Stories about the campus language police are a staple of the conservative-leaning press. There, you’ll find a University of Washington language guide created by the campus information technology department that describes the words “grandpa” and “housekeeping” as problematic. How? ‘Or’ What? Due to the former term’s association with the infamous “grandfather clause” which exempted some whites from voting restrictions in the South; the latter, because it “feels gendered”.
Then there’s Brandeis’ list of oppressive language, which warned the campus not to use words or phrases such as “picnic”, “rule of thumb”, “homeless person” or even “warning trigger” – that the School of Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center claimed “roots, histories and/or current uses that can serve to reinforce systems of oppression” and had violent or gendered connotations.
The insensitive use of language, the guides explain, can hurt or cause stress or hurt those who have been “affected by violence” or prejudice, while alternative word choices can “promote [a] more inclusive campuses.
Renowned linguist John McWhorter and author Joyce Carol Oates were not the only ones to equate the “ultra-wokes” with commissars engaged in thought control who contributed to a culture of censorship. And yet, it is also true that words can indeed cause harm, normalize violence, contribute to stigma, trivialize relational violence, invalidate feelings, and marginalize groups of people or deprive them of agency.
Words have become weapons in the culture war, and language itself has become an arena of cultural and political conflict. But don’t be a passive spectator: the discussion of language politics deserves a place in our classrooms.
Words and grammar, of course, are constantly changing, but today, more than in the past, words, which are often thought to have a transparent and consensual meaning, are now subject to politicized debate. For example, is a border wall an apartheid fence or barrier?
Words are not merely descriptive, nor merely a means of materializing concepts. Words can actively influence understanding and perceptions, as has been argued by figures as diverse as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kenneth Burke and Benjamin Lee Whorf. It is not surprising that language has become a site of contestation.
Words can recognize and empower previously marginalized identities. Language can also subvert some common but previously unrecognized biases. Yet words can also obscure. Just ask yourself: is the term sexual assault a more or less accurate substitute for rape?
Recent years have seen the publication of a multitude of books with “Keywords” in the title. There are Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late Capitalist Struggle, who argues that “the ability to name has…obvious liberating power.” There is also Political Keywords: A Guide for Students, Activists and Everyone Elsewhich describes a series of commonly misused and dangerously vague terms that are used to “spin contested ideas or justify questionable actions”.
Then there is a series of keywords for African American Studies, American Cultural Studies, Children’s Literature, Comics Studies, Environmental Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and on media – all based on the 1976 classic by Raymond Williams. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and societywho has documented semantic shifts in language that reflect shifts in social and power relations of cultural production and values.
We are in the midst of a self-conscious process of re-meaning. Neologisms proliferate, with new gender pronouns being perhaps the most obvious innovations. A particularly notable and telling new word is “gaslight,” which means to manipulate, create an alternate reality, or disrupt an obvious truth.
Yet there is something larger than a dispute over whether or not to talk about “pregnant people”. I would say that we are experiencing a fundamental shift in discourse.
This change manifests itself in:
Discourse analysis – the study of the uses of language in particular social contexts and how terminology, concepts and labels are institutionalized and become instruments of power, understanding and persuasion – is now central not only in the fields of semiotics, psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, but in the humanities and in many social sciences.
Words are, of course, catalysts of human thought, keys to communication and instruments of understanding. Our ability to conceive complex concepts depends on words. Words can also be weapons and shape our perception of reality. As Wittgenstein says in his 1922 work Tractatus logigo-philosphicus“the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Let me suggest three ways in which various fields of study could benefit from improved discourse understanding:
- Changes in the use, meaning and epistemology of words: In tracing the etymology of the terminology of Christian morality, Friedrich Nietzsche 1887 On the genealogy of morality revealed that far from being timeless moral truths, moral precepts were the product of particular historical circumstances. Etymology is, in many ways, a record not just of changing social values, but of ever-changing social realities. John Patrick Leary Keywords: The new language of capitalism show how the 21stThe economic market of the century has spawned a series of new words that are now applied far outside the realm of economics, including terms like empowerment, well-being, synergy, and flexibility.
- The ambiguous and contested character of the language: Not only is the language fluent, but the meaning of words is often disputed. For scholars like Eric Foner and Daniel T. Rodgers, the keywords of American politics, above all, the words “rights” and “freedom”, wield enormous power, but are also floating signifiers that can be invoked at the name of many conflicting arguments. .
- Verbal Response Modes: Our communication style colors how our messages are received. It’s not just a matter of tone – condescending, dismissive, haughty or pretentious – or volume – shouting, bellowing or barking – that elicits negative reactions. The same goes for our “verbal response patterns” – our directness, our presumption or our attention.
Many of our classes contain contrasting speaking styles that may cause discomfort or awkwardness. I will always remember how, at Columbia, some students found a rather quintessentially New York style of speaking – rapid-fire and in the face – disconcerting, even hostile.
Although recent changes in discourse are generally linked to the political left, the fact is that discursive changes occur with surprising frequency and are based on underlying societal transformations. Every college professor knows that the discourse of college education has undergone a profound transformation in recent years, spurred on by the learning sciences and a host of advocates and reformers. Even those who claim to know little or nothing about pedagogy are now using vocabulary drawn from the scholarship of teaching and learning. We talk about learning objectives, 21stcentury skills or literacies, critical thinking, Bloom’s taxonomy, etc.
Some changes in speech are seismic. Consider the changes that have taken place:
- At the end of the 18and century, when a new vocabulary spread that helped justify revolution, including constitutionalism, natural rights, and republicanism.
- At the beginning of the 19and century, where the rise of a new industrial order and the emergence of the modern nation-state led to the proliferation of words such as class, exploitation, individualism, nationalism, reformer and scientist.
- At the beginning of the 20and century, when a discourse inspired in the United States, by progressivism, and in Europe, by social-democratic thought emerged, including new terms such as the rights of the child, feminism and the state- providence.
- Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating after World War II when psychoanalytic language, with terms like anal retention, defense mechanisms, displacement, masochism, narcissism and projection, was adopted.
Words, we are rightly told, have power. They have “the capacity to help, to heal, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humiliate”. Words can also inspire, motivate and encourage. As Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.
As another writer observed, “Words cannot change reality, but they can change the way people perceive reality.”
Given the power of words, we should certainly speak and write mindfully. Choose your words wisely.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.