Controlling Language

How would you communicate what a dictatorship felt like if you were never taught how to describe oppression? It’s seems a somewhat absurd question if you were raised in the West. Yet the same idea is still applicable to plenty of first world situations. We’d all like to believe that all the words in our head are our own. That they are free manifestations that we are able to use at will to construct a plethora of new ideas. But is this truly the case? What controls we don’t even realize exist, change the way we view our world through common vernacular?

One of the easiest areas to spot language control is on the subject of gender. Common positive words that we use to describe women: fun, bubbly, sparkling, and sweet often vary wildly when compared with that of men: strong, capable, able, and smart. The initial public recognition of these differences became Feminism 101 in the 1970’s. It was Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore show contemptuously telling Mary, “You’ve got spunk,” comedic pause, “I hate spunk.”

One might assume, since awareness of these disparities have been around for so long, that such manipulations would be well known. Yet, sit in any Woman’s Studies 101 class and you can hear the murmurs of astonishment as these unconsidered facts are recounted within context. I’ve been that young woman, staring at the professor in indignant shock, as a lingual connection suddenly highlights an enraging disparity I’ve felt my whole life. Further reading into feminist issues had the same effect on me. These women were deconstructing complex issues that I had experienced but was unable to convey. Their voice gave my own sentiments a language in which to express itself.

And yet, so little has changed. Words like ‘pretty”, “sweet,” and “skinny” carry with them more than just a definition, they are a goal for a woman’s life. They promise that you’ll be lovable, able to find true happiness. For men, the situation is no less destructive. Being “strong” and being “brave” means repressing all normal human reactions in the name of masculinity. These unchecked descriptions are incredibly damaging to society. Perhaps no community feels it quite as intensely as the transgendered and those identifying as genderqueer. Because while the definition of sex and gender has taken on new, revolutionary meanings, these same qualifiers and controls continue to exist.

Another area that sees substantial lingual subjugation is the discourse of race. Here you find so many casual racist references that sometimes it can feel like death by a million paper cuts. It is common to hear the phrases such as, “So well spoken,” when describing people of color, regardless of their accomplishments. Condoleezza Rice, a director at Stanford, classically trained pianist, National Security Advisor and diplomat was lauded by the media for her ability to string syllables together. Indeed, what lesson should African-American girls take away from seeing women who look like them consistently undervalued?

Meanwhile women in the Arab world have words like “oppressed”or “poor” tacked onto their resumes without a thought. Asian woman often get the “subservient” and “duty-bound” roles while Latina women are constantly dealing with “saucy” and “fiery” tempers that follow them around. These words can influence how these women are brought up, dealt with in school, depicted by the media and ultimately how employable they will be considered. These are not trivial semantics, rather this dialogue changes the entire fabric of our society. This is what repression through the control of language really means.

Still it seems, especially these days, any effort to combat this oppressive language is met with rolled eyes and pithy mumbles of political correctness: Oh sure, it starts with “Native American,” but where will it end? With long, self-important titles for the working class? Heaven forbid, but they’ll insist such silliness as Waste Reduction Engineer to take the place of Trash Collector and Sanitation Manager will be used in lieu of Bathroom Attendant. It’s doublespeak, right out of 1984. War is peace, Ministries of Truth, and nefarious euphemisms! Pretty soon we won’t be allowed to say anything at all.

Yet it’s interesting to note that in all this hyperbole, it is the current vernacular, not the intended one, that is hurting the actual inhabitants of society. I’d even go so far as to posit that the current language restrictions we allow bypass both logic and Orwellian concepts of human individuality. Girls are not going to give up on femininity completely just because we expect them to be active and assertive. Likewise, men aren’t going to give up on all traits masculine, or develop some kind of irreversible damage because we allow them to cry when they are sad. In the broader social spectrum, transpeople, and those who do not conform to gender norms are not going to go away because of transphobic pronouns and derisive mocking. So perhaps it’s time to take a new approach.

Luckily for all of us, language is a living entity that can be deconstructed and rebuilt in order to advance all aspects of society. It is up to us to make sure that we do that. The myth that “words can never hurt me,” must be challenged. Words are some of the only things that can continue to inflict pain with the same poignancy years after the fact. They are powerful, meaningful tools that shape our everyday reality.

The creation and the use of an equitable language doesn’t destroy anything except for unearned privilege. It is not self-censorship, but rather a challenge to find more accurate terms to describe people and situations. Somebody is not acting “retarded,” they are being senseless, inane, gullible or ludicrous. Likewise instead of using “gay” to mean bad, try sounding like an adult and using words like irritating, caustic, or annoying to express your thought. Because if your method of self expression is using somebody’s dignity and self-worth as collateral damage then it’s time to evolve beyond it. Every generation has made their own leaps in linguistic advancement. It is unreasonable to believe that in this day and age we’ve come as far as civilized human dialectic can possibly go. So instead of shirking the inevitable advancement of language and society, perhaps it’s time we embrace it and pay close attention to terms that hold us back. Who knows, the life you improve just may be your own.

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

3 replies on “Controlling Language”

This piece is such a fantastic distillation of the ways in which language shapes, defines, informs, directs every aspect of our lives. Language always matters and words from the mouths of highly privileged individuals carry particular power and the potential to be highly problematic. I cannot accept the vast multitude of lazy excuses for why people refuse to examine their words when called out. One is not less free for choosing to use words more sensitively.

I grew up with an immigrant parent from another language and culture, and I can definitely see words and ideas from that culture that we don’t express or consider here in mainstream American culture. I think you’re absolutely right, Olivia. Whether we’re saying “pro-life” or “anti-choice” can make an impact on our subconscious (or conscious) attitudes toward that stance, and if we’re using “gay” as a synonym for “lame” we are indeed associating homosexuality with, well, suboptimality.

I also think that precision and clarity in language often go hand in hand with rigorous, thorough thinking, and therefore I am in despair over the state of many people’s spelling, grammar, and vocabulary skills.

Leave a Reply