Words really do hurt

“Your words hurt,

they are
prickly like thorns,

they are sharp
like sharp blades…

they can hurt…” [2]


These are the verses of a song by an Italian singer of our time. Because words can hurt, hit as a slap,  throw stones and release a bullet, we should pay attention to how and why we are using words. It is a hidden type of violence that is being done almost unconsciously.

We have been used to “aggressive words” since our childhood, and we tend to think and believe that the ones who are using aggressive language, it is their freedom of expression and we should respect that. That is trying to understand and to put yourself from the other person’s perspective.

But, freedom of expressions has rules and it does not correspond to “I do or I say what I want”; because this is where all the hassle and insult began and often it is disguised as irony or satire and here at this point, the freedom of expression ends; the liberty of the other, us and everyone else.

Freedom of expression must not compromise “live – together” notion. According to the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, freedom of opinion and expression is a cornerstone of contemporary liberal democracy, but a speech may legitimately be delayed when you use it to incite violence[3].

One feature of a language is its performative; language actions, people are not limited to say something or to express an idea, but like every other gesture and every other action, they have some consequences that can hurt and cause damage.

Language may hurt depending on the context that is used for. Offensive words and verbal abuse, not only can create emotional damages but can incite more hate that in turn can eventually lead to concrete violent actions. Which is why among the different types of violence it’s possible to find vocal forms of violence; in fact, while studying linguistics, the first thing required is to be able to differentiate between idiom and language.

It could be simplified by saying that idiom is a “system of signs”, in other words, the rules we study at a school in a grammar book. While language is a tool that we use to communicate, or rather to say, it is a typical behaviour of human beings to learn a system of signs with which to produce speech acts in order to express themselves and to be able to communicate. The idiom gives us an infinite number of possible combinations, while language may be freely used as we like. However, the only limitation can be is the “understanding” perceived by the other persons and specifically when the person is not in front of us[4].

Therefore, is it the “idioms” that is exercising violence or the “talker” who can make a choice in order to avoid violence? Only a person can react, and the idiom, as a system, has specific rules that allow us to refer to people in the right way, so also are the traditions, habits, and culture that bring us to discriminate them through precise forms of language usages.

In fact, often violence is “hidden” behind some traditional expressions, which create some precise images that are difficult to remove from people’s minds since they are deeply planted[5].

A discriminatory language is hurting and it hurts, even more, when it is hidden behind what constitutes a “freedom” and the desire of winning which leads to reinforcing many negative stereotypes and to stabilize it even more and to reassure it with some fixed mental images.

Language is power and the people used it to submit our tongue to unfair purposes, in order to cause violence, to humiliate and to hurt. Whereas, idiom has precise and equal rules that respect anyone and never meant to offend anyone. In fact, it allows us to embrace and to nurture pluralism in a society. By Valeria Casadei


Image by: Saatchi & Saatchi, Singapore

[1]    https://comunicandoilsociale.wordpress.com/2008/07/page/2/  (Executive Creative Director: Andy Greenaway, Creative Director: Richard
Copping, Copywriter: Simon Jenkins and Andrew Petch, Art Director: Ronojoy
Ghosh and Ng Pei Pei, Photographer: Teo Studios).
[2]    Le tue parole fanno male, Cesare Cremonini, Maggese, 2005, Warner Music
[3] http://www.iep.utm.edu/milljs/#SH2e         http://culturauniversale.blogspot.com/2008/06/john-stuart-mill-e-la-concezione-del.html
[4]    https://compassunibo.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/parole-per-violentare-parole-per-rispettare-incontro-con-la-linguista-cecilia-robustelli/
[5]    Italian book: C. Robustelli, Linee guida per l’uso del genere nel linguaggio amministrativo, Firenze, Comune di Firenze, 2012
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