Sunday, October 01, 2006

The English Language: Part Deux

“If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete.”
- Strunk and White: The Elements of Style

Last time we had a look at the state of the English language, and what many think of as its deterioration in the hands - or perhaps more correctly – in the mouths, of modern users as the language evolves in what seems to be uncontrollable patterns. This month we consider how we might shape some of those patterns.
Following the influence of the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and aided by the work of many multicultural groups, society has become more aware of, and sensitive to, language that might be offensive to members of various identifiable groups.
There is no question that the language journalists use shape the thoughts of their audiences, and by inference, shape the thoughts of society. The English language has always been dominated by the use of the male pronoun, for instance, with the result that for decades it was almost automatic to think of people in positions of power and authority, and those working in the professions, as male.
In addition, there have been distinct differences in the way women and men are described in the media. We might, for instance, see something like: “The communications consultant, a petite, blonde in her early twenties, arrived at the meeting…” Well, unless the facts that the communications consultant is a petite, blonde female are somehow central to the information being shared, they have no business being included in the story. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a comparable descriptor saying: “The communications consultant, a balding, middle-aged white male, arrived at the meeting…” Both descriptors are unnecessary, and both impart a sex-role stereotype to the minds of the readers. It would be a special circumstance indeed that could warrant the inclusion of the age, sex, racial background and overall appearance of a person in a piece of journalism.
Writers – and speakers - must make special efforts to be sensitive to the language they use in order to avoid alienating members of their audience, and to avoid raising stereotypes and triggering bias in the readers.
The problem of how to avoid the generalized male pronoun – the so-called pseudo-generic pronoun – is a thorny one. “A new student at college must be aware that he is responsible for his own success” implies that college students are male. Some writers have suggested mixing up the pronouns to indicate equality: “A new student at college must be aware that she is responsible for his own success,” but that’s just nonsense and confuses the reader. Other writers have suggested combining the pronouns: “A new student at college must be aware that s/he is responsible for his/her own success.” While that does work, and may possibly catch on in time, it’s still too awkward and clumsy.
The best of bad solutions is probably to simply pluralize the pronouns: “New students at college must be aware that they are responsible for their own success.” This works pretty well in almost all cases, and does not “readjust” the facts.
One of my favourite “fuzzy” words that is much used in everyday language, yet has no really clear meaning, is the word “manmade.” If something is “manmade,’ is it hand-made? Machine-made? Simulated? Artificial? Made by men only? The temptation might be to say “all of the above,” but clearly something can’t be both hand-made and machine-made. I would suggest it is clearer and more accurate to say what the item is. If a machine made it, it is machine-made, if a person made it by hand, it is hand-made, if it is made out of synthetic fibres, it’s synthetic, and so on.
To think of all this bias-free, gender-neutral language as political correctness gone mad would be to miss the point. Language really does shape and influence the way we think of others and of ourselves. Since we need everybody to be involved in our society in order to make it work, we need to make sure everybody is included in the language, and we need to make sure we don’t belittle anybody and make them feel less than they are.
Look at the way people who disagree with one other use language to help make their case: For people who support abortions, it’s a matter of “choice.” For people who don’t, abortion is “murder.” One scientist’s unborn baby is “foetal tissue,” while to those who oppose the use of foetal tissue for scientific research, it is an “unborn baby.”
Words clearly shape how we think of ourselves, how we establish relationships with others, and our place in society. Language that is accurate, inclusive and bias-free will go a long way towards breaking down barriers in communication.
And let’s put a quick stop to those who object to the use of bias-free, gender-neutral language because it “changes the English language” by reminding them that one of the things that makes English such a delightful language is precisely the fact that it is in a constant state of change and adaptation. The English we use now is idiomatically very different from the language our parents and grandparents used, and heaven knows it’s being changed yet again by our own children.
People and the language they used cannot be judged out of their time – that would be an anachronistic fallacy. What we can do, however, is look at their language, and then look at our own, and see if we are any better at getting the communication across clearly.
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