Language Holds Power. But Where Do I Go When I Can’t Find the Right Words to Express Myself?

BY CHOUROUK GORRAB

I’m not sure if I’m really getting old, but lately, I have taken notice of how fast language changes. A day doesn’t go by without learning new words that help shape better and more inclusive conversations. In recent years, I have never been more conscious of the words I use, as I push myself to be more vocal about issues I care about - something that is not always easy to do.

Take this. Technology has grown faster than anything else in the past decade, and lockdowns have proven just how much we rely on it to communicate. Some would argue that this is a good thing, making our lives more convenient and helping us stay connected through hardships, while others would also argue that we are in fact losing touch with reality, wasting key skills because we depend on it too much. Similarly, is the speedy evolution of our vocabulary fully benefiting us, or will it discourage some of us?

I’ve never thought of myself as a person of words. I do like a good book and have always been interested in learning foreign languages and cultures. But I have never really been great at articulating my thoughts and feelings. I used to write a lot when I was younger because it was easier for me to put the unspoken on paper, but it’s never been something I shared with anyone. These pages were personal, a journal of sorts, even though I didn’t realise it then. But mostly, I’ve always been worried about not choosing the right words, and that’s still something I struggle with today. Arabic and French were the primary languages I used while growing up or visiting my parents’ homeland, but when I moved to the UK, English took a more prominent place. How do you juggle between three languages, all the while making sure you choose the right words? In my experience, you learn by trial and error.

One of the questions I also often ask myself before speaking up is this: what gives me the authority to speak on topics such as Black Lives Matter, Palestine, LGBTQIA+ rights, and share my opinion, when I know that someone will probably be better placed to speak up? Someone might also disagree with what I say, and it makes it all the more intimidating to speak up. Not that we would necessarily disagree on the argument itself, but the words I use may be somehow obsolete or not exactly accurate.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend who shared that she found it difficult to voice her support for communities she didn’t belong to. Failing to find her place and the right words in the midst of stories and news, she often decided against speaking up, and regrets it now. With the constant flow of information, this is pressure that many of us can relate to, regardless of our cultural or social backgrounds. Online influencers themselves receive backlash on a regular basis because they have a hard time identifying which issues to speak on, how to talk about them, and finding the line between being supportive and appropriating someone else’s cause.

So I wonder, do our voices count even if we can’t put it right? What if your heart is in the right place, but you give the wrong impression by not knowing which words are accepted, and which aren’t? Unfortunately, the struggle with terminology can lead some people to retreat. Not because we don’t care, but because we don’t know what to say. We agree, we feel it, but we don’t have the words.

But if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that regardless of how we feel, we can't always remain silent, and if the topic is not about us, we can show support without centering ourselves in the conversation. Speaking up is a tedious exercise for some people, but rest assured it doesn’t mean you have to become the centre of attention, and it can help drown the noise made by ill-intentioned people.

There are also great activists out there who might be more eloquent, who might be saying what you’ve been struggling to say - and it’s okay to share their work and amplify their presence instead of yours.

In her book ‘How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division’, published in 2020, award-winning British-Turkish novelist and activist Elif Shafak explains that for a very long time, we have been using outdated words in our social and political stands, not bothering to look up what they actually mean today. “So accustomed have we become to using this weighty tome as our reference that we no longer feel the need to look up rudimentary words, taking it for granted that we already know well what they mean,” she wrote. “But now a strong wind is blowing in, turning the pages too fast. There is a burning candle next to the dictionary and before we realise it the wind tips it over.”

Language will keep evolving, whether we like it or not. Just like technology. It’s okay to struggle with the pace, and not always have the right words - just don’t let that scare you off.