Cyprus Mail

Why words matter- but it’s not what you think

A FEW days ago, a glossary for journalism in Cyprus came into the public’s attention causing an outcry in the Greek Cypriot community, especially to the people whose nationalistic and overzealous patriotic feelings felt to be perpetuated by Mr Harlam Dâsir and his colleagues who dared to even suggest “new approaches and a new thinking on the most difficult issues, and a dialogue throughout and between the media communities” of the island.

The glossary titled ‘Words that Matter’ highlights the importance of shifting both communities’ perspectives on certain words that hold specific and especially sentimental gravitas in order to avoid instigating and propagating the 50-year and more political turmoil that has existed between the two communities.

No sooner was glossary out, a cacophony started on the internet. Poetic banalities that some feel they have to adhere in order to re-enforce their great Greek national ancestry intermingled with expired slogans that feel like bygone remnants of an era that post-war generations can only imagine. The ever-present and crippling fear of the Greek-Cypriot who feels that if he loses his sense of national identity he will not know who he is.  Or is it rather, if he doesn’t know where he is, then he will not know who he is?

For a long time, the idea that language shapes our thoughts was considered unjustifiable with most scientists arguing that linguistic relativism is only partly relevant and only when it comes to some of our thoughts and decisions.

We now know however this not to be true. Professor Lera Boroditsky along with fellow researchers at Stanford and MIT recently shared evidence on the Scientific American about how language shapes not only the way people think about space, time, colours and objects but also how the effects of language can construe events and make people perceive and experience emotions. Professor Boroditsky concludes her findings by arguing that “Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our live”.

Last year I started playing a little game with myself. I consciously tried to re-program my brain not to use the word ‘occupied area’ in sentences but to refer to it as ‘the north side’.  The reason was simple. By refraining from using the word ‘occupied’ I actively disassociate myself from the racial and national segregation that has existed between the two communities for so many decades and which seems to proliferate hate. It also allows me to see the linguistic reciprocation of my conversationalists upon the usage of this word and how he/she chooses to react is often as interesting as my instigation of it.

The word ‘occupied’ holds aggression and violence. On a philosophical level, my existential Weltschmerz says that If I am occupied on the north side then might as well be occupied on all the other three sides of the island as well since it is no secret that the island’s fauna and flora is constantly being occupied illegally by everyone on the island from east to west and north to south.

Words do matter-but it’s not what you think! They matter because violent words connote violent memories and violent memories only preserve negativity. Similarly, positive words promote positive memories and produce happy feelings or at least happier states of being. There has to be a point when future generations will be able to communicate using constructive language rather than divisive when it comes to their land.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not in favour of forging history just to be politically correct nor am I in favour of imposing linguistic restrictions on anyone. I love saying the word ‘assihtir’ as the next Cypriot. But I love saying the word burek/pourekki more, if you know what I mean…

Ileana Nicholson, via email

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