What’s in a Word?:
Writing about Language Communities and Conventions
The famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” What did he mean by this statement?
Language awareness and flexibility is central to successfully navigating life. When we are locked into one pattern of speaking, writing, thinking, we limit the boundaries of our existence. Good writers know that they belong to myriad language communities, speak/write a variety of Englishes (to invoke Amy Tan), and, more than that, these writers know how to switch between varieties of English to persuade specific audiences.
Good writers know how to investigate language communities—their membership, language practices, and related values. Moreover, good writers know how to modify their own speaking and writing practices to appeal to a specific language community.
The general subject matter for this essay is language or language communities. The source of your information will be what you observe and hear by listening to others and what you recollect from your own language communities. It will be up to you to determine what particular focus your essay will take and what message you wish to convey to your reader, within one of the prompts I provide below. You will write an essay that makes a central assertion (a thesis) about language—selecting one of the prompts listed below to use as a starting point.
- Which of the language communities you belong to do you think is most mis- understood? Why? Describe that language community—its membership, practices, dialects, values—so as to “set the record straight” and clear up misconceptions and stereotypes.
- Write about a time when you (or someone you observed) made a significant linguistic mis-step. What happened? What values were clashing in this instance? What are some of the things that cause communication breakdowns within or between language communities? How can this be helped?
- Given your experiences so far, what do you know of the language community of college? Is college one big language community, or a collection of multiple, smaller ones? Compare and contrast two of the disciplines from which you are taking courses this semester (i.e., your History class and your Biology class). How are those disciplines similar in their expectations of writers? How are they different? What does this mean in terms of the values of the disciplines.
- Through observation and interaction, learn about a language community that is brand-new to you. This could be a language community formed around ethnicity, hobby/interest, religion, college major/minor, lifestyle, etc. Like an anthropologist, write an essay that describes, in detail, that new community. Then, reflect on what the experience means to you, what it taught you, perhaps, about keeping an open- mind in the face of difference.
- Describe a specific language practice of one of the communities in which you have membership. What does this practice indicate about the community’s values?
Guidelines for Essay #2
A Note about Audience: You should assume an audience of educated peers for your essay. But remember that your audience is nonetheless diverse. What this means is that you will need to maintain a balance between discussing your language community—its specifics—and articulating a compelling and generalized message about language that you readers—regardless of their own language communities—can understand. So, for instance, if you are writing about the often misunderstood language community of the military, keep in mind that some in your audience have no familiarity with that language community—they need specifics but they also need a “so what” message that matters to them.
Length: Approximately 1,000 words (about 4 pages, double-spaced, 1 inch margins, Times New Roman font).
Style/Format: This, as all essays in EN105, will be formatted according to MLA (Modern Language Association) guidelines for scholarship in the humanities:
- 12 point, Times New Roman font, double-spaced.
- 1-inch margins top, bottom, and sides.
- Although no cover page is needed, you should include your name, my name, the course number/title, and date at the upper left-hand corner of the manuscript.
- To view a sample MLA-formatted paper, see p. 246 in Easy Writer.
File format: Please submit your essay in Rich Text Format (RTF). This is available in most word processing programs; it will ensure maximum document accessibility for all operating platforms.
Titles: Include a descriptive title at the beginning of your essay that tips your readers off to your thesis. Do not format your title with quotation marks, boldface, underlining or italics. Quotation marks or underlining are only appropriate if the title borrows words from another source.
Deadline: Submit your final draft essay no later than midnight CST on Sunday at the end of this unit.
Use of essays for future courses: Please understand that your essay may be used— anonymously—as a sample for future EN105 students and instructors unless you expressly request that it not be used. Your work, of course, will only be used for educational purposes.