Language is the way we make sense of the phenomena of our world. It can empower, limit, and hurt us.
“…When used in the wrong context any label can be offensive.”
-Christina Berry, What’s in a Name? Indians and Political Correctness
We build our reality with words. Language makes our world. Speak it and it will be true. The language we use is infused with culturally imposed rules and biases. English is loaded with these biases. This article from Lit Reactor gives some good examples of the inherent prejudice that has developed in the English language.
Let’s look at some inherent biases in English. To cite a well-known example, pronoun usage has a traditional gender bias in English (i.e. using “he” for the singular general third person, thereby cutting off half the population). Sometimes there are solutions to these problems, but they take a long time to permeate a culture. Many solutions to the gender pronoun problem in English have been suggested, from grammatical tricks (using “they” incorrectly) to replacing “he” and “she” with one word such as “zie”. Another suggestion is to adopt a new word from another language. In Mandarin Chinese pronoun gender bias does not exist. Any other person other than the speaker and listener is simply referred to as “ta,” regardless of gender.
The language we use sculpts our thoughts, perceptions, and opinions. “Tell yourself you can do it and you can,” is the power of positive thought manifested in verbal expression. That is for the “me,” but what of the “other.” If our words and thoughts can impact ourselves so strongly, then how do these words affect others? As with string theory, spoken words are vibrations, vibrations are chords and chords resonate through everything. This is the power and resonance of words. There is a reason “curse” words are considered so strong. They are “curses,” literally: Curse (n.), late Old English curs “a prayer that evil or harm befall one.” That idea stays in the consciousness of society even if the word’s original intention has been masked through common use.
Words are also control. Most slurs start as curses which were used to dehumanize and oppress a portion of society. The vocabulary of oppression uses language to divide us along various lines of gender, race, religion or any other system of labeling. It defines war. What war hasn’t contributed its racial epithet to the lexicon of English language slurs? Just take a quick look at the racial slur database to see.
Language bias separates us, and we are conquered by these words. We might find ourselves unable to take true charge of our lives, maybe because we “just don’t have the words” to describe it. This is the converse of the concept that language bias divides and conquers us. The lack, or obfuscation, of words to express true freedom helps keep us caged. How many of the words in this link are you familiar with compared to the list of words with potentially offensive origins?
We live in a time of instant global communication; our social responsibility needs to reflect this changing world. A big difference exists between using oppressive language with a small group of friends at home and posting the same language online, where the eyes of the world are upon it. It isn’t censorship; it is awareness, compassion and social responsibility.
Can we take conscious control of the development of global culture by choosing our phrasing with awareness?