Tag Archives: inclusive language

Against metaphor.

12 Oct

This post is full of offensive, derogatory and potentially triggering language.
I’ve been thinking about inclusive language and trying to be more mindful of my own.

I agree with the premise that language reflects and reinforces certain ideas, and that it’s worthwhile to be more aware of the assumptions behind our usage and understanding (the assumptions that make sense of words and give them meaning beyond their denotative referent; the word’s face value – what might be the first entry in a small dictionary).It’s a project initially motivated by solidarity with self-determination – by wanting to respect how people prefer to be addressed, described or discussed; to respond to their political needs; and to show support for cultural change through linguistic change. And it inevitably extends to questioning the assumptions on which all language relies.

But I’ve found common knowledge and practice around inclusive language in social justice circles to be both too simple, and too complicated.

Inclusive Language 101

The basics of oppressive language are simple to grasp. When you use language that can refer to or that is associated with a group of people or their characteristics and circumstances to mean something else (generally derogatory, but it may not be), you thicken the link between the two: saying “gay” when you mean “uncool” implies that gay people are uncool.

It’s simple to understand with the most overt examples, and simple to change: no matter how accustomed you are to using words like “nigger,” “faggot” or “retard,” it’s not hard to set up an alarm in your mind and find a better replacement.

Often there’s no perfect substitute, no word that’s quite as powerful – but that’s because oppression is powerful and there’s little that can call up so much power, so quickly, as a slur that stands in for a whole history of violence.

There’s plenty of existing discussion about words and phrases that can be hurtful or exclusionary and why you shouldn’t use them. Meloukhia gives a few examples:

Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation).  Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).

Some of these offend because they are commonly used as an insult but also refer to, or are associated with, a group of people (“cunt,” “moron,” “insane”). Some perpetuate stereotype by associating a group of people with certain characteristics or actions (“ballsy,” “jewed”). Some directly exclude (“biological sex,” using male pronouns as generic). Some embody double standards (“whore,” “shrew”). Some depersonalise (“the disabled”).Some understandings of inclusive language focus too much on the first two types. I don’t want to argue for either rejecting certain words or reclaiming others, and I certainly don’t want to make a judgement about who can say which words, and when. I do want to acknowledge that there’s more to language than vocabulary; more to inclusive language than banning words and phrases.

I want to talk about when language perpetuates unintended associations and assumptions in ways that are problematic but not necessarily hurtful. I want to consider this without calling for a ban, without even asking people to avoid certain phrases or judging them on how they use language. At the same time, I recognise this is an academic exercise: while deliberate language is political, it is not necessarily inclusive, and attempting it isn’t activism.

Beyond Denotation: Against Metaphor

Extending my last piece on analogy, I want to argue against metaphor – against substituting one thing for another, against reaching into the baggage of one thing to enrich or complicate our understanding of another.

To start with an obvious example, blackness and darkness is routinely used to stand in for mystery, fear, or general negativity. Though these associations may exist in many cultures, in mine it also draws on racism.

We use poor to signify lack, but it indicates both the state of having less (“poor people”) and being less (“poor form”).

Disability metaphors abound: a publication which would never refer to people as “retards” or “spastics” is likely to use “blind” and “deaf” regularly as a metaphor for ignorance or ineptitude (“the Government is blind to growing dissatisfaction …” etc). Debt is “crippling” and design is “schizophrenic.”

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag considers late twentieth century discourse on cancer to reveal our time’s anxiety about uncontrolled economic growth and technological progress. When capitalism is called cancerous, how cancer patients experience their bodies, or isolate the disease process from their bodies?

Rape is used as a metaphor for almost any offence or injustice, from colonisation to privacy violations to logging of old-growth forests. Consent is relevant in almost every political conversation – autonomy is essentially consent collectivised – but alluding to sexual assault is unnecessary and insensitive.

It’s impossible to escape metaphor’s intersections with oppression; most adjectives can be applied to bodies and people, so the words that describe me (short, young, light) inevitably draw on some other meanings (curt, fresh, unimportant).

Of course, I don’t really want to argue against metaphor. I want richly layered associative meaning; I want poetry. And I know sometimes synonyms are equal, if not independent of analogy, metaphor and association. Language is more complex and flexible than these caveats suggest.

Etymology is not meaning

Inclusive language is naive when it presumes that that a word only means one thing and will always mean that thing. Etymology is not meaning, meanings aren’t always hierarchical, and language changes through time and shapes itself for the situation.

Some meanings pass away: if linguists just hush for a bit, I think people will quickly forget that “bastard” originally meant someone whose parents weren’t married. Now it’s just someone you don’t like, or in Australia, anyone. The modern meanings of “laconic”, “spartan” and “lesbian” are dominant in the anglophone world, and their racial origins are only of academic interest. Historic insults sound so weak to modern sensibilities that television shows like Deadwood use anachronism to get the tone across. The sense of “gay” as homosexual has overtaken earlier meanings such as female prostitute.

On the other hand, accidental associations that aren’t based in etymology may cause offence. “Niggardly”, for example, can be used as a covert racial slur though its origins have no connection to blackness.

Asking people to take responsibility for every possible interpretation of their usage forgets that understanding is a collaborative project between speaker and listener, writer and reader. Intention is no defence, perhaps, but context is part of usage, and misinterpretation is always possible. When we talk about inclusionary language, we need to recognise that semantics is complex, and there’s more than one way to understand a text. We can’t scrutinise how people talk and write without considering how we listen and understand.

More dangerously, sometimes language is understood by reference to the user’s person, or what is known of it — the problem becomes not what but who. I can tentatively agree that members of an oppressed group can reclaim their insults while others cannot. But when irony, good intentions or offence is assumed based on presumptions about the writer/speaker, that means our understanding of language is too simple and too rigid.

Can language change culture?

While I believe that language influences thinking, its effect is subtle and not linear.

Changing language has an impact: using only first names or only family names, gender-neutral pronouns, or even just Ms as a title, can tease out fascinating reactions. Douglas Hofstadter’s Person Paper (an old favourite, and an exercise in analogy) shows that the extend to which English is gendered is quite disconcerting when revealed.

I’m not sure, though, that the structures of a language necessarily reflect much of the society in which it’s used. Persian, Hungarian, Bengali and spoken Chinese all use gender-neutral pronouns, while Arabic, Greek, German and Hindi have gendered nouns as well as pronouns. I think a global, historical survey of the correlation between grammatical gender and sociological gender would reveal, well, not very much.

Everything is problematic

Part of the project of inclusive language is to remove certain words from acceptable parlance. But inclusive language is also about finding new ways to tell our experiences, to express what is difficult to explain, to speak the things there are few words for. On top of that, inclusive language should accommodate many different linguistic styles and capabilities.

In just over a week, I’ll be in China for ShanghaiPRIDE – the second ever queer festival in Mainland China – and I’ve been eagerly brushing up on my Shanghainese. As the only conversations I have in the language are with my parents and teenage sister, my vocabulary is limited to familial dinner table conversation. Listening to Shanghainese rap songs, I’m chuffed to hear all the different words for idiot. I want to learn to swear and I can’t be fussy about inclusionary language.

One of my parents’ nicknames for me as a child was “mo ten”, and because I’m not part of a linguistic community I don’t know if it means “slowpoke” or “retard”. My other nickname was “shior gan du” (which I think translates to “little stupidhead”) and “zi seh di” (which is literally “13 points” but also means silly/ditzy/daft). Nostalgic digression aside, I don’t think I’ll ever have the knowledge in another language to understand the associations and nuances I know in English.

We can pull people up on language that offends or excludes, explaining why we might want to avoid it, but using the wrong language shouldn’t discount someone’s opinion altogether. Inclusive language needs to be one tool to making our spaces and movements more open and accessible, rather than proof of our good politics or an excuse for authoritarian discipline.

If inclusive language reduces everyone to silence, it’s not inclusive. It seems obvious but bears repeating.

More links:

A truncated earlier version appeared in The Scavenger.


On nationality, class and linguistic privilege.

21 Jun

I have substantial linguistic privilege. I moved to Australia at an early age, I’m good at learning from the kind of lessons that teachers are used to teaching, and I went to a very ritzy private school in Melbourne. Plus, I like language and it fascinates me so I put a lot of time and energy into it. Consequently, I read, write and speak in ways that our culture values highly. When I don’t sign my name or explicitly identify myself, I’m read as a upper-middle-class white man — meaning, my writing style has prestige and no marks of gender or race.

I try to be aware of this privilege, and to use language in ways that are clear, accessible, inclusive and appropriate. I won’t give up ‘jargon’ entirely, because I think there are concepts around oppression and injustice that ordinary vocabulary can’t adequately represent,1 but I’m always happy to explain or rephrase things. I’m not authoritarian about punctuation, spelling and grammar, and I am learning how differently people can express themselves, and how to understand that.2

These days, my speech sounds just like a native Australian English speaker. As a voracious reader and the eldest child (and for a decade, the only child) of for-the-most-part non-English-speaking parents, I learned a lot of words from written text, so until quite recently there was always a portion of my vocabulary I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. Many of these words were fairly unnecessary anyhow (“clandestine”, “fecund”, “quixotic”) but also I had to think of coffee to remember that “cough” sounds like “coff” and not “cuff”. A much heightened version of this experience is common to many international3 speakers of English — being better at reading/writing than speaking/listening or having a lot of vocabulary but not knowing the pronunciation or even having Standard English in terms of grammar and vocabulary and everything but just having an accent.

When I was studying linguistics, I was pretty frustrated that descriptive and prescriptive understandings of language (describing ‘standard’ use – how a language is usually used – rather than prescribing ‘proper’ use – eg how grammar teachers think it should be used) just pitted class difference against national and ethnic difference. For example, “you’re a doctor, ain’t ya?” is considered Standard Australian English while “you doctor, isn’t it?” (common phrasing in Singapore and Malaysia) is not. As “ain’t” originated as a contraction for “am not”, technically the former is no more correct than the latter — ‘proper’ usage would demand “you’re a doctor, aren’t you?” — but the ungrammatical usage of native Australian English speakers is Standard, while that of others is not. Ethnic differences within a country could fall on either side, it seemed, but I quit before I found out.

So when native English speakers demand that I write less academically, especially when they have had a similar education but just prefer a more casual style, I flinch. I don’t think my English is harder to learn than yours. The dictionary meaning of specific words is much easier to look up than the implications of various idioms. I understand prestigious styles are intimidating in ways that non-prestigious styles are not, but within subcultures non-prestigious styles are privileged too, and no less inaccessible.4“Femme revo love FTW” is just as impenetrable as “intentionality is radical” to the uninitiated. (Perhaps.)

But more importantly, the circumstances under which I achieved my linguistic privilege make me fairly reluctant to relinquish it. I learned to talk like this by prioritising English over my first and second languages, in which I have no literacy and a very low level of comprehension. It’s not exactly true that I gave up one for the other, but I did learn English under pressure of assimilation and when people now tell me I can’t express myself how I like in English, it makes my sense of loss much more palpable. I can’t talk to my grandparents any more, and all I have to show for it is writing like an upper-middle-class white man. Language is steeped in love and pain, pride and anger.

I want to make a commitment to clarity and accessibility when I am writing for a broad audience, especially in work against oppression.5 But I want others to make the same commitment, and it means more than just cutting out academic language. It means writing across generations, across cultures and subcultures, and in ways that are easy to pick up, if not immediately obvious.

I’ll be talking more about inclusive language in upcoming posts, focusing on analogy and metaphor.


1. Julia Serano, discussing the term “cis”, says

it sounds like jargon simply because most people are unfamiliar with it. […] Our ideas/thoughts/concepts/beliefs are very much constrained by the words available to us. If we didn’t have the terms heterosexual, heterosexism and heterosexual privilege, those of us who are LGB wouldn’t have the language to describe (and thus challenge) the marginalization we face because of who we sleep with. If we all just spoke “plain English” circa the 1950’s, where do you think we’d be these days with regards to sexual orientation-based discrimination?

Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia also says: “‘Academic’ is a way of dismissing us for evolving a vocabulary of our own”.

2. Silentmiaow’s videos really changed how I thought about expression: ‘In my language‘ and ‘If you can do X, why can’t you do Y?

3. I say “international” rather than “English as a second language” (ESL) because English is a first language for some of these speakers; rather than “culturally and linguistically diverse” (CALD) because I don’t like “diverse” as a euphemism for “other”; rather than “non-standard” because the ways of speaking I am referring to are standard in some countries. But “international” is inadequate too, as some Indigenous people who speak English as a second language might have the same experience, as well as other ethnic minorities who have been in a country for generations. It’s all a bit more complicated than I made it, but I do think “Standard Australian English” is tied up with ethnicity, race, nationality and the idea of who is “native” to a language, which is less simple than it might sound.

4. The idea of “inessential weirdnesses” as defined by Class Matters seems useful here. The article talks about how alternative cultures can be more baffling and alienating than mainstream cultures for someone who is outside of both (in this case, it’s alternative professional middle-class culture versus mainstream professional middle-class culture, but the same could be said for young anarcho punk slang English versus prestige English).

5. Dense academic text will still appear on this blog, because I post things that are written for elsewhere, and besides, according to WordPress statistics no one is reading this.

> Read earlier draft (without footnotes)

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