The Language of Community

I’m going to observe, rather than define. Communities are groups of people who share a common language, in which communal relations can be articulated. The most basic such relation is membership.

How much is the language peculiar to that community? Are all English-speakers a community, because they speak English? Let’s set that question to the side for a moment and treat the big, recognized languages as something separate. Particular communities draw on the resources of the big languages but develop their own idiosyncrasies. In some contexts this is called a dialect. In other contexts it is called jargon. But it is peculiar to the community.

More important, perhaps, is lower-level language; language at the level of practice. “Body language” puts it crudely, but the nonverbal aspects of practice have a kind of vocabulary of their own. We see this quite clearly in community rituals, thick with meaning even when no one is saying a word.

But we also see it in how people in a community behave towards one another; telegraphing their relative standings without consciously intending to do so. There are also formal protocols, of course, on top of informal ones. I know how to behave in an interview, a wedding, and a barbeque hosted by a friend; the expectations in each case are quite different. But people have no trouble communicating when I’ve crossed a line I shouldn’t have.

Communities rest on formal relations, spelled out at least in part in actual forms. That is, documents. Dave has hammered this into me again and again in our discussions of community, and it has stuck at last. The local Catholic church has a deed for the property, a charter, a formal relationship with the mother church. There is a whole set of documentation behind the priest. They undoubtedly have lists of who attends regularly, especially if they have signed up for church activities at some point.

My diploma, my lease, my employment contract, my birth certificate—all of these things indicate membership in communities of various sorts. In this case they refer to a community of alumni, or a neighborhood, or an industry, or a political community. Some are more specific than others; my employment contract gives a thin outline of my role at the company, what I owe them and what they owe me.

There’s only ever so much that’s put on paper, but the paper establishes a formal relationship with a formal community.

Not everyone is multilingual at the level of big languages, but at the level of community-specific language, we are all multilingual. A white Mississippi boy from a poor family who is the first in his family to go to college, and eventually takes a job in Canada, learns to speak in the language of at least three communities. Typically, he is most likely to seem like a foreigner in how he speaks and acts to the people in the town he grew up in.

The nature of community is, in short, intimately tied to the nature of language. This drives home Hans-Georg Gadamer’s belief in the universality of the hermeneutic dimension, and his evocative phrase that “being that can be understood is language.” Hermeneutics and linguistics are as important for understanding community as sociology—perhaps more important.

Advertisements