Forging language for change

Creating change around alcohol and elsewhere requires us to describe dynamic situations accurately, an area where English could be improved.

Our language often ties us to a static picture of situations more usefully seen as being in dynamic change, so blinding us to possibilities.


We are not, for instance, smokers in the same way we are right-handed, brown-eyed, male or female.

Being a smoker is a status we acquire as a result of what we consume and something we can change by making different choices.

English we say, “I am a smoker,” in the same way as, “I am from Manchester,” or “I am human.” But they are not the same.

In this way, as my brilliant friend and first giveaway book recipient pointed out,  we English-speakers have made a hash of it.

“There is no escape save by stepping out of it into another [language],” as Enlightenment polymath Alexander von Humboldt put it.

Not “to be”
If we are serious about change we should distinguish between inherent states and transient ones.

Making the distinction clear would  help us all see better where fruitful change is possible.

Portuguese and Spanish—and other Iberian languages—have a way to do this built in, using the word “estar” for potentially passing states.

Mixing it into English unforgivably, “I estar alcohol dependent,” would mean we are currently alcohol dependent, but not always and forever.

Using estar like this would convey a sense of changeability to a state of illness, boredom, sadness, or being a smoker too.

I am told estar is not often used to emphasise that substance use problems are shifting and dynamic, but doing so would be easy.

In English it is more difficult. A new word, an English estar, has only a very remote chance of catching on.

Emphasising change
Given introducing a new English verb is impossible we could still make better use of the language we already have.

“Now” is, perhaps, useful: I am now a smoker; I now have a cold; I am now alcohol dependent; I am now not alcohol dependent.

Yes, it is clunky, but perhaps we should accept some clunk if it means we avoid binding ourselves to things which we can change.

It offers the potential to soften and shift our outlook and allows, if we wish, our self-image to adapt to new circumstances.

Routinely acknowledging change is possible, in alcohol, smoking and much else, can surely help us realise our choices. ■