Caution: please mind your language

16 Oct 2017

It’s a long way from when chairmen presided over meetings, firemen attended to burning buildings, policemen enforced the law, and the average citizen all politicians claimed to be concerned about was the man in the street. 

This is a different world, and a different time. And there is a different language to go with it. You are not to speak without the chairperson’s permission. A brush with the law will most certainly attract the attention of a police officer. The daring folks who run into flames to rescue people from blazing structures are fire-fighters. If it’s not expert opinion, it’s most probably a layperson’s – not layman’s, please! – view.

We have entered an era in which it’s universally accepted that quite often the right man...oops...sorry...meant to say – person for the job could be a woman.

Last year, one of the United States’ most prestigious learning institutions, Princeton University, issued new gender-neutral guidelines. The policy included removing male-leaning terminology from official textbooks and introducing guidelines for how to address someone of opposite gender. The four-page document carries examples of gender-neutral terminology the university expects its community to use. The examples are:

    •    The word “actress” should be replaced by “actor”

    •    Reference is to “cleaning lady” is discontinued; in place is an “office cleaner”

    •    “Mankind” is replaced by “humanity”, “human kind”, or just “people”

    •    In place of “waiter” or “waitress” is now a “server”

    •    Instead of referring to the human species as “man”, the manual prescribes “human beings”, individuals”, or “people”.

A memo announcing the changes said the new terminology reflected the inclusive culture and policies at the university.

Students are also to cease referring to each other as “he”, “she”, “her”, or “him”.

“Replace gendered pronouns, e.g., he, him, his, and she, her, hers, by rewriting the text in the plural,” the guidelines state.

The regulations led one writer to wonder if perhaps the college had waded too far into the pool of political correctness.

So, why this much desire to reconstruct language?

An underlying consideration is that language is a powerful tool. It’s true that to understand a society, a study of its language is an important starting point. This is because language is a repository of a society’s values. It’s equally true that in language you will find the residual stereotypes and prejudices of a language’s speakers. Thus, as societal attitudes change, such changes necessitate a revision of the vehicle that carries those attitudes – language. 

One area where language has undergone fundamental change to reflect society’s evolving attitudes as to what is now considered socially acceptable is in the field of disability. In a December article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, Tim Rushby-Smith observes that there is a shift in attitudes away from the old “medical model of disability’, in which disability was seen as something “wrong” with the individual; and by contrast, the “social model of disability” views a lack of inclusion as a problem with the way society is organised.

The Office for Disability Issues within Britain’s Department for Work and Pensions has a guide – “Inclusive language: words to use and avoid when writing about disability” – on how to communicate with or about people with disabilities.

The guide discourages use of phrases such as “suffers from” due to the suggestion of discomfort, constant pain, and a sense of hopelessness. In the same light, the notion of “confinement” to a wheelchair is discouraged as it seems to want to evoke pity on the person who uses it. But when the wheelchair is viewed as just a mobility aid, the attitude changes and the person is seen as normal and an equal.

The guide advises avoidance of passive, victim words in favour of language that shows respect to people with disabilities as active individuals with control over their own lives. Terms such as cripple or invalid, mental patient, an epileptic, diabetic, and fits are to be substituted with a person with a disability, person with a mental health condition, person with epilepsy, person with diabetes, and seizures respectively.

The revision is not restricted to English. In official communication, Setswana terms such as segole (a disabled person), sefofu (a blind person), and susu (deaf person) have been replaced by monale-bogole (person with a disability), motlhoka-pono (person with visual impairment), and motlhoka-kutlo (person with a hearing impairment). The new convention seeks to look beyond a person’s condition, and affirm that while someone may have lost the ability to see the sights or hear sounds around them, that does not define them.

Dr. Naledi Kgolo, who teaches linguistics at University of Botswana, says the politically correct newspeak is an effort to desist from seeming to belittle persons who live with different conditions, so as not to reduce their existence to the conditions.

It is an area not without strong contentions. While the most obvious explanation is that the original Setswana terminology that is being displaced was found derogatory, Kgolo disputes the assertion. Instead, she says, such words merely distinguished certain people as not having attained typical development.

Given her expertise, Kgolo does some gigs as a translator. She makes an interesting admission. When she translates official documents, she adopts the new terminology. In everyday conversation, she discards the cloak of correctness, and freely uses the old terms.

She argues that the political correctness distorts language, especially Setswana, as the substitutes are descriptive and lengthy and descriptive.

“The original words contained the meaning without the length, and I doubt if they were meant to demean,” she says.

The same view is also held by translator and newsreader at the Department of Information Service, Justice Gaolekwe, who argues that new words only serve to corrupt Setswana. He disputes that the words being displaced from official discourse – such as segole or semumu – are in any way demeaning. In fact, he finds the new terminology somewhat misleading. He singles out motlhoka-pono as an example.

“One may lose sight, and still be visionary,” he says. “If we accept that, then to refer to someone who cannot see as motlhoka-pono cannot be correct.”

Gaolekwe says the quest for political correctness only leads to confusion in language. In a 1994 work, Dr. Steven Pinker – a cognitive scientist, psychologist and linguist who teaches who teaches at Harvard University – also cautioned that linguistic political correctness could result in a “euphemism treadmill”, whereby new terms continually need to be replaced as older ones acquire negative meaning, resulting in confusion.

In the absence of a study to determine the preference in terminology of the affected people, Kgolo finds it difficult to state what their attitude is, except that the new terms are considered more polite and therefore suitable for official communication.

While she accepts that language continually evolves to consider certain sensitivities that previously may have been overlooked, Kgolo states that the change is usually not prescribed, but it happens gradually and naturally. She points out that language alone cannot change entrenched stereotypes and prejudices, although it does play a role as part of a broad strategy that encompasses many other measures. The latter opinion is also held by Dr. Susanne Ehrenreich, who chairs the Department of Applied Linguistics and English Language Education at Germany’s Technical University of Dortmund, who has written that changing language does not necessarily alter underlying attitudes.

While the new English terminology has elbowed its way into everyday speech, the same cannot be said about the Setswana words. In fact, Kgolo does not see that happening anytime soon.

“Even young people,” she notes, “use old (Setswana) terms in speech, and not the politically correct ones.”