“Your Majesty, language has always been the perfect instrument of empire.” What do you suppose this means? Is it true?
This was the response of Antonio de Nebrija, Bishop of Avila after being asked by Queen Isabella of Spain what possible use she might have for his painstakingly crafted grammar of Castilian Spanish.
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A wonderful iconic quote. Language is power, that pretty well sums it up. When you ‘have language’ – when you are articulate, when you have and use an intelligent, varied vocabulary, when you have the habit/ability to always choose your words carefully, when you understand the sound of your statements, the effect of your words in another’s head (and heart) - you have immense power TO effect change, to persuade others, to teach others, to win others over to your cause – to make yourself understood in the world. The Bishop knows this, the Queen does not appreciate it.
Language is at the core of every legal system in the world. East or west, language is the beating heart of laws, constitutions, peace treaties, and a myriad of contracts between nations , corporations and neighbours. Language - words - set down on paper has an authority no other expression can imprint on the mind. To understand and appreciate the power of each word, the power of its placement and the power of its many meanings is an art, a science and one of the highest levels of thinking, creativity and humanity that exists.
In our quote, the fact that the Queen does not understand or appreciate the Bishop’s “painstakingly crafted’ language, gives us a great deal of insight into these two characters. She does not value communication. She does not appreciate the art of a legal document, she does not appreciate the complexities of the language of a contract or a treaty.It is inferred that she does not feel it necessary to communicate with all her citizens. Does this make a good sovereign (ruler)? A sovereign who has no interest in language is a sovereign who will not recognize when language is being used against her or her state; a sovereign who will lose opportunities because she is unable to communicate clearly, intelligently and articulately.
It is inferred however, that the Bishop has taken the time, put great effort into and committed to learning a dialect of Spanish - Castilian. Language is important enough to him that he has committed to learning it very well. Those who speak Castilian are important enough to him, for whatever reasons, to be able to communicate with them clearly and directly. His idea that language is the perfect ‘instrument’ of the state means it is an important way to hold the state together; it is a vital tool that allows communication with everybody in his country and indeed those beyond their borders. Language is the tool, the ‘instrument’ , the device which encourages and creates the security of a state (empire), its economic stability and its peaceful future.
Acquiring and using any language – particularly your mother tongue - at a sophisticated, studied level - requires oral fluency. But it also requires much more. It requires you understand the metaphors of the language, the humour of a language. It requires you are well read in the literature of that language and particularly its poetry. It requires you are a confident composer and writer of the language at a level of clarity and directness (and elegance) that demands others’ pay attention.
Start listening to others who speak a language beautifully, without fillers or repetition. Listen carefully to somebody you admire – is their language polished, intelligent, interesting? Acquiring and using a language at a high level of proficiency equips you well for any career anywhere. Language is power; Language makes us human. That is true.
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