Linguistic Ninjas and the Impoverishment of Language

Linguistic Ninjas and the Impoverishment of Language December 16, 2018

In a conversation with colleagues sometime last year, we had a conversation about appropriate word use and its impact on our vocabulary. It came up when someone referred to a “blind spot,” and another colleague said they had actually had a student complain about the term because it was disrespectful of those with visual impairments. I was shocked that this had been suggested, since “blind spot” is the technical term for an aspect of human vision that all human beings share, and not to a different level of visual ability.

Another colleague who writes fiction then shared his experience of having a publisher recommend eliminating the use of the word “ninja” as a way of referring to someone’s impressive ability, since it involved cultural appropriation.

I wanted to respond to this by saying that the use of language is something of a minefield. But then it occurred to me that minefields are serious matters and it is perhaps inappropriate to use that expression in that way. It trivializes the harm caused by land mines.

I then wanted to say that our concern about word choice, taken to this extreme, risks impoverishing our language. But then I realized that poverty is no laughing matter, and so I probably shouldn’t say this.

Anyone who knows me knows that I care deeply about the use of language, and in particular inclusive language that makes sure no one feels threatened or even excluded from recognition. Gender-inclusive language is important enough to me that I’ve begun saying “grandparented in” instead of “grandfathered in.” And I was dismayed to find that some white male faculty think that the use of racial slurs – even when talking about what others have said, or in trying to convey the shock value of certain language – is simply a matter of words being “taboo.” Taboo words for genitalia, for instance, have not been associated with lynchings and systematic oppression the way the “n-word” has been.

Words matter to me. My concern is not to preserve language for its own sake, but to avoid an excessively heavy-handed approach that goes to such an extreme that it actually makes the genuine issue of inclusive language look silly, trivializing it as a result.

A lot of ink has been spilled on this subject. But I discovered in my class this semester that today’s typical undergraduates are not familiar with the expression, “a lot of ink has been spilled.” Perhaps we could substitute that a lot of pixels have been illuminated on the subject? Or perhaps we need to simply say “a lot has been written” and let go of the old saying as outmoded?

Or maybe we need to act to preserve these elements of language? A little effort now might go a long way. A stitch in time saves nine.

But of course, no one who is reading this likely stitches clothing any longer, if they ever did.

What are your thoughts on this? If you can maintain a wide and diverse vocabulary while avoiding insulting anyone or causing any kind of unnecessary psychological harm, would it be appropriate to call you a “linguistic ninja” or not?

 

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  • My view is influenced by my being a language geek, which keeps the fact that there are multiple languages in the world at the front of my mind.

    When it comes to English, I wonder whether or not the extreme language policing is confusing to ESL people; after all, watching TV and listening to music is recommended as a way to learn another language, and American pop culture is everywhere. Sometimes, some terms are used in pop culture that the extreme language police would disapprove of. Thus, I wonder how confusing it must be for those who do not speak English as a first language. Does all this language policing and self-righteous judgmentalism of the language police reflect Anglophone privilege and is it thus exclusionary towards non-native English speakers? I also wonder about those who are on the spectrum and otherwise neurodivergent. (I actually like the sound of the terms “neurodivergent” or “neurodiverse”.) For many of them, they feel the rules are always changing and that they are judged more harshly than neurotypicals for deviance.

    As a language geek, I also wonder whether or not all this language policing occurs in other languages, and which terms to avoid, so that I can be inclusive in all languages I learn: after all, do language courses lack inclusion? Is all this new “inclusive language” only for advanced language levels (level C according to the Common European Framework of Languages).

    With French, I have noticed moves towards inclusion: French is more gendered than English, such that even inanimate objects have grammatical gender. However, the feminine plural is only used wihen referring to a group of people or objects that is all feminine; if there is anything masculine, a masculine plural is used. However, nowadays, inclusive language means that many now use both the masculine and feminine forms in reference to people. (When I tweet in gendered languages, such as French and German, I generally use both forms.)

    As for pronoun wars, it is noteworthy that some languages (such as Turkish, Azeri, and Farsi) lack gendered pronouns altogether. I have read that sometimes they use the wrong pronouns in languages with gendered pronouns, which is considered rude, at least in USA (and probably in many countries). However, that is a good reminder that not everyone using the wrong pronouns is trying to be a bully or cruel, but just may not be that competent in English.

    • Cynthia

      Excess language policing tends to be a problem for those who just don’t know current terms – whether because they are ESL, or don’t have the same education, or aren’t in settings where language gets updated often, or just have difficulty with language.

      I tend to think of my FIL. He just turned 77 and English is his 3rd language. He is retired now, but spent much of his working life on construction sites. It would be outrageous to get upset because his language won’t follow the latest guidelines. For example, there is no way that he would ever say “neurodivergent”. He knows that my nephew has autism, but would probably just say something like “he has some problem, he is smart but has trouble talking with others”. My husband and his siblings grew up here and have the language appropriate to their professions, but even they have gaps – my social worker SIL knows more of the current lingo, but my husband and BILs will only know what gets covered in professional development or in things like mandatory hockey coach training (believe it or not, that’s where my husband learned about current gender issues).

  • John MacDonald

    My biggest complaint to the Gods of Language is polysemia. I always have to be very careful when I’m writing because more than a little often I produce stuff that is ambiguous to the point that it can be taken in a way that (i) produces no understanding, (ii) conveys something different than what I intended, (iii) or even, in rare cases, points to the opposite of what I intended!

  • The one thing that makes me sympathetic to this claim is the existence of figures of speech, and the fact that they do not translate literally across languages. Thus, such expression may use different terminology in other languages. (I do wonder to what degree part of this results from American monolingualism.)

    Nevertheless, I do wonder how to be more inclusive in other languages as well.

  • Tim Bulkeley

    Off your main point, but the use of obsolete metaphors suggests that they are ‘dead’ or at least moribund, perhaps in such cases a language ninja will be motivated to find a substitute,

  • jh

    I have a problem with this “pc language” issue because it feels like it’s policing the borders rather than addressing the core problem: the perceived lack of respect between groups of people. Sure, I agree with people when they say “white people can’t use the n-word”. But it’s because the context of that word between a white and a black person is such that it is impossible to ignore the historical damages that still reverberate in our society. At the same time, the example of “blind spot” feels absurd. All of us have a “blind spot” and that’s why, our cars have multiple mirrors that we use to check when driving. What are we going to call it? The thing that shall not be named? Even people with better than 20/20 vision have blind spots. It’s just a defect in the way our eyes are built.

    It’s the same thing as the battle over what is cultural appropriation and what is cultural appreciation. White conservatives, as a rule, tend to say “bs. I’m tired of this nonsense. If I want to say the n word I will. You’re not the boss of me. Free speech for me but not for thee. Amerikka” I honestly wish there was a simple answer to this. But the problem is that we are facing a cultural war in which one side – white conservatives are very very happy with the status quo and would like the uppity minorities to just STFU. The other side, in its zeal and maybe some amalgamation of white guilt, bends over backwards to the point that it becomes a farce and everything is a bomb.

    Things like this can only happen in a multicultural society. We’re basically trying to work out how to relate with each other. Unfortunately, it’s messy and it will take a while to get to some group agreement. The language and behavioral policing we are seeing is just a proxy for a shifting dynamic in how our society is arranged. Our society has desegregated to an extent and its changing the rules of what is polite and impolite. Little kids growing up today lived with 8 years of a black man being president. That surely had to change their perception of black men on a subconscious level. Kids are growing up in non-nuclear style families and surely that’s going to change how they look at the world and how they relate to it.

    What I’m curious about is this. It is sort of unfair, but I’d ask that student who thought the term “blind spot” was mean to the visually handicapped could write a five page paper (double spaced) that could articulate the reason and have references. I know I can do that for the n word or the reason that we are shifting from gendered pronouns to genderless pronouns (congressman/congresspeople). But can the student give a compelling argument for the blind spot. I’m really curious about it. It’s great that the student was aware of other people but has this student even talked to somebody who is visually impaired to that degree? (Hey – I need glasses or contacts just to read something that is roughly 1.5 feet away. I marker up the tops of the shampoo and conditioner because I can’t tell which is which without putting them to my nose. And yet, I never took the phrase “blind spot” as meaning something offensive. I understand, not all visually impaired people will take it the same way. Maybe I’m the exception. The generation and culture that I grew up in shaped my expectations to a degree.)

    (My rule for cultural appropriation is this – if the person who comes from that culture would be penalized for honoring that part of their culture or they can’t make the kind of profit that a white counterpart would make off of their own culture, than it’s cultural appropriation. If the dominant group turns elements of that culture into a “costume” it’s even more offensive. Think of it this way. The US has a history of making fun of black people for their thick lips. So why is our society okay with thick lips via lip filler on white women?)

    Oh – and I refuse to accept the false plea of “intent”. A reasonable person should be able to back up and understand the impact of their words and actions on other people. Claiming ignorance translates in my head as “this person is stupid and lazy”.

  • Scurra

    As ever, when this comes up I always like to cite Douglas Hofstadter’s masterful A Person Paper on Purity in Language” which, whilst not perhaps strictly relevant to this particular side-road, contains much of relevance. He also wrote possibly my favourite book on language and its multiple dimensions, Le Ton Beau De Marot, which is ostensibly about translation but has much time for discussing these sort of issues too.

  • Neil Brown

    My perspective on this is that offense it taken, not given. If people take offense, that is primarily their problem.
    But we are a society, not just individuals, so your problem is – to some extent – my problem.
    Offense is most often taken by people who have reason to fear. So it is beholden on each of use to ensure our actions give others no reason to fear, and every reason to feel safe. When we are able to do that, we should not to be concerned that a word might give offense, because we have acted to to remove any genuine source of offense.

  • Thanks for the humorous article on the serious subject:-)

    Words do matter, and some are so harmful that they need to be used with caution, HOWEVER, the political correctness of the last few years is harming language and taking concern too far so that it turns into an almost Orwellian way of being.

    That’s my take, as a retired literature teacher and writer.

  • Chris Eyre

    I have a (non-anglophone) internet friend who is happy to say both that his children using “computer” and “download” instead of “ordinateur” and “télécharger” is cultural imperialism, while for me to use “joie de vivre” or “savoir faire” is cultural appropriation. He sees no irony in this…

    • Tim Bulkeley

      Perhaps imperialism involves power, in questions of language use English is more powerful than French.

      • Chris Eyre

        Particularly where my friend is based (Québec), yes. Part of me is tempted to say that in the marketplace of languages, the better product wins; part of me laments the incipient monoculture and loss of linguistic diversity.

  • Summers-lad

    I totally agree with you, and you made me laugh too.
    I remember a friend telling me years ago that he hard heard some children in a playground taunting another by shouting “Challenged!” This made him realise that the prejudice relates to the condition, not the condition.

    Do you know this song by Eric Bogle? https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=silly+slang+song&view=detail&mid=1FC8E5B31B99B63458741FC8E5B31B99B6345874&FORM=VIRE

  • TubalCain42 3+

  • KateGladstone

    The expression “grandfathered in” comes from a 19th- and early 20th-century American election law called the “grandfather clause,” which provided that a man (and ONLY a man) would be allowed to vote if he could prove that his grandfather (and it had to be a grandFATHER) had been legally allowed to vote. (The point of the law was — horribly — to keep free blacks from voting, because their ancestors had been slaves and therefore unable to vote like other men: and, yes, “other MEN” is precise: because women could not vote either, when the “grandfather clause” was invented). See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandfather_clause#Origin
    Changing “grandfathered in” to “grandparented in” falsifies history: blurring it into a nicer-but-fake picture of our past, by falsifying the origin of the phrase.

    • How would someone choosing to use a different phrase than was used in the past, not introducing the new phrase into past writings nor in any way claiming that the phrase is a longstsnding one, be “falsifying history”?

  • John MacDonald

    Looking back at this post on language that I commented on some time ago made me think of language and human life, and specifically the relationship between Being and Adverbs, which is a particular area of interest of mine. Much of the history of Philosophy has focused on adjectives, with “Being” being understood as a dual noun (essence/existence), and in my opinion has neglected the fundamental descriptive importance of Adverbs in understanding human experience, which is odd since “Being,” as a present participle, is fundamentally a verb, so adverbs would be a natural place to look. At some point, when the originators of language invented “Being” as a neologism to characterize what they wanted to express, they chose a participial verb. In grammatical sense, for participle the Latin translates Greek metokhe “sharer, partaker,” and the notion is of a word “partaking” of the nature of both a noun and an adjective. On Participles, I found this online, which is kind of cute:

    Owl: “What a scene! A octopus got me!”
    Bug: “Phoo! ain’t no octopus is got him!”
    Pogo: “Mebbe he mean a octopus did got him.”
    Bug: “A octopus did got him? Is that grammatiwackle?”
    Pogo; “As grammacklewak as rain — ‘is got’ is the present aloofable tense an’ ‘did got’ is the part particuticle.”
    Bug: “Mighty strange! My teachers allus learnt me that the past inconquerable tense had a li’l’ more body to it.”

    Anyway, I did a blog post today on the Philosophy of Language regarding Being and, not just adjectives, but especially adverbs. If you get a second, take a look and let me know what you think! Does it provide some grundbegriffe for understanding human existence? See http://palpatinesway.blogspot.com/2019/07/being-and-language-in-heidegger.html

    • John MacDonald

      Not just adjectives with “The dog is brown,” but just as importantly adverbs such as with “Things are irritating (appearing irritatingly) due to my headache.”

      • John MacDonald

        Sorry about the multiple edits, my perfectionism is at OCD levels, lol