Language matters

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When Anita was a college student, she went to dinner at a white friend’s house. During dinner, the conversation turned to talking about the proper terms to refer to groups. Her friend’s dad insisted that it was okay to call Asians/Asian Americans “Orientals” because it was okay to say that when he was growing up. Anita and her friend tried to convince the dad that while it may have been “okay” at some point, the term was now offensive and that he shouldn’t use it. The dad wasn’t convinced then…but Anita hopes that perhaps he has come to rethink his stance since then. 

We wanted to explore in this post the same kind of reluctance and resistance that we see popping up in various ways around labels and terms that sees new or newly-popular language as a sort of performative wokeness that accomplishes nothing. In recent months, “white privilege” has come under attack and “Latinx” has been a controversial term since it began being circulated.* There’s a sort of knee-jerk skepticism about new language in cultural criticism–the “well, it’s just political correctness” discourse–that often seems to market or mask itself as a “holier than thou” or “smarter than thou” take. This push back seems particularly pointed when this new or newly-invigorated language comes from attempts by young people to change how we talk about identities and groups. We explored this topic before on this blog when we discussed gender identities and pronouns in our two-part conversation with our colleague, Tegra–you can check out those posts here and here

Challenges to vocabulary, dress, music, and ideas perceived as arising from youth cultures, especially when seen as originating from youth from marginalized groups, are, of course, not new. 

Social media exacerbates all of this, we think. We’d love to hear from sociolinguists or social media scholars to confirm our hypothesis: that we see and hear more resistance to new cultural studies language because platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, and TikTok have made it possible for young people to communicate quickly and effectively with each other about their needs, desires, and beliefs–and some of those needs are about being seen and heard the way they want to be seen and heard. In other words, if new language in academic circles is about emphasizing and experimenting with a new frame of knowing (which may or may not prove effective), new language that comes from the ground up (generally teens) emphasizes their right to be recognized in particular ways,  Part of what we see as the resistance is that in the age especially of social media shifts in language seem to happen more rapidly and diverse, often radically opposed opinions more easily occupy the same “virtual” public space.

We are sympathetic to the feeling of being overwhelmed by the ever evolving language and shifting consensus–it can be difficult to “keep up” and especially for us as teachers. We often feel pulled in so many directions as we attempt to create inclusive classrooms while pushing for institutional changes around racism and White Supremacy. We are also sympathetic to  critiques that these kinds of debates perhaps distract us from the kind of structural shifts that need to occur. However, at least in our experience, academics who are critiquing these kinds of language correctness are rarely doing the work of pushing institutions to move towards reparations and redistribution of wealth and resources. Instead, their complaints seem to evince a resentment of having to do the work of learning and admitting that we perhaps don’t know it at all. 

* Adriana recommends reading Richard T. Rodríguez’s excellent “X Marks the Spot” in Cultural Dynamics 29.3 (2017) for incisive insight into how Latinx has been used and what it can exclude. The essay finishes: “Some may feel that embracing Latinx is simply a trend. I, however, want to champion the X as drawing attention to and not overshadowing nonbinary and gender neutral and nonconforming individuals. But to do that, we cannot simply use Latinx without acknowledgment of its discrepant gender politics, nor can we map it on to people’s lives, histories, and bodies uncritically. For if the X is to simply become something to which anyone can easily lay claim, we will need to aggressively pose the question: Why adopt it at all if the ultimate goal is to cross out any traces of queer assertion and affirmation?”


2 thoughts on “Language matters”

  1. While I’m not a language scholar, I am a language/sociolinguistic fangirl. Therefore, the following are my own musings.

    I think one of the biggest challenges we have with language in Western cultures is a matter of context. English and other Romance languages are low-context languages, meaning that the utterance can often be fully understood even if you do not know the full context of who, when and where the utterance was spoken or written. This suggests that those who speak (and therefore think) in these languages are often purposefully ignoring context because it is not seen as an important component to the meaning of an utterance.

    Clearly, this is not the case. All language is context-sensitive, and uttered in relation to the contextual time, place, people involved, etc. Language that ‘used to be ok’ in that time/place, is sometimes no longer ‘ok’ in this time/place. However, because our cultural understanding of language as having no dependance on context leads many to gloss over the change in how certain language is perceived.

    On top of that, language is strongly intertwined with one’s identity. This is obviously why language matters so much. But it also means those who are being told that their language is no longer appropriate, may also feel personally attacked.

    Please know, I don’t mean this to defend those who refuse to acknowledge and accept the evolution of meaning of language. I personally know that language does evolve in meaning, usage, and all other aspects, and I do my best to keep up with those changes in order to honor those who are impacted by my choice of words. As I said, these are just my off-the-cuff musings in trying to understand the importance of language evolution, and the resistance that we see to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if some of the reluctance to adopt new terms comes from not being sure what language changes come from a desire for a group to distinguish themselves from other groups (and perhaps even exclude out-groups members from knowing what is being said – do I really need to adopt “yeet”? is it even appropriate for me to do so?) and what language changes come from a desire to fill a linguistic gap (an idea that doesn’t have a word). I can imagine that someone who is relatively naive about a subculture might have a hard time telling these apart, especially if the conceptual distinction isn’t salient to them. Of course this doesn’t excuse reluctance in the face of someone explicitly saying “Please call me this.” or “Please don’t call me that.” or reluctance to listen and learn when asked to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

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