As a writer for such an important magazine and movement, I’ve decided that I want to discuss the medium from which we are highlighting our points: language. The English language is a tool and a medium of expression that has immense power. With words, the intangible chaos that is human thought is converted to a form others can understand and used to comprehensibly empathize with one another.
As amazing and awesome as language is, however, it is equally capable of harm and comes with a certain degree of responsibility. Language is inherently harmful. The words and phrases we use to communicate hurt each other, beyond intentional verbal assault. Specifically, in spoken microaggressions. Language harms people who are not what is Euro-centrically considered the “default”.
Default in itself is an inappropriate word to use. However there is no other simplification of the standards that are imposed on every person. The default is male: He is white, able-bodied, and certainly speaks in a way which people consider to be proper.
Let’s take for example, the “generic-masculine” case in gendering English, which specifically refers to the way gender is forced upon to the spoken vernacular. English exists as a generally gender neutral language, especially in comparison with the romantic languages. In spite of the lack of gendered objects though, English is still very much gendered. Grammatic gendered endings do not exist, as pluralizing generally means adding an “s” rather than taking into account the gender of the word. But gendered suffixes and prefixes do persist. Actor and hero are two which stand out as masculine words, despite the profession and usage having no reason to be distinctly gendered. There are female actors and heroes, but they have separate titles (actresses and heroines respectively). Thus their roles are easier to degrade as the distinction is clearer. Depreciation of women in language is apparent, especially when it comes to their work. Compliments towards women’s work tends to be along the lines of “pretty” or “nice”, while masculine compliments are much more definitively powerful, such as “brilliant” being used more prominently with work done by men than by women. These findings are the results of studies published in “Women & Language” done by Dr. Henley on how gendered diction distinctly oppresses women.
In spite of the repercussions of forcibly gendering English, the colloquial use of gender neutral language is forcing proper English to take gender neutral terminology as correct. Pronoun usage also follows the same lines, as the singular “they” is gaining increasing momentum simultaneous to social changes and recognition of genders outside the conventional man and woman binary. People are finding it not as tedious to be more gender neutral in addressing people as was once commonly believed. Common solutions for gendered pronouns are the variations of “he or she” and “s/he”. However these are often less fluid than using a single term and fail to recognize genders that fall outside of the binary, as outlined by Betty Lou Dubois and Isabel Crouch in “Linguistic Disruption”. Though pronouns such as “ze” have not gained as much recognition, the development of a new singular, gender neutral pronoun is desperately needed, as people still find “they” to be awkward in proper usage. With the invention and integration of a new pronoun, people can comfortably express their/zeir gender openly and without fear of rejection.
For the “default man” and “proper language”, there is only one way of speaking, one way of expressing thoughts and one accent in which to enunciate these ideas. For people of color, especially those in a lower social class, this can become increasingly difficult to achieve. These conditions create situations in which white children are more likely to succeed in the workforce, and the better off the child is financially, the further they will get in life. This vicious cycle of racism and classism effectively keeps the “default” in the position of power over the oppressed and maintains the systematic discrimination of people of color. According to a report done by the Center for American Progress, African Americans earned 20% less than whites with the same bachelor’s degrees. With white counterparts making more money, people of color are finding it increasingly difficult to change the powers against them, especially with 20% of students defaulting on their loans when attending a for-profit school.
Intersectionality further intensifies the issues of class and race. For a black woman, the issue of inherently sexist language is also combined with the racist biases against her, and thus her experiences with linguistic oppression are unique and dynamically different from her white counterparts. Even this article, in the way I am writing these facts out, is extremely exclusionary of people who do not speak “proper” English. Oh reader, as Adrienne Rich excellently puts it, “This is the oppressor’s language, but I need to talk to you”.
As a society, the oppressive aspects to language can be changed, not just for a small niche of young advocates, but also on a larger scale. News reporters, professors, and scholars all feel the pressure of social change, and by advocating for the change of the way language is used, people will also follow suit. Cases such as the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign highlight the speed and effectiveness social pressure has on linguistic change. In spite of the opposition from those who protested against “political correctness” many people now avoid the “r-word” and are more conscious of the ableism associated with it. With a combined effort, these microaggressions can be removed and replaced, and oppressive language can be structurally altered to ultimately create a safer, more accepting medium.