Socially, language functions in many ways like a scaffold.

I’ll explain. But first I’ll talk briefly about this word scaffold and where it comes from and what it is used to mean now. Because of course I will.

Scaffold has to do with neither folds nor scafs, nor for that matter with holds. It’s yet another word that came to English from French, and came to French from Latin (and Greek), and changed quite a lot en route. The modern French reflex of it is échafaud; both words came from a word that went through quite a few forms, but had the early form escadafaut, which was es- (from Latin ex-, ‘out’) plus cadafaut, which, like modern French catafalque, comes from later Latin catafalcum (‘viewing platform’), which in its turn was probably made from cata-, from Greek κατα- (‘back, against’) and Latin falicum, in turn from fala (‘wooden gallery; siege tower’).

So it started with a siege tower and then became a viewing platform and then became a… oh, yes, I didn’t say: escadafaut generally referred to a platform for viewing a tournament.

But of course that’s not what scaffold (or scaffolding) is usually used for now. It’s that structure of metal supports and wooden platforms you may see in front of a building. Sometimes the building is being built; sometimes it’s being restored or preserved; sometimes it’s just being kept standing. And, less commonly these days, scaffold can also refer to a platform for viewing something, or for a theatrical performance, or for public executions, or, in some cultures, for disposal of dead bodies. (And let us not forget its cousin catafalque, which in modern English usage is a temporary ornamental platform for a coffin to go on in funerary rites.)

OK, then. So how does language function socially like a scaffold?

To start with, we use language to mediate the development and maintenance of social structures and interactions. Language is an essential social tool; our social structures may not be made of it (though some arguably are, but that doesn’t work with the current metaphor, so let it slide), but they are made with it. You want to add a glorious new tower or wing to the edifice of our culture? You scaffold it with language: new words, new ways of using old words, new turns of phrase, sometimes even new grammar.

But we also use language to shore up, maintain, and refresh existing social structures. Turns of phrase, common idioms, colloquialisms, and metaphors can embed biases and presuppositions (as just one example, are you familiar with the term Indian giver?). Even basic grammatical details can function this way, as for instance insistence on he as the default pronoun (which it never was, though some people starting in the 1800s tried to claim it was in places where that would mean not having to explicitly recognize women, but somehow not in places where it might entail giving women completely equal rights – see Dennis Baron’s great book What’s Your Pronoun? for extensive details on this). And peeving about “new” usages reinforces an ideology of “old” as better – adherence to “tradition,” which always turns out to be just what the speaker remembers having learned in youth, plus some additions that reinforce their prejudices: the linguistic façade of the social structures and hierarchies that the person has learned and participated in and is quite comfortable with, thank you.

Not that all “old” words are acceptable in such a perspective, of course. Social stratification is maintained through ideas of “good” English (as opposed to the kind that people from the wrong region or socioeconomic level speak – by the way, “good” English is just as weird and arbitrary as many kinds of “bad” English, and in fact some things are “bad” because they’re not quite weird and arbitrary enough: just watch someone correct a kid who says “goed” instead of “went”). It is also maintained through taboos based on ideas of purity and sexual propriety. You display your conformity to these social structures by treating “bad” words as “bad” and at the same time by rejecting changes in usage that try to undo social subordination of certain groups of people. A person may argue “politely” that we needn’t change the names of any sports teams, for example, while at the same time objecting to the “bad English” or “bad words” uttered by people on the other side of the debate who are upset at being treated as stereotypes. 

Well. All good buildings have basements, dears, and they will collapse without them, but we don’t go down into them ourselves, do we? Oh, no, dears, we do not. A nice, tidy scaffold helps maintain decorum. And when we focus on the scaffold, we also don’t necessarily notice the structure that it’s there to maintain. We get stuck on the words and ignore the tilting tower of crumbling bricks behind it.

But the language has its own ostensive value too. With it, as on a scaffold (next sense), we can perform our identities and our attitudes – and we can watch others perform theirs. In fact, that’s a central function of language: words are known by the company they keep. We always use our language to let others know things about ourselves, our attitudes, and where we stand. Some of us, for example, will make sure to use some terms and avoid using others so as not to perpetuate social injustices, while others will make sure it’s understood they don’t brook “woke” “politically correct” “virtue signalling” and will stand for “family values” (which assume very specific kinds of families and exclude families that don’t meet the model).

And, of course, with language, as with scaffolds, we can view the tournaments of our societies, we can conduct – and display – executions, and we can show off the resulting corpses and expose them for the carrion birds. Choices of words and phrasing let you know who’s been cut dead, and they help keep it that way.

But at least, unlike (most) real-life scaffolds, language is here to stay – and it is deserving of aesthetic appreciation in its own right. And is an essential part of culture, not just an accessory. Metaphors have their limits… but language wouldn’t exist without them.

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