Advocating for a gender-free language, like we do, promotes a specific usage of a language.
This can create a feeling of unease and/or insinuate an elitist attitude. It may raise more serious concerns, like language dictatorship, politically correctness, cancel culture. More directly one may ask: Who the hell are we to tell you how to speak? How come do we pretend to know better what is a 'harmonic', accomplished language ?
In order to address these concerns, we'll introduce the following term:
Debbie Cameron coined this term in 1995. It describes the practices by which people attempt to remove from the language all the 'dirty' objects. In case, you find it hard to relate to hygiene, consider it as a musical preference - that is all the practices people use to make the language a music to their ears. While not all linguistic exchanges are an harmonious masterpiece, verbal hygienes expresses the wish that the language would at least be clear, simple, without all those irritating words that create an unbearable background noise.
'Verbal Hygiene' by Cameron's words is the “discourses and practices through which people attempt to ‘clean up’ language and make its structure or its use conform more closely to their ideals of beauty, truth, efficiency, logic, correctness and civility.” (Cameron 2012: vii)
This term allows us to address the problem of authority in language change. Who has the right to impose specific standards and why. These questions of linguistic authority, identity and agency remained unanswered because people could not recognize any linguistic authority. While there are many auto-proclaimed linguistic authorities (ex: French Academy) they don't have the capacity to enforce people to speak their standard language. When it comes to language, everybody is the authority. Even if one decides to follow the rules of a given academy, or a natural language, one does it because she delegated her authority to the academy.
what the language we speak reveals about our values, us, and how it contributes to shape our identity; which linguistic changes are acceptable and which are to be discouraged (and why) are all questions that relate to the ideological function of verbal hygiene.
These questions deals with the issues of authority, identity and agency remained unanswered because people don't recognize any linguistic authority. While there are many so called 'official' linguistic regulators (ex: French Academy) these regulators can promote a certain dialect but lack the authority to impose it. Governmental and regulators past tentatives to enforce a given dialect always failed. People reaction clearly indicated that they think they were entitled to communicate even if their linguistic authority didn't approve their way of speaking. (to name few examples 1, 2). When it comes to language, everybody is the authority of at least the authority to ignores another authority.
In other words, if we all have the authority, no one has the authority to tell us how to speak. Questions about language usage cannot be addressed because no authority is recognized. That was the case, until Cameron's made a Copernican revolution in the field by introducing the term Verbal Hygiene.
Cameron simply observed that this question isn't relevant to the discussion. Cameron's insight was to point out to a simple fact - verbal hygiene practices are inevitable. That is, the act of speaking is also a declaration of 'how to use the language'. It is something that we constantly do even if no one ever granted us the authority to do so. Not only we all have the authority, since we reaffirm it any time we speak the notion or central regulator is senseless.
Humans do not just use language, but also observe and reflect on the language they use. Whether these practices are carried out to criticise deviant or incorrect language forms, to impose standard, or to argue against any form of interference with ‘natural’ changes. In all cases, people are engaging in a struggle to control language by defining its nature as either a man-made product to be controlled or a natural entity to be observed.
We are all, linguists and laypeople, have strong ideas about how a specific language should sound, work and look. This applies to any human action, because we don't only act, we also feel. Language opinions aren't different from food considerations to name just one analogy. We don't only cook and eat, we also defend certain values by doing so. As with language this can be done in a conscientious way by designing our menu by our our values, ex: vegan/Kosher/only organic/locally/junk-food etc'. It also happens in an intuitive way - wheather we like or dislike what we taste - we are bound to feel, to have an opinion about it. We also express it intuitively - wheather we like or dislike what we taste - we are bound to feel and have an opinion about. The same as we do with languages. We can promote s a certain dialect coherent with our social values, or just intuitively select the words to express our vision our 'taste' of the subject, person, situation we deal with. (Linguistic) opinions emerge because contrary to robots, we feel when we act.
Verbal Hygiene is basically observation of a fact, that language does not exist separately from what it describes. When we talk, our words don't carry only audible signs, they also carries an emotional 'package', something that happens when we talk. It is the notion that, behind the ostensible desire to regulate language and ensure standards, verbal hygiene practices hide a range of deeper social considerations, moral values and political anxieties.
Cameron's concept is neutral, in the sense that it doesn't depict 'good' and 'bad' hygiene. Is simply applies that any given speaker can no longer use said language without revealing their own political stance, to some degree, as language choice has “altered the value of terms and removed the option of political neutrality.” (Cameron 2012: p.9).
Yes, technically, political correctness falls under the umbrella of verbal hygiene. Telling people to stop using derogatory terms to refer to large groups of people, for example, is an attempt to change the language people speak. Part II of this article extensively reviews the divers aspects of Politically Correctness. Thus, we will refer to it only in the context of this article.
As Cameron says, political correctness is not a threat to our freedom of expression as language users, but rather something that “threatens only our freedom to imagine that our linguistic choices are inconsequential”(Cameron 1995: p. 9) – or, in other words, that we can say whatever we want, but we must be prepared to face the consequences.
“Our norms and values differ” argues Cameron, but “what remains constant is that we have norms and values” (p. 9). Accordingly, Verbal Hygiene, is nothing more than invitation to discuss the underlying forces of the language, i.e. our norms and values, rather than the language itself.
“... complaints about language changes are usually symbolic expressions of anxieties about larger social changes.” This can refer to a number of different ideas — people alarmed about slang “destroying” the language comes to mind — but is especially apt in describing the backlash to political correctness. People who exclaim “Freedom of speech!” when they’re yelled at for using a racial slur are kind of missing the point of verbal hygiene. It’s not the words that are used that people get mad about, but the sentiment behind them.
Promoting a gender free language is a form of politically correctness. Since values aren't facts, we cannot pretend that our values are better or more noble than other values, nor does our vision of the language. Since we believe in gender equality, we are engaged to raise awareness to the impacts of gender biased language.
You can disagree with us. It will be helpful to admit it rather than raising the argument of 'politically correct tyranny'. What we conceive as natural language is as subjective language as any of its dialects. A natural language is a mystified 'standard' language that was unchallenged over time. Accordingly, it might be helpful to discuss about the underlying values rather than the way we express them.
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