The impact of Political Correctness on Language Change



  1. Whether we buy into Linguistic Determinism or Linguistic Reflectionism should make us decide on the usefulness of Political Correctness, and if we can change our language in order to change the way people see the world. Is this a change we should pursue? Either way, it has been a change pursued by society over the last 50 years. Whether we avoid words like “slag” and “slut” because we are no longer sexist, or whether we avoid them to avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes, the point is that there is a change happening here. It is patently disingenuous to even contend that that “slut” is falling out of use for the same reason as “jolly” as an adverb, or “hugger-mugger” (to act in a secretive manner): so what’s happening here? Just as Aitchison parodies prescriptivists as believing in the “Infectious Disease Syndrome”, as it implies that language change spreads like a disease, in that it is both bad and unconscious, we must accept that there is a deal of human agency involved here. People are taking control of their language, and more since the PC movement of the 1990s than ever before. Yes, people in Shakespeare’s time would have been just as likely to use euphemisms to avoid offence, eschewing direct reference to death, sex or using the toilet; however, the last generation or two has been deliberately taking on language, thereby speeding up such change. Words such as “spastic”, “retard” and “chink” are disappearing from our language more quickly now than ever before.
  1. If our language is merely a reflection of how we think, all efforts to change how we think by changing our language have been fruitless. Nonetheless, such efforts have been successful in changing our language, for example we no longer use “he” as the default pronoun, interchanging it with “she” or “they” because of the misguided belief that we had been perpetuating damaging stereotypes, namely that women weren’t or shouldn’t be involved in academia.


  1. The political correctness movement got up and going in the 1970s – and concerning the question of how language changes, this movement leads to some very interesting questions, the answers to which can tell us an awful lot about the processes behind language change


  1. Can we set up and carry through changes to the language we use? – i.e. has the political correctness movement had any quantifiable success? Or is our more tolerant language merely a reflection of our more tolerant society?


  1. Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language” shows how clichés undermine expression through misleading us: we are using someone else’s words, not expressing ourselves; if this is the case, getting rid of politically incorrect or otherwise harmful expressions, will enable us to avoid thinking racist, sexist or otherwise harmful thoughts.


  1. How can we affect the ways in which language has changed, is changing and will change in the future? If, as Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language” that the speaker is in danger of becoming a “machine” through using clichés, being mindful of these clichés such as “standing shoulder to shoulder” or “collateral damage” will enable us to improve our language- i.e. make us better able to genuinely express ourselves.


  1. To some extent in “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell marks himself out as a linguistic prescriptivist. If some language is worse than others, such as “the war on terror”, because of how it is used to mislead us, then language change can be bad (as well as good).


  1. If we can actually change language through conscious effort – should we? George Orwell in 1984 warned of the dangers of such a process. Warning of a dystopia where euphemism and banishing dangerous words control people’s thinking. When politicians speak of “pacification” rather than murdering villagers, we can see the dangers in language change.


  1. Should we allow language to change at all, regardless of the good intentions of those who seek to change it? In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell said “the conscious action of a minority” can change our language. Stale metaphors such as “collateral damage” are bad, in the same way as politically incorrect terms such as “retard” and “bitch” are bad, so should we be consciously controlling language change?


  1. George Orwell seems to support the Strong Sapir Wharf Hypothesis, that language is “a prison house” for our thoughts; if this is the case, a change in our language can be either good or bad, leading to a better or a worse society.


  1. If we can in fact change our language and control that change, we can stop other changes happening to language, changes which we dislike; but are there such things as good and bad changes?


  1. The descriptivist approach to language change is to simply describe the current usage and make a note of how language changes – what might the stance of Jean Aitcheson or David Crystal be to consciously changing the language we use?


  1. Which politically correct terms have become established in the language we use today? What do these new words say about the PC project and about language change in general?


  1. Of the prescriptivist attitude to language change – the King Canute approach – if King Canute was given the ability not only to allay the advance of the tide (the prescriptivist hope) but to make it dance to his own tune, would he have done so?


  1. Guy Deutscher supports Roman Jakobson in arguing that if we don’t have a word for an idea, the concept is harder to deal with, for example “schadenfreude” in German: in English we can express this idea, however not as easily, showing that changing our language can affect how we think.


  1. Because the Tagalog language did not have words for blue and green until the Spanish colonisation it raises the question of whether language does, in some way, shape how we see the world: is there substance to the PC project? Should we be actively changing our language?


  1. Language doesn’t reflect our society in a straightforward way, but as Korzybski said, it contains “hidden traps that distort reality”: bearing this in mind, we should take the political correctness project seriously and actively seek to change our language.


  1. Roman Jakobson in 1959 suggested a more reasonable and plausible version of the Sapir Whorf hypothesis – that different languages lead us to speak of the same things in different ways. For example, French and Italian make us refer to a group of people as male even if they contain only one man in a group of one hundred: this is an example of a language leading us to prioritise men. If languages do this, there may be substance to the P C project: we can and should change our language.






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