Is language a “loaded weapon” or an accurate reflection of the world and our place in it?
Language the Loaded Weapon – The Use & Abuse of Language Today – Dwight Bolinger (1980)
- 1. “Our reality is a product of ourselves , in large part a reflection of the categories, moods and juxtapositions that our language provides us with or makes possible.”
…that is, the manner in which our language is constructed frames and assembles its own brand of “reality”; different language system would present us with a different reality: the relativsist position of Sapir-Whorf.
- 2. “In large degree we find in the world outside us what our language leads us to expect to find.”
…which is to say that Sapir-Whorf determinism or relativism is very much the case
…which is to say that we are “in large degree” imprisoned by our language, only conceiving of a world which our language allows and being unable to conceive of the world in any other way
However, we must ask ourselves firstly, if it makes sense to talk of “the world as it really is” and “the world as we conceive it” as two essentially different things; isn’t this merely playing with words? Does our language act as a kind of a filter through which we only receive so much of the world as it is, the quality of things, an understanding of the universe, or an appreciation of the texture of the world?
- 3. “Language is not a neutral instrument. It is a thousand ways biased.”
…this is a rather weak statement in comparison to those above. Many would agree that language can and does mislead us, that our manner of expressing ourselves and describing the world can lead us one way rather than another, and is therefore not a “neutral instrument”. However, that is not to say that the biases in language, whether they number in the thousands or the tens of thousands, cannot be circumvented; thus, language can allow us to see the world as it is.
However, the question stands: what are these biases which pervert language and thus distort our understanding of the world?
A Case in Point: Sexism
- 4. “As with other relatively powerless classes, there is a heavy representation of epithets and similar unfavourable terms [for women], more than for men.”
…how many terms relating to learning and scholarship are mainly or exclusively masculine? And how many feminine? The two terms Bolinger lists: “pedantess” and “bluestocking” are wholly pejorative, having to do with pretensions to knowledge.
…if there are more words for something, e.g. describing men of learning, does that necessarily mean that our language is biased in one way, thus distorting our expectations for, and even our perception of, the world around us?
- 5. “Many loaded terms, particularly those referring to women as sex objects, reflect women’s status as property, kept or rented for sexual services: Roget’s Thesaurus lists twice as many female terms as male under libertine. Furthermore, all the female terms are fully disparaging…”
…but then, is this our language reflecting our society, with its different assigned roles for men and women; is it really our language imposing a different perception of men and women upon the users of the language?
Indeed, how can this be tested?
…take “an impartial modifier such as loose”, Bolinger invites the reader; applied to women the term is wholly pejorative, always having sexual connotations, applied to a man neither; the man is a fugitive at worst.
Bolinger tells us that Julia Stanley and Muriel Schulz found 320 terms in English for “sexually promiscuous woman” – The Semantic Derogation of Woman 1977
- 6. “Being old puts one in another class of the powerless. Being old and female puts one on the verge of being an outcast. There are no male terms to match the contempt embodied in the words hag, crone, witch, warhorse, biddy and bedlam. There are sexual connotations here too: ‘old and unattractive’, ‘old and sexually useless’.”
Of course, Bolinger does not, nor can he do, an exhaustive statistical study of the whole of the English language, tracking a bias against women that runs all the way through it, but even if he did he still has no answer to the question what comes first the bias against women or its codification in our language. And indeed, it is rather a ridiculous question; most people would agree that a language will and must reflect the culture which it serves. Just as there will be words for deities and ceremonies, more words in more important semantic fields, there will be less words for areas and aspects afforded less importance within that culture.
…however, that is not to say that the existing language does not, in some way, affect our view of the world, if only reinforcing biases we may have acquired in other ways; most people will agree that the language accentuates or diminishes certain perspectives.
As every word is connected to every other in a complex web of signification, each word has a number of connotations as well as a denotation, the value or meaning of any word is rather fluid, and language can pick up the least hint of social significance, whether that’s the different status of certain women or the level of formality afforded to certain persons. Once a word has acquired certain associations it can and does do on to affect other words and may well shape how we talk, and think, about the world.
- 7. “Epithets are the tip of the women-as-property iceberg. The language is mined with expressions that reflect women’s status as a commodity, despite the disappearance long since of prearranged marriages and the obsolescence of promises to love, honour, and obey.”
…it would seem, from Bolinger’s own analysis of the issue that our language is somehow stuck in the past, or at least slow to catch up; does this not imply that language may well be changing? And why does language change? In this respect, Bolinger is implying that language changes to accommodate social change; it may be slow to do so, but language will eventually change to accommodate our changing values – that is, our biases come first, our language just reflects them.
…so is Bolinger a “Reflectionist” or a “Determinist”?
As someone who attempts to describe how things in fact are with language, Bolinger might do well to avoid these rather absolutist terms, confining himself to saying that the words we use do in fact frame or flavour our view of the world and leave it at that. We should be aware of the propensities and tendencies our language overwrites us with, if only that we can counter them in our turn. We are not prisoners of our language in Bolinger’s analysis, merely ignorant of the control it exerts over our every thought.
- 8. “In most forms of literature, devaluation through words related to sex takes a more subtle form which can be exposed only by collecting and counting.”
…this is the issue of pronouns which the whole PC project started with, and with which most people would agree: we should not present the male as the normal actor in the stories which shape our view of the world; Bolinger cites:
“When adults write for one another, they refer to young people as children, almost as often as they call them boys and girls. When writing books and stories for children, however, adults use the gender words boy and girl twice as often as the neutral words child and children… Overall, the ratio in school books of he to she, him to her, and his to hers, was almost four to one.”
The Sexist Tradition: Words and Meaning – Julia P Stanley 1978
Why is it important that there is a concerted effort to deal with such gender biases in the literature of children? Why are pronouns so important?
- 9. “The sexist use of pronouns goes beyond straightforward male-female reference. It also extends to the personification of inanimate things. Ships are often called she. The imagery is fairly obvious: sea captains, sailors, and shipping clerks are traditionally men, and the ship is pictured as something alive that works for them and toward which they feel a certain affection. The feminine can be used for any fairly elaborate workhorse contrivance… Look at my new power-mower; ain’t she a beaut? …But if the workhorse is pictured as having rudimentary intelligence, then the pronoun switches to the masculine… such as a computer.”
…is this just paranoia on the part of Bolinger and the loony wing of feminism/political correctness?
And, if such tendencies do indeed exist, are they not more reflections of intrinsic sexism as opposed to the means by which we are trapped into adopting sexist attitudes?
…again the debate: which comes first – the derogatory word or the derogatory attitude. But this is not a debate that Bolinger enters into, probably because it is pointless.
The point he is making is that our language is biased in various ways, so we are often pressed towards expressing ourselves in ways which reinforce a bias of which we are either aware or unaware. We may not count ourselves as being sexist, but the language we use can be – does this not make us sexist as soon as we open our mouths? Does our language need rectifying?
Are “chairman” or “she’s one hell of a shooter” really a problem?
Would a world of chairpersons really be a fairer world?