Countries, borders, and language: Why studying the humanities is important.

Several years ago, I went to visit a Nigerian friend and was surprised and confused when he let me into his apartment while saying “you’re welcome.” I hadn’t thanked him for anything, so I spent the first few minutes of the visit trying to decipher my host’s greeting. It eventually occurred to me to look at the individual parts of the expression: My friend hadn’t been responding to a “thank you,” he had been saying “you are welcome here.” I was so used to the expression “you’re welcome” that I took its meaning for granted instead of thinking about what its real significance was.

Now, this isn’t an exhortation to go out and buy an etymological dictionary: Most of the time you don’t have to trace the meaning of a word back to its roots to effectively communicate with others. What this is, though, is another post on why studying the humanities is such a big deal. Studying language, literature, history, and philosophy invites us to look at those expressions and ideas that have fossilized themselves in our mind, to examine their true history and meaning, and to not take for granted the complex and fascinating wonders of the world we live in. Here are a few quick examples:

1) Elsewhere on this website, I allude to the fact that I am actually Lord Spencer Greenhalgh of Principality of Sealand. I have no plans to start consistently introducing myself as such (at least, not until I get tenure), but I think it makes a great conversation starter and helps us explore the surprisingly tricky question of what exactly a country is. CGP Grey does a great job of tackling this issue:

2) While we’re talking international relations, let’s talk about borders. I lived for several months in Geneva, Switzerland, and vividly remember the day I made a wrong turn driving around one of Geneva’s suburbs and wound up in France. This particular border-crossing checkpoint wasn’t manned that day, which only made the wrong turn a little weirder: I had entered a political entity with different laws, cultures, and currencies completely by accident and almost without noticing it. One friend of mine has an even better story, one of accidentally crossing from the Netherlands to France while walking around a Caribbean island. Borders: super weird.

3) To prove that I’m not just a guy with a minor in political science, here’s an example for language. Unfortunately for many of you, I’m also a guy with a major in French, so my example might not resonate with you as much as it resonates with me. Besides a line about dogs that cracks me up every time I read it, this comic takes aim at some of the spelling and grammar rules that Anglophones take for granted. Why is it that we capitalize so many things (compared to French if not to German)? Why do we put our dollar signs before a price when we say it after the numbers?

I love these examples because they hint at how studying the humanities helps us better understand the nuances behind countries, borders, capitalization, and some of the other things that most humans spend a whole lifetime taking for granted and never questioning. By inviting you to question these “constants,” however, I am not asking you to become a cynic. The most fascinating things about countries, borders, capitalization, and other phenomena that you might study in a humanities classroom is that even if they are somewhat arbitrary and indisputably invented by humans, they are still important. That is, for me, the core argument for studying the humanities: What we do as humans affects our lives just as much as the natural laws of the universe. It’s worth paying attention to them.

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