Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about language.
Since I am an editor, writer, book reviewer, and library branch assistant, this might not shock you. But, specifically, I have been thinking about the way in which language shapes reality, and the unconscious choices that we make with our words, that may be perpetuating ideologies we don’t actually believe in.
Last weekend, I attended the 2021 Editors Canada conference, and among a lot of really great sessions, a few really stood out. One was Inclusive Language as a Tool of Transformation, with S. Kate Moore. Another was Trauma-Informed Editing, with Iva Cheung. Thirdly, there was A Hidden Gender? Language, Gender, and Pronouns, with James Harbeck .
These sessions got me thinking about the origins of a lot of expressions that we use. Many of them are rooted in oppression, violence, and cultural misrepresentation. When we use these expressions, we probably don’t realize that our language is discriminatory or exclusionary. But language matters. It informs our understanding of the world around us. Metaphors are everywhere; pronouns are in constant use. Words can shock or soothe, inspire or harm. If we want to move towards a better world, it behooves us to take a moment to consider our words.
Some phrases that we discussed during the conference were blacklist/whitelist (racial connotations, with blacklist indicating “bad” and whitelist indicating “good”); master, i.e. master bedroom, mastermind (obvious link to slavery); ladies and gentlemen (excludes non-binary folks); and mother and father (excludes all kinds of family structures).
These sessions made me think, too, about culturally inappropriate terms and cultural misrepresentation in language. Low man on the totem pole is frequently used in our settler-colonial society to refer to someone with the lowest rank. Totem poles are created by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, and there are various types of them. In terms of this expression, it is important to note that it was the European appropriation of the totem pole that perpetuated the idea that they represented a social hierarchy.
“In fact, depictions of people are not usually found at the top of a totem pole and in some cases, the most important figure or crest is at the bottom. Totem poles do not depict a nation’s social organization in a top-down method; rather, they tell a story about a particular nation or person’s beliefs, family history and cultural identity.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia)
In addition to being culturally dismissive and disrespectful, this expression is particularly awful considering that during the 19th and 20th centuries, Indigenous religions were illegal, and many totem poles were stolen or destroyed. The traditional potlatch ceremony, where totem poles were often erected, was also banned.
It also continues to shock me how many people I personally know who are defensive about the singular “they” pronoun. People who have never cared two straws about language in the past are suddenly up in arms because this usage is “not right.” Of course, what they are really feeling is a discomfort with the idea that not everyone can slot nicely into their binary system of categorization. If they don’t know who is male and who is female, how will they know who to privilege?
I learned a lot of really fascinating things from James Harbeck’s session about the global history of languages. Did you know that while there are several languages (like English) with only two grammatical genders (male and female), this is by no means the norm? There are many, many more languages with no grammatical gender, or with three or more. This speaks volumes about how our discourse of language upholds the ideology of the gender binary.
Furthermore, language shifts all the time. The pronoun “you” was not always so versatile. In Middle English, it was a plural form only, and the singular form was “thou.” There was probably similar outrage when that usage changed, “thou” fell out of favour, and “you” became both singular and plural. And, for the record, the singular “they” has been in use for centuries.
Really, I could go on all day about this! I love language, and I love learning more about how it functions in all the subtle (and obvious) ways that we use it. To me, becoming more informed about the power of language is also empowering. We’re using it everyday—we might as well use it for good.
Inclusive Language Essentials
List of Languages by Grammatical Genders
Thirty Everyday Phrases That Perpetuate the Oppression of Indigenous Peoples
Three Ways Language Oppression Harms Us
Test Yourself for Hidden Biases