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’.

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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?