How Language Works and Why Political Correctness Doesn’t

Have you ever wondered how something can mean the opposite of what it actually says? How is it that we don’t hear a literal meaning when we hear terms like black—a word that was once suggested as a neutral substitute for Negro? How come it sounds so wrong nowadays? As does colored. So we can use person of color instead—but that will sound pretty tainted too in no time. I’m not talking about politics. I’m merely talking about political correctness. I’d like to explain a few misconceptions about language that might give you a little peace of mind whether you are against or for politically correct language.

The first time I encountered something in Gender Studies I was skeptical about was when I was twenty. I had already taken quite a few courses in linguistics. The professor was discussing Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble. He asserted that, first and foremost, everything is language. This seemed reasonable to me. Body language, clothes—everything tells a story. But then the professor continued, “all speech is action, it is performance.” But that can only be correct if you not only have a very broad definition of speech, but also a very broad definition of action. Finally, the professor mentioned Austin, a linguist! But Judith Butler doesn’t even quote Austin. Not in Gender Trouble anyway. She quotes Bourdieu and Derrida. Even in her work Excitable Speech, Butler presents many ideas which originated with Austin, but she views them through the lens of the interpretations of later theorists. Let’s return to what Austin actually said. According to Austin, speech acts are acts of phones, which are the sounds coming out of one’s mouth. They can be both constative or performative, ranging along a scale from describing the world (constative) to acting through speech (performative). When people name a ship, the performative aspect is evident. However, when someone makes a statement about the world, they may also have reasons that we can only discover when we examine their words in context. When someone talks to herself, for example, she might have psychological reasons for doing so, but does her speech change the world in any way? You’d have to be a strong believer in the butterfly effect to think so. Today, speech acts are still classified using Austin’s system.

My university lessons on gender were dripping with terms like decolonialize, deconstruct and discourse and slogans like speech is action. And they were soaked in names like Derrida, Foucault and Barthes. I wasn’t allowed to use sex anymore: I was supposed to say gender. I couldn’t say black, I had to say person of color, because speech is action. This is an overinterpretation of John Austin’s work. At the center of Austin’s ideas was the notion of acts of phones: i.e. he was concerned with the sound you hear and the form that sound takes. Everything else—the statement made about the world, the action itself and the intentions of the speaker—are different parts of speech. The form holds a special place in every theory of speech and communication and it can only be judged aesthetically—if at all. This crucial distinction is at the heart of twentieth-century linguistics. It goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure’s important distinction: the sign for something, whether in sound or writing, neither forms a picture of what it refers to, nor is it exclusively bound to its referent. The word tree does not sound or look at all like a tree. They are linked arbitrarily, through social convention, the history of the language and our associations. Associations are individual, but they develop from social conventions.

Magritte’s painting Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe points this out—of course, it is only a picture of a pipe and not a pipe itself. Our minds easily wrap themselves around this conception. This explains why we have so many different beautiful languages around the world—they grew out of conventions, of historical changes in sound or shifts in meaning, in every direction. Even the words we use to represent the world more pictorially, such as onomatopoeic terms (e.g. those which mimic animal cries) are arbitrary, rather than intrinsically linked to the sounds they claim to reproduce. This is why, for example, a cockerel says kikeriki in German and cock a doodledoo in English. Every four year old growing up with two languages intuitively understands this distinction between form and content, between signifiant (signifier) and signifié (signified). As a result of Saussure’s findings, the study of language changed dramatically, giving rise to structuralism, the analysis of language by its structure.

How We Have Gone Full Circle

Derrida’s theories were based on this easily understood division of a sign into its elements. Examining the structure of society, Derrida came to the conclusion that no meaning is ever fixed, nor can it be fixed, because meaning is in motion. So what do we do with this information? Throw everything ever written into the wind, dance around the fire, laugh hysterically and call it a day? Well, no. Philosophers never tire of interpreting and reinterpreting Derrida’s ideas: take Deleuze or Said or Butler, who made many suggestions but did not draw upon any reliable logical system.

The idea of unfixed meaning influenced Lacan in the field of psychoanalysis, Barthes in literary criticism and Bourdieu and Foucault in sociology. Lacan argues that without language the self would have no meaning and Barthes claims that the meaning of a text is not made by the producer but by the reader, because meaning is not fixed. For Bourdieu, what is meant and understood is dependent on the position one takes within the social field. Meaning, Foucault and his companions claim, is a manifestation of power and power is therefore reflected in discourse. Deconstruction, the idea Derrida proposed as a means of interpreting literature—by identifying oppositions and presumptions within it—soon became an instrument with which to analyze an entire society. This not only reduced even the most artistic pieces of writing to mere social commentary, but also encouraged commentators to dissect the speech of everyday life. The premise was something like this: the powerless must deconstruct discourse, because they mustn’t leave the powerful to decide what things mean. Discourse is language and language is action therefore language can be violence. The recipient of speech is always right about its meaning, so if the recipient feels offended the speaker must be condemned.

Some academics moved from understanding that form is not shackled to content to believing that changing the forms of speech would change the world, thereby ignoring the fact that signifier and signified are different things. (These people had no idea how language works but wanted to teach others how to speak.) And, of course, there were many more in the field of high theory: far away, out in space, in a zero gravity environment, in which they had no real use for language or empirical findings, their books written in an often arcane style, ending paragraph after paragraph not with answers or deductions from data, but with questions of a highly suggestive type. It is doubtful that Derrida would have recognized his own ideas in the politicized strategies his successors knit from them.

These developments might also have been connected to parallel theories of what is called the linguistic turn, which, ironically, doesn’t have much to do with linguistics, but with philosophy of language. The idea was pretty trendy at the time: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus tried to put the world in final formal order, arguing that the borders of the mind are those of language. Wittgenstein is often considered the pioneer of the linguistic turn. Sadly, few have noticed that Wittgenstein later withdrew these theories, in his Blue Book. While Wittgenstein and Austin were racking their brains to figure out how meaning evolves in speech, nowadays people demanding politically correct speech often assume that their interpretation is right at any time. They believe that the speaker may not realize what his words mean, but the recipient does.

While Austin, when read closely, can’t legitimize language policing, he might still be seen as an authority on language philosophy. His concept of intention—part of his speech act classification—came to be substituted by convention, which was often seen as more powerful (see, for example, Butler’s Excitable Speech.) The distinction between the act of phones, which means the form, and the other parts of speech acts was simply ignored.

Another reason why the language constructs world credo is so attractive might be found in Benjamin Lee Whorf’s writing. A contemporary of Wittgenstein’s, Whorf built his ideas from a theory to which he adhered all his life: if a culture has no word for something, said culture doesn’t have (un)said thing. This is nonsense. Did you know that the Italians have a single word for the little ring of spilled coffee that remains on a coaster or table when you take the cup away? It’s called culaccino. We non-Italians know this thing. We wipe it away with a cloth or serviette every day. Do we have a word for this in English, German or Russian? No. But since language is functional, I’m pretty sure I did a sufficient job in expressing what it is.

Whorf was not exactly the empirical type. But the temptation to elevate language to an even more powerful position was so strong that, as late as 1980, in Man Made Language, Dale Spender just assumes he is right. The discrepancy between what is proven and what isn’t went unnoticed in the 1990s, when Deborah Cameron quoted Saussure’s theory of the sign and Whorf in the same breath. Cameron simply concludes that the two would probably disagree. Even today, you can watch a TED talk video by Lera Boroditsky, who takes a neo-Whorfian approach, claiming that nowadays we have all the data we need. We know, she explains, that people whose language orders time vertically rather than horizontally orientate themselves vertically more quickly and, for example, speaking a language which organizes directions by north and south changes how people order things. Russian has two words for blue and so on. But all these differences do not result in any differences in our everyday lives, as John McWhorter shows in The Language Hoax. That is how small those differences are.

Boroditsky also discusses gender in language and how it shapes thought. She explains that in languages such in German bridge takes a female article and, in tests, people load the concept with female stereotypes, describing bridges as beautiful, elegant, etc. In languages in which bridge takes a male article, people describe bridges as strong, robust, etc. She suggests that the article determines their view of the world. But does it really? Isn’t this a chicken-and-egg problem? Perhaps the meaning existed before the word did—this often happens. Perhaps bridge received a female article because architecture was elegant at the time the word was coined? Historic development, some comparative linguistics and the arbitrariness of language are all ignored by neo-Whorfianism. Words don’t arise out of a vacuum.

Does Language Change the World?

Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t. At least not in the sense poststructuralist theories suggest.

In official German communications, people are now obliged to use both male and female forms in any reference to humans, in order to make the female part of the group visible. Not only is this already troublesome to those who are neither male nor female, but does it hold up, considering that other languages don’t work that way? In Gender Studies, people often discuss a Quechua tribe from south of Lake Titicaca, who have ten social genders. I recently stumbled upon The World Atlas of Language Structures and noticed something odd: the Quechua have no distinction of gender in their language. There are languages with five or more genders: Zulu, for example. But Zulu culture only recognizes two genders. You might conclude that having fewer genders in a language allows for more gender possibilities in the culture, but no. You could pick a hundred more examples and there’s only one possible conclusion—the relationship is arbitrary.

Of course, you could claim that there is data to suggest that women don’t feel included if they are not mentioned. But consider when and where such data was collected: at universities, rather recently. Is data fully reliable if a theory (e.g. language shapes the world) is propagated within a certain field for 30­–40 years and afterwards data is collected from people in precisely that field, asking women whether they feel included if they aren’t mentioned?

There is another common misconception: that just telling everyone the word they are using is a racist or sexist insult will stop them from using it, hence abolishing both the word and the racism/sexism it implies in perpetuity. We know this doesn‘t work. This is how the so-called euphemism treadmill comes into being: when people are not supposed to use one word, they will use another to replace it and in no time that word will fulfill its predecessor’s function, fill the same semantic gap and sound as tainted as the original. But what causes this? Sound? No, it is the everlasting interplay between connotation and denotation. The taste of words, if you like. People already understood this as early as 1880.

Attempts to change language by force can be found throughout history. But what happens when a word is lost or prohibited? Does its meaning disappear? We know that words disappear when what they named goes out of existence or use. But does this work the other way round? No. The connotation just happily hops onto the next best word. People use it in the previous sense and it becomes equivalent. If we overuse words like cunt or nigger enough their connotations will eventually wash away. Used in an alternative context, they might lose their insulting connotations. This is a strategy adopted, for example, by the hip-hop group N.W.A (“Niggaz Wit Attitudes”). The effect of these individual reappropriations is rather small, as language change only happens when the changes are applied by the vast majority of the speakers of the language. Alternatively, if the word applied only to whites, it might lose its meaning with reference to what are nowadays called people of color. With cunt, we have the connotations of an insult, female and genitalia. If we only applied the word to men, it would probably lose its connotation of referring to females. Applied in a more neutral sense or even as a pet name it might lose its insulting quality. But is this helpful?

What happened when the new Soviet regime in Russia introduced the word activist in a positive manner? It became a slur in no time. What happened when the media introduced not only a neutral but a euphemistic sounding term for refugee (asylum seeker) in Europe? It became a slur too. But even in polite form unfriendly content can manifest: e.g. in Vienna even the word person can be used as an insult. If there is meaning to be expressed, it will find expression. People won’t become less racist, sexist, etc. because they have been socially ostracized. Language is as language does. A thought doesn’t die if it is not spelled out or spoken aloud. We read meaning into neutral words by ignoring the arbitrariness of signifier and signified, denying the speaker’s intention a place in the speech act and ignoring what earlier theorists emphasized: conventions, context, presuppositions and sometimes even the subject of what was said.

Similarly, if a German phrase referring to a profession makes use of both the male and female forms, that won’t affect whether more women or men work in that field. The expression will remain hollow and become a platitude. The effect of making people notice that women work in the profession will wear off pretty quickly.

I would never argue that language shouldn’t be changed. In fact, language has always been in a state of constant change, though those changes may have been slowed by the invention of printing techniques and sped up again by the internet. When an expression for something is necessary in a society, words will emerge and the more people use them the better chance they have of sticking around for a while. There is definitely a chance that this will happen with the they/them pronoun, for example.

What does all we know about connotations mean, when linked to deconstructivist theory? For example, I might say that explicitly naming women divides them from the men and declares them once again the ultimate other—a point made by those arguing against poststructuralist interpretations.

If the recipient is the one producing the text, that doesn’t necessarily make every individual interpretation correct—it simply raises the question of what most people read into something. Also, if the recipient is the one producing the meaning, this could be used to argue that the writer or producer of speech is always free from guilt and any misunderstanding is the recipient’s fault. In reality, the truth lies somewhere between these extremes. Miscommunications tend to happen, but can be dealt with. We would do better to ask ourselves more often whether an interpretation makes sense in a certain context, without preemptively assuming evil intentions on the part of the other person. Attempting to understand plays an important part in successful communication.

I am not talking about politics, but language. My intention is not to make anyone give up any of their ideals. But the strategy of using political correctness to bring about change in the world is highly flawed. Changing the form something takes won’t do any good. Changing the content on the other hand will bring about real change in discourse. As long as no one talks about a problem, it won’t have a place in discourse and it won’t be changed.

Like water, language finds every little space of meaning that wants to be brought out into to world—using irony, sarcasm and hyperbole and other strategies, if need be. Language is always a bottom-up process and never top-down. Planned language change rarely ever has the intended results and whatever language change is thrown at people, they will find ways of expressing both their best and worst thoughts, because language is an ever-changing, unfixed system of signs and meanings, defined by one arbitrarily, endlessly buzzing swarm-like thing and one thing only: usage.

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10 comments

  1. Excellent article, in total agreement with pretty much all of it except for small matter.
    Asylum Seeker is not merely a politically correct word for refugee. They denote different things. Asylum seekers being a subset of and a particular type of refugee, who’ve become a refugee for particular reasons (One wouldn’t call someone displaced by natural disaster say, an ‘Asylum seeker’ but it’s meaningful to call them a refugee.)
    If Asylum Seeker has in some contexts become a slur, it’s due to the fact that the line between those fleeing persecution and economic migrants has been deliberately blurred for political ends by certain groups.
    The idea that this wouldn’t have occurred if the term hadn’t been coined would seem to go against the entire premise of the piece.

    1. I agree with what you say here: there was a fringing out in media of the terms refugee, asylum seeker and migrant. But that is not, what I refer to here, but something even more specific: In this interview https://www.zeit.de/2016/10/sprache-manipulation-elisabeth-wehling Elisabeth Wehling suggests that the german term for refugee “Flüchtling” is a generic masculinum and therefore seems agressive and at the same time it is diminutive because of the “-ling” ending, thus belittling refugees. (With the description of “aggressive” and “belittled” I actually would have put my money on someone talking about Gremlins.) So she suggests it would be better to use nouns like “Flüchtende” oder “Geflüchtete”, those became slurs, not only for refugees, but also got used to mock people who are seriously using them to help reframe how refugees are perceived. This interview was shared quite a lot from institutions and the general media picked those terms up in total ignorance that psycholinguistics don’t care much about any historical component of language and its tendency to shift and that introducing different terms won’t help.

  2. Speakers of English really are not better off for saying “he or she” where once a supposedly-universal “he” was sufficient?

    Oh horrors, oh no, please just say it ain’t so!

    1. of course there is poetry, rhyme, rhythm and meter to language (whether or not anyone is actively taught those post-Dead Poets Society, they’re still at play in how we compose our sentences). if a sentence becomes unwieldy, encumbered under the weight of too many pronouns and acknowledgement riders attached to ensure that no readers feel left out of the sentence in question, then it can have a negative impact on the accessibility of the idea the sentence is intended to express. indeed it can start to come off as something more akin to legalese than literature or other forms of artful wordsmithing.

  3. Even appealing to the Tractatus to support the linguistic turn would be rather far fetched as Wittgenstein strongly qualified the term ‘language’. He was alluding to “die Sprache, die ich allein verstehe” (5.62), which, obviously, cannot be ‘language’ in its ordinary sense.

    1. Yes. The Tractatus is of course a lot more complex than any postcard-quote given by people trying to instrumentalize Wittgenstein’s authority on language philosophy for the sake of language policing.

  4. I’ve often wondered about the euphemism treadmill. Here in Canada, in reference to the Indians, it has been: savage, indian, native, aboriginal, first nations, and today: indigenous. As with fashions, we know that one day the fashion will change and what was de rigueur yesterday will be passe tomorrow. But who decides? Is there any way of predicting when bell-bottoms will be back? If I refer to an Indian with any other word than ‘indigenous’, today I’m likely to be outcast. But one day ‘indigenous’ will be as dated as ‘colored’ (referring to Negroes) — but who invents the newest euphemism and how do they get away with it?

    1. It’s a form of enforcement. You are expected to keep abreast of the latest social justice terminology. Thus the SJWs can see if you are with them or not, just by how you use language. Use the right terms, and you may speak. Use the terms from last week, and you are The Other.

      See that scene in 1984 during Hate Week when the speaker changes the focus of his speech mid-sentence and everyone goes along with it.

  5. People who deal primarily with words come to believe that words are real. At the same time, they want to make a difference. So, they start believing that by changing language they can change the world. Stupid, but understandable. As the author notes, words can quickly become their opposite or other words drafted to serve a given purpose.
    The tendency to not grant the speaker the benefit of the doubt or to “deconstruct” his words gives primacy to the emotions of the listener, but the listener can be mistaken. For example, people were recently upset that Cleopatra was played by a white women, but in fact she was the last Greek ruler of Egypt. People vandalized the statue in New Orleans of Joan of Arc as if she was a slave owner. Putting feelings first serves the purpose of creating and enforcing tribal boundaries, which is a very dangerous path to go down.

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