Say It Like You Mean It: How changing our language can change the world

Credit: Lyora Pissarro in collaboration with Juan Edwin Mendoza Perez (@galeria_imox) and Miss Monroe Studio

Throughout the past few years, I’ve seen the same nickel-size stickers popping up around New York City. In the middle of these colorful, star-shaped stickers is a two-word message; “healin it.” When I’m able to spot them, I know that my friend Nora has been hard at work in her one-woman campaign to get people to stop saying “killing it” — as in “wow, you’re killing it at work!” — and instead replace it with “healing it”.

While always a big fan of Nora, I admit that even I didn’t truly understand why she placed so much fuss over a single word. Luckily, I’ve been exposed to a series of events over the past year that have helped me to understand the power of language.

One of the most important shifts for me came after attending a Decolonial Methods workshop in Chiapas, Mexico. Many of the required readings for the workshop focused on deculturalization, or the process of stripping a people of their culture and replacing it with another. One of the primary ways that this was accomplished in the Americas was by making native languages illegal to speak and write, and replacing them with English. Native Scholar Joel Spring termed this “language imperialism; the concerted effort to force colonized people to only use English.

Through efforts for language revitalization and recognition, Native scholars and activists throughout the world have painstakingly tried to illuminate how one’s connection to language goes even deeper than preserving customs. In the beautiful book Indigenous Research Methodologies, Dr. Bagele Chilisa emphasizes that language is our building block for how we form a society. She explains that language expresses the patterns and structures of culture and consequently influences human thinking, manners, and judgment.

In “Philosophizing in the Tone of Tojolabal”, linguist Dr. Carlos Lenkersdorf describes his experience in learning the ancient Mayan language Tojolabal. In suggesting that Tojolabal literally creates a completely different way of orienting to the world when compared to Latin-based languages, he writes:

“They spoke with plants, animals and things made by men. There were abstract concepts that were difficult to understand in Spanish. The majority of the words and the families of words were formed from roots of no more than three letters. And, finally, I came in contact with concepts and linguistic turns without any equivalence or correspondence in Spanish. For that reason, I speak not only of another world, but of actually germinating new ideas.”

He further explains that in Tojolabal, participants use the suffix WE/US as their primary way of speaking to others. In contrast with the Western Cartesian mode of prioritizing the individual and the I as an entity separate from the group, Lenkersdorf explains that in Tojolabal the I is so thoroughly integrated into the WE/US that it is rarely ever uttered. Rather than thinking about the group as the sum of many individuals, the Tojolabal WE/US represents a qualitatively distinct entity, in which all of the constituents form an organismic unity.

While this might seem like a subtle difference, Lenkersdorf argues that the belonging to this organic whole- shapes the thoughts and actions of each individual, as well as the larger social structures. His study details how the WE/US suffix shapes every aspect of the Tojolabal society, from their forms of education to conceptions of power, which is distributed equally among the US/WE and not concentrated in the hands of presidents, caciques, oligarchies, and other affluent people. It also shapes justice that is restorative rather than punitive, the status of women, the numeric system, time, poetry, and music.

It makes me wonder what kind of society have we built when we use words rooted in feelings of domination or deprivation to congratulate each other or show our excitement for something. Some examples include, “I’m dying to do that” and “That’s so sick!” For Nora, the most obvious contrast is between saying “You’re killing it” while we actually mean “You’re doing a great job!” It seems to me that “killing it” does not simply replace the phrase “You’re doing a great job!” but actually affects what we come to value as accomplishments.

The actions that end up falling under the category of “killing it” are typically things of great benefit to the individual (e.g. getting a promotion, finishing a project), but don’t necessarily include any sense of how one’s accomplishments are affecting their own deeper wellbeing or the wellbeing of others. This makes sense given the origin of the phrase, which comes from someone “making a killing.” Needing to kill for one’s own benefit derives from a scarcity mindset that views resources as limited and access to resources as a zero-sum game; however, now that more people understand the horrible repercussions of this way of thinking, it seems that our language desperately needs to be updated.

What would change if people congratulated each other by saying “Amazing! You’re healin it!”? How would that affect what actions are worthy of celebrating? Would it further inspire us to pursue paths of personal integration and wellness? Would it animate us to act in ways that contribute to the wellbeing of others?

Such a simple switch — a single word in a single phrase — with the potential for radical social transformations.

Thank you, Nora, for your intention and persistence. You, my love, are certainly healin it!




Ph.D. Candidate in Geography at CUNY Graduate Center. I study race, politics, economics, culture and social change.

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Olivia Ildefonso

Olivia Ildefonso

Ph.D. Candidate in Geography at CUNY Graduate Center. I study race, politics, economics, culture and social change.

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