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Language and empowerment

Language and empowerment are vital for fairness and equality, so how can we ensure the words we use reflect the kind of society we aspire to become?

Can language be used as a tool to empower people? Changes to language and the way we use it has always been a great source of contention.

From comparisons to George Orwell’s Newspeak, a fictional language featured in his dystopian novel 1984 which restricted words that threatened the state’s ideology, to accusations that the ‘snowflake’ generation is offended by everything, including words and phrases that have long been deemed acceptable – there are many people that don’t take kindly to the idea that parts of our vocabulary may no longer have a place in modern society.

But the truth is that language is ever-evolving, and should reflect the kind of society we aspire to become.

Language and empowerment - or lack of it - were a key leitmotif in Orwell's dystopian novel 1984.
George Orwell's '1984'

There is no question that we must continue to fight for free speech across the world and reject the forces that seek to restrict or police language.

But can and should we be more mindful about how we use everyday language? Is there a way to use language as a tool of empowerment for groups of people who may traditionally feel marginalised and excluded by society?

Modifying our language

Recently, Berkeley City Council in California voted to approve an ordinance which would replace gendered words like “manhole” and “manpower” with gender-neutral alternatives like "maintenance hole" and "human effort" in its municipal code.

Language and empowerment
Manhole or "maintenance hole"?

In the US, a municipal code consists of a codification of ordinances establishing the laws and regulations of a city.

The unanimous vote also included replacing "he" and "she" with the third-person plural pronoun "they".

'Left-wing language lunacy'?

This relatively minor story went on to spark a heated debate in international media, with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly calling Berkeley a “fascist enclave,” and another radio host commenting that the ordinance was “left-wing language lunacy.”

Hitting back at the comments, city councillor Rigel Robinson, who initiated the vote, told the BBC, "This is a small move, but it matters […],” and that the vote “was not controversial.”

He went on to say that the masculine terms in the code were "inaccurate and not reflective of our reality.”

"Women and non-binary individuals are just as entitled to accurate representation. Our laws are for everyone, and our municipal code should reflect that."

"There's power in language."

"There's power in language": Across the world

Those who work with English language have long had to contend with the many words and phrases that contain “man,” whereas other languages come with their own challenges.

In the grammar of Romance languages, for example, the masculine version of a noun is often used as the default and is widely considered to be gender neutral.

Latinx: What's it all about?

But there is something of a “linguistic revolution” going on in the Spanish-speaking world, according to Jack Qu'emi, a writer and self-described "queer, non-binary femme," who identifies as Afro-Latinx.

For some time now, an increasing number of Spanish-speakers have begun to use the term Latinx as a substitute for Latino or Latina. In Spanish, Latino is widely used to describe a male of Latin American descent and Latina for a female. However, the term ‘Latinos,’ which many view as a masculine form, has long been used as a collective noun to describe those of Latin American descent, regardless of gender.

The use of Latinx “aims to move beyond gender binaries and is inclusive of the intersecting identities of Latin American descendants.

“In addition to men and women from all racial backgrounds, Latinx also makes room for people who are trans, queer, agender, non-binary, gender non-conforming or gender fluid.”

Qu'emi explains that “The ‘x,’ in a lot of ways, is a way of rejecting the gendering of words to begin with, especially since Spanish is such a gendered language.”

Grammar vs Machismo

But in 2018, the Real Academia Española, the official source on the Spanish language, rejected the use of Latinx in the publication of its first style manual.

“The problem is we’re confusing grammar with machismo,” said Darío Villanueva, RAE’s director.

Furthermore, NBC recently reported there are some who consider Latinx, which was first coined by scholars and academics, to be elitist. “If I were going down to the local taquería, they wouldn’t know what you are saying if you used the term,” said David Bowles, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

So, what is the solution?

There is no doubt that it is down to individual communities to reject or embrace the newer, supposedly more inclusive terms that are being debated, and these communities must be allowed to self-identify with the terms they feel most comfortable with.

And whilst language matters, so does context.

Perhaps it should be a challenge for all of us to aim to use language in a kinder, more thoughtful way, regardless of which side of the debate we are on.

After all, if we all lead with respect, an open mind and a willingness to learn, we can’t go far wrong.

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