our words make worlds

Imagination, Language and New Worlds

By Jodie Hare

In 2014, Angela Davis gave a lecture in which she uttered the now oft-repeated quote that “you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”[1] The use of the imagination and a faith in its ability to impact reality is not a new concept for revolutionary thinkers, but it is one that I believe needs to be embraced by everyone across the globe.

Fast-forward to 2020 and the newest voices in feminist movements are still highlighting the importance of this skill. Lola Olufemi, a black feminist writer and organiser from London, asks readers of her new book Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (2020) to ‘imagine this,’ before describing a world which consists of truths such as ‘You do not have to sell your labour to survive […] Education and transport are free from cradle to grave […] We all have enough to eat well due to redistribution of wealth and resource […] We all have the means and the environment to make art, if we so wish.’[2] Instead of stopping there, Lola writes ‘Now imagine this vision not as utopian, but as something well within our reach […] We must rise to the challenge with a revolutionary and collective sense of determination; knowing that if we do not see this world, someone else will.’[3] By allowing our vision of a better world to be curtailed by notions of difficulty and impossibility we do ourselves a disservice, we must believe in our ability to create the world we want, and language plays a huge role in this worldmaking.

At the forefront of Language Acts and its work on curriculum change is the belief that language has the power to shape how we live, and by using language to construct the imagined world we want to bring to life, we can become our own linguistic architects. Our world is rich with language that is always shifting and changing and by making the most of all language has to offer we can use it to help us smooth over the contours of our new worlds.

The use of language to construct stories and write novels and plays has allowed us to create new worlds for many millennia, worlds that are terrifying or wonderful or completely unfathomable to us. One author who has always known the power this holds is Ursula Le Guin. In a new documentary about the late author’s life, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a clip of Le Guin is shown in which she says that ‘imaginative fiction trains people to be aware that there are other ways to do things and other ways to be. That there is not just one civilization, and it is good, and it is the way we have to be.’

By using language and imagination together we can construct the world we desire, regardless of whether it seems possible now. Through the use of translation, we can increase our engagement with and understanding of the lived experiences of people from every corner of the planet, allowing us to better understand how we can create a world that is safe for us all. By carefully selecting the language we want to include and the ways it is used in this imagined future, we can create a world where language is no longer used as a way to harm minorities and we can abolish language that is often used to promote the oppression and stigmatisation of marginalised groups. As linguists, we have the language to create any world we want; let’s imagine one we can all be proud of.


[1] Angela Davis, from a lecture delivered at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, February 13th, 2014.

[2] Lola Olufemi. Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (London: Pluto Press, 2020) P. 9.

[3] Ibid.