Language: a writer’s tool is constantly evolving
When language fails
As a writer, I am aware of the raw power of my tool. As a linguist, I am also aware of how many of the world’s languages have evolved from common ancestors, how they are related and how the meaning of the same word can differ from one sister language to another. Language is extremely complex, and the more you learn, the more you know, the easier it becomes to get lost in language, to make mistakes and realizing just how little you actually know.
Just last week I was made aware, in a most humiliating way, that an expression used in the blurbs of one of my books had offended a group of people. I was given a proper dress-down, in public, which led me to withdraw that particular book from the table where I was selling it along with my other work. Seems that both the sensitivity readers (which we’d used, despite the accuser’s assumption of the contrary), the publisher, editor, and this author had completely missed it. I won’t go into details here, but oddly, when discussing this with fellow authors and members of the affected group/minority, everyone was puzzled and wondered how else to express oneself today, to be politically correct and not offending anyone.
Languages evolve, all the time. There are many examples in history and from literature where the most highly acclaimed books include wording that is no longer considered okay. We no longer use “nigger” or “negro” to describe blacks or Africans, which is a good thing. African American is the term used if you’re in the US but is of little help to describe black people from other parts of the world. But when Astrid Lindgren wrote her Pippi books back in the 1960s, it was perfectly okay to write that Pippi’s father was “negerkung” (negro king.) In recent editions, the term has been replaced. This is probably the most famous example in terms of language evolving, but there are literally thousands of expressions that have changed, be it for people with disabilities (or function variations as may be more modern), people from within the LGBTQ community, etc.
Lost in translation: politics, philosophy, religion & culture make things complex
As a member of the LGBTQ community, I am a member of a minority, and I’ve always been acutely aware of how I’m labeled by society. Often times words also carry a political notion, a belief held by the speaker. After Chernobyl, people who were fighting against the use of this particular way to generate power were, in German anyway, always speaking of atomic power, and the slogan “Atomkraft, Nein Danke!” became a household term. The proponents of nuclear power did not use atomic power. They call it nuclear power. Neither terms were “offensive” to anyone. They simply indicated a political belief. There are many similar examples of words and expressions who carry a philosophical belief within the word: capitalism vs. free enterprise, sexual orientation vs sexual preference, etc.
Then there are differences across cultures, which make many of the words which are used across languages dangerous pitfalls. Even within a given language family, a word that carries a connotation in one country may not be viewed the same way elsewhere. The word black is one such example, where it may be deemed acceptable in some flavors of English, but might get you stares if you use it in the U.S.
You might also remember the time when the Swedish chairman of BP was criticized for using the term “little people” in a White House press conference. While a perfectly acceptable term in Swedish, translated ad verbatim to English it becomes offensive. What he meant was “ordinary, regular people like you and I.”
How we view history changes
To make matters even more complex, we are, as a people, really bad at looking at history through the lens of the time. I’ve just returned from Washington, DC, where I also visited the National Archives Museum where the original Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution are on display. When you read these documents and you read things like “We the people…” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” yet are aware that this did not apply to everybody. “People” and “all men” did not include Native Americans, Africans or Asians. Because if you believe in slavery it makes no sense to assume that Africans were entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” because clearly, they were not. Men, back then, obviously also did not apply to women.
However, today, we look at these words and we can feel pride in the accomplishment of the founding fathers, even if we’re Korean, Sudanese or German, and decisions rendered by the Supreme Court of the U.S. has updated the interpretation of the meaning of these words over time. It just so happens that the probably biggest struggle within said court these days is in the interpretation of the constitution: as a document in time, or to read it literally, or if you prefer, a liberal or a conservative interpretation.
Labeling a group of people, labeling “me”
Language evolves, all the time. Would it not, we’d all still be speaking a proto-human language we don’t even remember. Latin would not have evolved into Italian, French, Spanish, etc., and Germanic into German, Scandinavian and English. So that’s a good thing. We also introduce new words, we share them across languages and cultures and make new words our own.
It’s a good thing that we no longer use words like “nigger”, “cripple” or “faggot”, as the negative connotations are painful reminders to members of said communities of a painful past. And language continues to evolve: it’s better to say transgender than transsexual, as the trans experience isn’t primarily about people’s sexuality but more about their gender, we talk about marriage equality rather than “gay marriage” because a marriage is a marriage, it has no sexual/romantic orientation.
For most people, all of this is way above their heads, and they’re not really affected by the terminology used within a certain community, and how groups try to improve on language to make it more inclusive and less offensive, divisive. For older generations, much of this may pass them by. However, when words and expressions are used that are hurtful, the consequences can be dire, and we can observe this in our everyday lives. Ten years ago, gender fluidity and trans people were not discussed in mainstream society. The language was very CIS, except for the affected people. Therefore, for most people, meeting members of the trans community can be an interesting and frightful experience, as it not only challenges the language they speak but also some of the very fundamental core foundations of their education and the two sexes: male and female. Migration challenges other long-held beliefs.
Political correctness and the backlash of the Trumpian era
For some, things have clearly gone too far and they push back. Migration is used as a term to lump together people who come to our countries for very different reasons. No longer is a distinction made between refugees and economic immigrants, it’s all equally bad. And in our strive to create a label that fits just us, we make it a perfect pitfall to be offended, for how is a stranger to know if you want to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss. Or something else entirely? How are we to know if you are bisexual or pansexual? Oftentimes, terms are used interchangeably and what means something to one person, has different connotations to someone else.
This may be controversial but sometimes I feel we have gone too far. We are too easily offended. And some people have begun to push back. To mislabel something doesn’t necessarily make a person a “bigot” or “racist” or whatever. They may simply not be familiar with the latest developments in the language. Trust me, it’s easy to get things wrong. When I first moved to the US in the eighties we used a “bathroom” to go potty, these days it’s “restroom” (although given American toilets, they’re anything but restful with their lack of privacy, but that’s another story.) In India, people still go to the toilet, in English.
The drive for political correctness sometimes feels like a provocation. And we are quick to accuse, prosecute and judge people for using the wrong words. The judgment can be harsh, particularly in this social media day and age where the action often precedes contemplation and thought. And I feel that some people have begun to push back. And as I’ve mentioned above, language is becoming political, but not always. But when someone talks about “gay marriage”, I for one assume they’re not supportive of the concept of marriage equality. But an I be certain?
The benefit of the doubt
Here’s the thing. Our societies have become very black and white in our political discourse, and we seem to have a hard time to accept dissenting views and opinions. There is less and less discourse in society about where we should head, how to overcome the challenges of our time. Instead, driven by 140 characters, we simplify and shorten. It’s not necessarily beneficial to being respectful to one another. Trying to do the right thing can be frightening and intimidating and a friend of mine recently said that the fear of saying the wrong thing has led him to avoid public discussions/settings. That’s a shame.
What about we give each other the benefit of the doubt? What if we were to assume that most people are NOT trying to offend us, denigrate us, insult us. So when they use a term we find offensive, don’t lash out, forgive and educate. Tell them how you’d like to be addressed, politely. Chances are, they’ll be grateful, i.e. if you do it with a smile and non-judgemental way. I often feel that we usually use the opposite approach: we’re offended, we judge and keep a grudge and the message gets lost, simply because the wrong word was used. I think we could all be helped if we calmed things down a bit, in the interest of communication and understanding.
I know that my own language is far from perfect, regardless of which one I use. I’m also aware that being multilingual increases my potential for making mistakes. I beg your forgiveness and oversight for any words used mistakenly.
Remember: you may not have the power to choose the words used to describe you, but you have the power to choose how to respond.
What is your take? Do you think we should tackle this dilemma? What is the best way to help people use the least offensive and most inclusive language? Feel free to use the comment section.