Language Policing

I have been around for a while, which has given me a wide range of experience and observation as our collective awareness of oppressions has grown. One of the responses to that awareness of oppressions has, to one degree or another, been the way in which language contributes to oppression. Language, like many things, is constantly growing, changing and adapting to the sociopolitical world we live in. Language, is also something that has fascinated me my whole life.

Since English is the only language i am truly fluent in, i can only speak to that particular language as a user of that language, certainly not as a linguist. My 'expertise' is predicated upon my education and my ability to functionally use the language at a high level. English is a funny language, constructed of words, concepts and structures borrowed from a multiplicity of other languages. It is full of 'rules' that contradict one another to the extent that sometimes i wonder why those 'rules' exist. Partly because it is such a patchwork language, it can be a frustrating language to learn or to express yourself in even as someone for whom it is a 'mother tongue'.

The other thing about English as a language, is that it is not really one language. It is comprised of many dialects and variations which may cause one dialect to be unintelligible to those outside that particular dialect. Case in point, when i moved to Ottawa in 1992, i was horrified to see a CBC interview with a Newfoundland fisherman which included subtitles when the gentleman was speaking. There was a clear assumption that most would be unable to clearly understand what he was saying due to his 'Newfoundland English' (aka Newfinese)

Newfoundlanders are not unique in having their own dialects or variations which seem to almost constitute a separate language. We are well aware of the diversity of African American (or Black) English, as well as the dialects from 'across the pond' which are viewed by North Americans as difficult to understand. Furthermore, some of the dialects in the United States 'enjoy' a similar position in being difficult to understand if you are not familiar with the dialect. These differences include, terminology, cadence of language, grammatical structure and many other things. Some of those differences may get 'absorbed' into the larger 'canon' of the language as words are developed and become part of our 'common parlance'.

Throughout my life and in being involved in activism across a range of issues, i have witnessed much discussion on the impact of and ways language should be used. As a young feminist, i experienced many times the harsh criticism of the 'language police'. As i got older, i have watched the tides around politically correct language ebb and flow to different extents. I have never been comfortable with the monitoring of language to the point of censorship. I do agree that there is a need to ensure that communication is clear and respectful of all involved. I do not agree with the 'language police' who believe that some words should simply be eliminated from the discourse or that only certain populations have the 'right' to certain words or concepts.

During my studies as a social service worker, i remember participating in a lengthy discussion about how we should refer to the people we would be serving in our capacity as workers. It had been decided that the term 'client' was no longer appropriate as it maintained the unbalanced power structures and was sort of demeaning to that population. Many other words were bandied about, such as; participant, member, consumer. In listening to that discussion and witnessing over 13 years organisations, workers and others making use of these words, i have come to a couple of conclusions.

The first is that changing language for the sake of changing language, without changing the attitudes and power structures that created the need for the language change in the first place is pointless. Realistically, if we call the people we serve participants, but still treat them like 'clients' then we have changed nothing. Secondly, the discourse around politically correct language has been and is often used as a weapon in self-righteous abuse and control. This is seen in the manner in which those who might utter a politically incorrect word are confronted, accused of being racist or worse and shut down. I remember years ago at a gathering of my young feminist friends - i used the phrase, 'call a spade a spade'... my host that evening immediately jumped at me and accused me of being racist. I couldn't understand how, in my naivety , the spade i referred to might also be called a digging implement... i had never heard the phrase used to refer to anything else. That evening i was completely silenced by that individuals assumption of what i was referring to.

It really makes no sense to codify the English language to reserve terminology for certain portions of the population, or ban certain words due to some arbitrary decisions of certain other portions of the population. The 'absorption' of terminology from other languages is what has made English the befuddling, confusing, sometimes eloquent experience that it is. English is a language that has elements of almost every other language grouping in the world according to what i remember of that linguistics course so very long ago.

The latest discussion i have heard around this is around certain words in our current modern lexicon that have their origins in African American English. Some argue that only African American people should use those terms and for anyone else to do so is appropriation. If we were to do that with every word in English that came from another culture, there would not be many words left to use. Based on the logic of words 'belonging' to certain populations then we should not use words such as toboggan or kayak which come from North American Indigenous populations. Our children could no longer attend Kindergarten (German), we could no longer indulge in our great addiction to coffee (Arabic), nor could we offer kudos (Greek) but we could possibly get rid of menopause (Greek).

Perhaps the best solution is for us to learn to listen to one another without making assumptions about the meaning behind what we hear. We need to let go of our own agendas and truly listen, to ask questions for clarification before leaping to the conclusion that the intent was to offend. A wise person once said that we have two ears and only one mouth because we are meant to listen twice as much as we speak. If we listen without the need to formulate a response, how different would our patterns and ability to communicate change for the better? Just my humble opinion.

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