Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Why (challenging) language matters

Language is generally considered to be a neutral and harmless tool. As the English proverb goes: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, (but words can never hurt me)” (Cambridge Dictionaries 2011). However, as anyone who has experienced verbal abuse or discrimination will confirm, language might not ‘break your bones’, but it certainly crushes the spirit. Teaching children to take a considerate attitude to language therefore plays a paramount part in teaching them to respect one another’s humanity. But while we might be able to pass on a general awareness of the effect of abusive language, some forms of discrimination are so entrenched that they are difficult to pinpoint and unpick.

As children we are not (necessarily) encouraged to question language, which, as the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argues: “leads us to regard talking and thinking as wholly straightforward and transparent” (Carroll 1973, 238). As a result, we come to see language as ‘just language’, a simple tool to communicate. However, far from being ‘a simple tool’ which we employ at our will and mercy, language equally employs us. As the linguist Edward Sapir states: “[w]e see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation” (Carroll 1973, 134, my emphasis). In short, we do not only shape language according to our needs, language also shapes us, that is, how we look at ourselves and the world around us.

As we have historically treated women and men differently, this differentiation will have come to be reflected in language, that is, it will have become a ‘language habit of our community’. And once something has become a language habit, it will in turn, if unchallenged, ‘predispose certain choices of interpretation’, that is, shape our current and future worldview. Consequently, treating woman differently to man is circularly enshrined in action as in language. A statement by former MP Ann Widdecombe regarding the use of different titles for women is here particularly poignant: “I've grown up with that title [Miss] and it's a perfectly good title. I can't see the point of Ms and I don't see it as an issue. It's absolutely ridiculous. These titles have been around for a very long time” (BBC 2009). While I doubt we would usually agree that growing up with a certain worldview and/or its longevity automatically qualifies it as a good one, we seem to readily accept the difference in treatment of woman and man. But can language really have something to do with it?

Let’s just imagine for a moment that our world wasn’t built on the preference of man over woman but of tall over short. For the past 2000 years, talls have asserted their superiority on the basis of their one defining physical feature, namely that they were tall and not short. In fact, they were so proud of being tall that they erected a multitude of cultural shrines to celebrate their very tallness – which is why to this day, it is ‘God the Tall’, and not ‘God the Short’, who is the ultimate embodiment of the spiritual greatness of tallkind. Over the centuries, tall has achieved a great many things: tall sailed the seas, tall created art, tall made scientific discoveries. However, not all talls could be present to witness the individual tall's achievement, which is why language played a central role to communicate with and inspire all of future hutallity.

Of course things have moved on considerably since then, today, shorts are not half as restricted by their shortness as they once had been. They too can now sail and create and make, so why all this fuss over language? Is what we do not more important than what we say? As Wann Iddecombe confirms her puzzlement: “[t]hey [some shorts] don't even want to say 'tall-made'. But tall-made is an all-embracing term […]. It means shorts too” (BBC 2009*). ‘All talls are created equal’, after all.

However, if shorts are linguistically nowhere to be seen how will we find the words to express that things have really changed, that is, that shorts and talls are finally truly equal? As the feminist linguist Deborah Cameron states: “[i]t [language] encodes the culture’s values and preoccupations, and transmits these, furthermore, to each new generation” (Cameron 1990, 12). Consequently, if we continue to employ the language of the past, a past which was fundamentally shaped by preferring one over the other, whether tall over short, man over woman, how can we help but pass some of its discriminating concepts on to the future? That is, if we continue saying ‘man’ for human, to give the obvious example, how will we (ever) be able to picture woman next to man?

Language is a central tool to convey who we are and who we want to be, and is as such a fundamental part of our reality. If it fails to meet our aspirations, that is, allow us to express that we, whether short or tall, woman or man, are equally human, then it fails to fulfil its most crucial function: to effectively communicate. Treating it like a neutral, unchangeable relic of the past does nothing to help us move towards a better future – nothing much has ever been achieved by saying one thing and doing another, after all. If we really are committed to treating women and men as equally human, we have to start saying it like we mean it – and that’s in our own words, and not those of the past. It's the only way we can ensure that change is communicated to the generations to come; it’s for their sake, as much as ours, that we all finally spoke the same language.


*Some changes made.

Cameron, Deborah, ed. 1990. The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. London: New York: Routledge.

Carroll, John B, ed. 1973. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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