The Politics of Language

The role of language in politics becomes very evident during elections. For better or worse, language plays a crucial role in the entire process: in debates, speeches, on the Internet.

But what about the politics of language? To what extent is language shaped by or at least restricted or influenced by politics. In 2015 the Washington Post officially adopted the use of the singular “they” – that is, the use of the plural form of the third person to avoid awkward “he/she” or “he or she” constructions. Naturally this also includes the acceptance of the singular “their” in  place of “his/her” and “his or her” but read more about it here.

And we have all struggled to find gender neutral terms for occupations: firefighter instead of fireman or firewoman, police instead of policeman or policewoman. These are the politically correct, excuse my triteness, designations for women and men’s occupations in our newest world, or word, order.

After 9/11 there was an attempt to change French fries to freedom fries, following an attempted demotion from French to french fries too. But it appears, fortunately, that there was no permanent consensus and support for these suggestions.

Beyond words, yet another area of language has been affected, namely names. For example, the Islamic group referred to alternately as ISIS or ISIL, or simply IS, for the Islamic State has been revisited. It has been reported that certain world leaders refuse to use any of these names citing the fact that the group is not officially a “state” instead preferring to call the group by the acronym in Arabic: ‘Daesh’.

Fire biggerpng
Inflammatory language: must we fight fire with fire?

The acronym Daesh in Arabic stands for the phrase al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). In fact, the Islamic group vehemently disapproves of the word. In Arabic there are two very similar words ‘Daes’ (one who crushes something underfoot) and ‘Dahes’ (one who sows discord) which can evoke a negative image in the eyes, or at least ears, of Arabic speakers. Certain world leaders elect to use the word; in the opposite camp, threats are being made to thwart the use of the name Daesh.

Thus we English speakers are bound to acknowledge and be aware of the subtle uses of words, phrases and names that can influence readers consciously or unconsciously. But isn’t that what effective writing is all about? Responsible writing however could incorporate neutral forms to inform rather than infect, incite and ignite. English neutral in all forms seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

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English neutral

Matrix worldWelcome to the matrix: English in binary form?

During several decades of teaching English in international settings, particularly academic English, I have encountered non-native speakers who are uncertain of the regional written varieties of English. In fact, there are also many native speakers who are just as uncertain. As the Internet exposes all of us to more and more markets, the lines continue to blur.

Many books have been written about the vocabulary differences between American and British English; many humorous stories circulate on the Internet. But the differences go beyond vocabulary; English also varies regionally in spelling, punctuation, slang and even grammar.

Generally speaking, most writers already know the guidelines when they approach a publisher and have prepared their manuscripts accordingly. However, there are times, especially for academics, when they would like to submit articles to American, Australian, British or Canadian publishing houses. They certainly increase their chances of being published, but only if their language conforms to the specific norm.

One solution I suggest is to embrace “English neutral” … to find the overlap in English varieties where we all agree and avoid the specific regional markers. Easier said than done? Yes. However it’s not impossible.

First there are the obvious spelling differences like center or centre, organize or organise, theater or theatre, etc. Often a synonym provides a quick solution: middle, order, play/film, respectively.

Then what about punctuation: the Oxford comma (also called the Harvard or serial comma), punctuation (period or full stop) with honorifics and abbreviations including Mr/Mr., Mrs/Mrs., Dr/Dr., etc, etc. Well, the serial comma is in dispute on both sides of the Atlantic, honorifics and other abbreviations can be dropped (or as I did above with et cetera,  placed it at the end of the sentence.)

Next slang, but we can skip this one. In formal writing, just drop it. So we now come to grammatical differences. One of the most obvious differences is what linguists call notional concord — that is, the “notion” of what is meant in making the subject and verb “agree”  – I agree, you agree, but she agrees. Brits can regard family and government, for example, as either singular or plural: the family are, the government are.  The principle is what “notion” of the family and government is meant – as a single unit or as individual members. My solution has been to suggest that we always write using an indisputable plural: members of government, family members when the plural is intended.

There are many more details to consider; I truly welcome input, more examples, and especially solutions. Moreover if anyone can think of a neutral synonym that can equally replace color/colour, I would consider posting a reward!

But to return to the original premise: English in binary format. Unfortunately it’s not very workable. To begin with, binary code is based on letters, and thus the original spellings … so unless we change the original forms, we are back where we started  — variations.

Note: except for the contrasting American/British examples, this entire blog has been written in English Neutral.