am I calling you out based on its group associations? Are “you” a football fan or a weapons manufacturer? Am I exploring the contours of your phenomenal (as it it is in fact a phenomenon, not that it’s all that great. I mean, maybe it is…you know what you mean better than I do) presence. Are you a body or a spirit that I’m addressing? How many do I think I’m talking to when you listen to me speak of you? Conversely, does it matter if you know if it’s you I’m actually speaking to?

I think that it must.

One of language’s chief effects is to build consensus. It allows us to identify with one another on a level not fully possible outside it’s embrace. It transforms passion into empathy, and anger into grace. Through it, we can share dreams, tell stories, shape expectations, and even fire a sports car at Mars. The paradox of you is simply that, while emptiness is freeing, we can turn the world upside down once we decide “you” corresponds with something we can’t live with.

It leaves English speakers (and presumably other languages with similar habits) trapped in a kind of perpetual self-perceptive hysteria. “Who am I” Is prodded by the question “who are you?” And trapped within this impossible dialectic is the self, forced to answer the same question, across infinite contexts, with some semblance of reliability. Eventually all this work is bound to produce a set of standards for you that it might not be prepared to meet; one must acknowledge that appearance creates impression; our reaction to you is largely out of our control. It is one based entirely on who we think you might be, and you should be warned: most of us were not asked to live our story. Shit just kinda happened, and here we are, left to figure it out.

You just need to be careful with us.