The Politics of Naming: Languages Edition

After my last post on the use of Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) in the Canadian House of Commons, I received a comment on Twitter that asked why I was changing the name of the language. When I objected that I was not, in fact, the one making the change (since the name I was using was the one used by its speakers for generations prior to colonization), the commenter responded:

 

I was…a bit swift and facetious in my dismissal of this comment on Twitter (Ed: You kind of have to work on how Twitter does that to you. SS: Yeah, that’s fair). I was somewhat surprised (because Twitter) to learn that the commenter, Martin Haspelmath, is actually a linguist who has thought quite extensively on the implications of language naming. As another commenter pointed out, he has, in fact, written an article on the subject which was published in the (OPEN ACCESS!) journal Language Documentation and Conservation. So stepping back from my initial reaction, I wanted to consider the argument presented.

The first point to note is that proper names – for people, places, and things like languages – are complex and unique linguistic items. Their degree of specificity (in other words, the limited nature of their referent) makes them function differently than other nouns, including with respect to processes of translation, which is particularly relevant to the example discussed. In Haspelmath’s article, he outlines principles for naming languages for the purposes of the English-language resource Glottolog, which is intended to provide accessible information about lesser-known languages of the world. These principles include some motivations for changing the name of the language, including the possibility that old names become “unacceptable” for some reason and therefore require changing, and that speakers themselves should be the central in bringing forward that objection. He also acknowledges complexity in establishing how these objections emerge, especially in cases where there is no formal body that speaks for “the community” to which the language belongs (the idea of an easily definable “community” is one that I have also pointed out as problematic for purposes of “community-based” research, so I appreciate this point).

At the same time, I think there is a fundamental point missing in the article as a whole, and definitely in the short conversation that emerged under the constraints of 140 character interactions. That point is one that we, as anthropologists, are always hammering at: context.

Part of my snappy response to Haspelmath’s tweet was based on what I still find to be incredibly condescending in his judgment about the use of “Kanien’kéha” instead of “Mohawk” – the idea that the decision to use the former term denies the language an English form and therefore impoverishes it. In this formulation, the English language name, and the apparent accessibility that it provides to a general audience, is a pathway for transference of wealth, a formulation that reeks of colonial ideologies. And, as others commented in the Twitter exchange, this is precisely the grounds on which a name like “Mohawk” is only now starting to fall out of favour – the language acquired its English-language name under circumstances of genocidal violence, land theft, cultural destruction, and linguistic elimination (aka “colonialism”). The quick comparison to Japanese or German completely erases that vast difference in context, and the use of a metaphor like “deprivation” of an English name (when English naming has been primarily used to deprive Indigenous peoples and languages of their value and place in the social order) is downright offensive.

As noted, the article acknowledges a much greater degree of complexity, but still, to my mind, shows some disturbing trends. For one, it unquestioningly accepts certain forms of authority as entitled to sanction name-changes. These include academic prominence (“the usage of prominent authors is given substantial weight”, point 11 on the list outlined on p. 91), or minimally, status as an academic linguist. Where speakers’ own valuations are introduced, it’s with caveats that this is best done within defined structures of community authority – and while, as I’ve already noted, communities are incredibly complex things, these types of organizations are often formed in relation to and using models based in colonial governments. All in all, the result is a context in which colonial terms of reference and academic hierarchies are used as gatekeepers to a community’s right to self-definition and self-labeling, and that’s uncomfortable at best.

In the end, I want to call in to question the central assumption Haspelmath introduces to the conversation – that language names are, first and foremost, English words. Without delving in to a long theoretical argument about how the boundaries – and even the idea of boundedness – of languages are socially constructed, and not objective, entities, this claim works to define the context on terms that centralize English-speaking users of the names. In other words, rather than attuning to nuanced multilingual contexts of the meaning of different types of English-language names, it creates a context in which the rules are set, first and foremost, by English speakers, and, ultimately, colonial ideologies about language and its meanings. This is not to dismiss the problem Haspelmath faces with respect to his Glottolog project, which requires him to make decisions about the names assigned to and information given about a huge range of languages, many of which are currently undergoing shifts in sociopolitical status and meaning as a result of language revitalization projects and other Indigenous rights initiatives. But it is to emphasize that the project of naming and cataloguing languages is an act of power, situated within fields of power that are both pre-existing and actively created by the language namers.

Power and context, and the power to create context, may not be explicitly acknowledged, but they are never in fact absent from discussions about languages and the language we use to talk about them. Indeed, in the context of motivating his work on Glottolog, Haspelmath’s tweet makes a lot more sense – but even there, the role that English (and those who define the boundaries of what counts as English) plays in these descriptions should not be presumed as a neutral field. I could outline some specifics of my discomfort with “Mohawk” over “Kanien’kéha”, but ultimately these are less significant than my discomfort with accepting English as the field that sets the rules about language names. Hard to change? Of course it is. But no one said decolonization would be easy.

Kanien’kéha in the House

Last week, a Liberal MP from Quebec named Marc Miller made headlines around the world by delivering an address to Canada’s House of Commons entirely in the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language. Miller described his speech, and his year-old journey into learning the language of the territory he represents, as an act intended to honour the people and to support the revitalization of this, and other Indigenous languages. His language teacher, Zoe Hopkins, said that hearing her language in that context was a matter of great pride – it was “Like being inside a Heritage Moment“, which is likely the most Canadian way possible to express said pride.

The speech (included in its entirety on that CBC link) is about a minute long, and ends with Miller receiving an enthusiastic round of applause and congratulations. That short minute, though, is a pretty big deal for Indigenous languages in Canada.

Mohawk_language_stop_sign
Kanien’kéha Stop Sign, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory (Photo by Moxy (Own work) (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not, to be clear, the first time an MP has addressed parliament in an Indigenous language. In fact, it happened just last month, when Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, also a Liberal, used Cree. The story then, however, was less about the symbolic significance of using the language and more about the pragmatic failure to support Indigenous languages through the provision of translations, as we do for English and French. And yes, the difference between these stories is that Ouellete is Indigenous, and Miller is not.

Into that minute of hesitant Kanien’kéha language use, and into the media’s responses, are packed a whole host of symbolic and practical implications. Indigenous people that I know or follow on social media have had varied reactions to this, and it’s fair to say that, at the very least, it’s complicated. All I want to do here is offer an overview of the many angles at work in this story.

  1. Miller’s own claim, and the perspective of his teacher and other language advocates I’ve heard, are that hearing Kanien’kéha in the place of decision making for Canada is a powerful statement of respect and outreach. If we are meeting, as we purport to, on a nation-to-nation basis, requiring only one nation to accommodate the use of the other’s language is a manifestation of a deep power imbalance that Miller seeks to mitigate, at least somewhat.
  2. The most obvious and significant counterpoint to this is that the language is still being used in a colonial house of government. The very existence of this institution and its role in shaping, circumscribing, and yes, limiting, the lives and languages of Indigenous peoples is the reason that Kanien’kéha, and many other languages, face the possibility of disappearing. It smacks, then, of the kind of purely symbolic, performative acts of “decolonization” and “reconciliation” that has characterized Justin Trudeau’s time in office thus far.
  3. That said, symbols matter. Canada’s parliament is a site of power, and Miller is not wrong in his observation that bringing Indigenous languages into places of power can be important ways of, essentially, given them more power (in the form of stronger motivation to learn them). The devaluation of Indigenous ways of being throughout colonialism has included various ways of devaluing Indigenous languages (and those who speak them) as “inferior” to European ones. Reversing that deeply embedded ideological relationship involves a lot of different types of actions, including symbolic valorization.
  4. There’s a lot to be said about what it means that a non-Indigenous person is the one using the Kanien’kéha language, but to my mind, the most important is to observe that it does, in fact, reveal the displacement of actual Indigenous people from positions of authority as well as from the levels of privilege that would enable them to actually learn their own languages. Classes are not publicly funded, as noted in more than one of the articles on this, and teachers work precariously. Miller is conscious of this element and has used the press coverage of his speech to emphasize the need to change this. At the same time, the structural barriers don’t stop there – Miller notes the challenge of learning the language, which is structured in fundamentally different ways from the English and French languages that he already knows. Some of the reason he is able to make progress, however, is that he has an academic background that facilitates classroom-based learning. The structural inequalities that produce disparities in education levels, income, health, incarceration rates, and any number of other measures, all combine to make it a lot harder for Indigenous learners to have the time, energy, resources, and skills to work on their language in this way. Programs do exist that address these realities, but they are often overlooked in favour of the more familiar, comfortable (to Euro-American minds), and measurable classroom methods.
  5. It remains to be seen what form of continuity will or will not emerge from this. A one-minute speech that did not lead directly to conversation, commentary, or debate in the House is not anywhere near the same thing as a robust use of an Indigenous language in a decision-making capacity in this country. The lack of translation is still an issue, as any MP who wants to make a substantive (rather than symbolic) contribution to the discussion would have to provide their own translations, making it a time-consuming process that others would likely find frustrating. The question of whether non-Indigenous people should try to learn Indigenous languages remains at a very surface level, and we are in no way trying to seriously engage with the idea of having to put in the effort that it would require for English speakers to accommodate them, rather than always expecting the opposite (this applies in a broad way to English globally, but I’ll leave that overall idea for another post). It’s a pipe-dream level conversation at this point, though it would really demonstrate a significant strengthening of Indigenous languages.
  6. Any commentary about this by Kanien’kéha speakers and Kanien’keha:ka people has been clearly focused on how they feel about this act for their own language, and that’s important. While I have tried to contextualize this in terms of Canada and Indigenous language revitalization more generally, it’s worth noting that the implications of non-group members using a particular Indigenous language are subject to the ideologies and context-based meanings associated with ethnolinguistic identity for those people and their own languages. In other words, there isn’t a blanket meaning to be attached to non-Indigenous people using any Indigenous language that would hold true for all languages, all people, or all contexts. The political context of “Canada” means that there may be some shared continuity among peoples within that geographical expanse, but even there, how much and in what form is not obvious.

In the end, I applaud the effort that Miller put in, I think he has a pretty good handle on the symbolic potential and limitations of his actions, and I do think he is doing something better than many politicians. I am frustrated by many things about the media portrayal of the story, including how it exemplifies the way white people are given undue praise & credit for their involvement with Indigenous languages, but I’m glad they’re telling a story about concrete steps needed to support these languages. Yes, it’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and give up on it all.

OK. I’ll covfefe.

See what I did there?

I took that weird typo Donald Trump made last week and I stuck it into a sentence. I used it as a verb, and a specific type of verb at that – you can tell, because this is a familiar sentence format in English, where we would usually use something like “play”. And because covfefe has no actual denotational meaning, it gets to take on the meaning of the usual word, but with a strong connotational or indexical meaning of “I am making fun of Trump”.

The bulk of the covfefe fun went down while I was sleeping, and by the time I got to the internet, it was a tired mess of its usual self, the stink of the covfefe hangover lingering strong in the air. Since then, covfefe has gotten the linguistic treatment in media from Gretchen McCulloch, who writes about the morphophonemics of the word, on the popular blog Language Log, where they’ve mostly focused on compiling the best examples of covfefeism, and by Language Jones, who ran a complex semantic analysis of Trump’s tweets to define the lexical space into which covfefe would fit.

There’s something about covfefe, though, that helps break my blogger’s block and gets me wanting to add to the pile. What’s interesting from a linguistic anthropological perspective is how this word, with it’s really unusual origin story, is having its meaning assigned, changed, extended, and changed again in very rapid succession by the ways it is used. There are people suggesting it should be a Starbucks drink. Companies are incorporating it into their advertising slogans. Hillary Clinton inserts it twice into a common cliché, making it play the role of both the fragile glass and the damaging stones in Trump’s metaphorical house. On the pro-Trump side, several people react to the mockery by using covfefe to murbandictionarycovfefeean things like “irrational“, or “deserved punishment“. While traditional lexicography can’t possibly deal with something that moves this quickly or has this much oddness to it, the user-driven Urban Dictionary and game-based Words with Friends dictionary operate by different rules and have each tried to summarize the meaning of this elusive new ‘word’.

In trying to understand what covfefe means, it quickly becomes apparent that it means nothing, but also everything. As I mentioned above, we ascertain some basic information about each use of covfefe by interpreting it in light of what it’s replacing within familiar phrase structures, but it’s still hard to define what it actually means even in those limited contexts. We can basically understand that Clinton’s use makes covfefe refer to some kind of material, but not what kind of material it is – it’s both like glass and like stone, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s performing a dual function. I’m not sure there’s a word for this type of item, but I want to call it something like an empty lexeme, because we can pour whatever meaning we want to into it, and it takes it on. In another sharp point of insight, Gretchen McCulloch points out that the -fefe morpheme is self referential – they refer back to the meme itself, not to anything outside of it. Usage patterns for covfefe tell us little about what the speaker thinks about this very new word with an already odd birth story, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. What they actually tell us is how the speaker feels about Donald Trump, his careless Twitter presence, and his tendency toward bullshittery in the extreme. This last component was only made more prevalent when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that “the president and a small group of people knew exactly what he meant” (Ed: Wait, what’s up with that headline, though? Covfspiracy? Seriously? SS: Too many morfefes, too little time).

Maybe it’s my tired brain, but I honestly can’t think of another example of a word with this kind of flexible denotation but very specific implication. And while of course I know there are more important things going on in the world, there’s something about this particular brand of language fun that I can’t quite let go of, so excuse me while I go grab myself some covfefe and get down to serious covfefe.

 

Snapshots of Multilingualism

As I write this, I’m sitting in an airport in Brussels waiting for a flight back to Toronto. I’ve spent the last week mainly in Barcelona, attending the First International Conference on the Revitalization of Indigenous and Minority Languages. My brain and my heart are both full and energized by great conversations, interesting presentations, and supportive colleagues (both familiar and newly encountered).

In addition to the book-learning that was happening, though, being in highly multilingual spaces (first Barcelona, and then a day in Brussels due to stopover scheduling) with highly multilingual (and language-savvy) people meant that even the simplest interactions included linguistic negotiations, moving between or across different languages, and meaning making not only through the words chosen, but the codes chosen to say them in. Some snapshots to capture my point:

  • The opening of the conference was delivered in Catalan, Spanish, English, and Quechua. Some of the speakers self-translated what they had said from one language into another, while others used one to say some things, then said different things in another of the languages, and still others used one of the languages and stopped. There were Catalan sign language translators for these and the plenary sessions, and I was incredibly impressed with their ability to translate from multiple languages (the only one that vexed them was Quechua).
  • Mutual intelligibility across romance languages gets really interesting when you throw in some of the lesser known languages. One conference presenter, Guillem Belmar Viernes, a native Catalan speaker, told me how joyful he felt being able to speak Catalan with a speaker of Lombard (a Northern Italian language), and understanding each other perfectly (an interactional variety I called ‘Lombardalan’). Another linguist mentioned that he had taken a year of Catalan language classes in his undergraduate days, and that the prerequisite was one year of either French or Spanish, because the instructor used the two to triangulate to the in-between point of Catalan.
  • At the absolute opposite end of the language-learning technique spectrum were some Indigenous language instructors and teachers who emphasized the need to move away from the use of previously known languages like English (especially since the differences between these is likely to create far more confusion than bridging). I was in a group of people, speaking English, and as we got into an elevator a stranger also stepped in, and the very inspiring Cherokee language professor that was with us, Ben Frey, immediately told the stranger, entirely in Cherokee, that he liked his hat. The stranger was evidently confused, but Ben simply repeated his statements with more gestures and a bit slower. “Context-based language teaching”, Ben said when I complimented him on the interaction. I mentally filed this away under the category of “awesome”.
  • While almost everyone I encountered was very comfortable using English to interact with tourists like myself, I still prefer to make an effort to communicate using one of the local languages. In Spain, this meant fumbling through Spanish mainly by way of Portuguese, which worked a lot of the time but also caused people to give me odd looks. At one point, I was asking a fellow customer to help figure out which lineup I needed to be in, and we were both using somewhat broken Spanish and a lot of gestures…and about 30 seconds after that was finished I heard him talking to his family in Brazilian Portuguese.
  • My day in Brussels tells me it is a really interesting linguistic place, at least in the tourist area, and probably elsewhere as well. The number of different languages being spoken around me, on the train, in the museum, and in the chocolate shops, was just staggering. The way this shows up in stores and restaurants, like the Korean “Chez Kimchi” just outside my hotel, or the photo below, would be especially fun to unpack. Another instance of minor mutual intelligibility in the Romance languages emerged, as I went to an Italian restaurant and one of the two servers primarily used Italian to speak to me, while I responded in French. I didn’t see the same degree of similarity across the Germanic languages, as it seemed German speakers would switch to English to interact with service personnel, rather than attempting Flemish.

All of these snapshots give examples of how multilingualism is far more complicated than most people generally assume. There aren’t bounded spaces for using specific languages, and there aren’t even clear boundaries on how languages are divided from each other within interactions. Languages and multilingualism are made up of how they’re used, and people are endlessly fascinating in how they do that.

Thanks, Mayim Bialik!

So Mayim Bialik, whose Blossom nerdery inspired wardrobe choices for me in early teenhood and whose role on some other show I choose to mostly ignore, is pretty smart IRL. She actually has a PhD in neuroscience, which shows somewhat in her recent video that’s being shared by everybody and their dog, on why you shouldn’t call grown adult women “girls”.

pexels-photo-167921
This image is one of many of adult women that came up on pexels.com when I searched for “girls”. WAY TO PROVE MY POINT STOCK PHOTO PPL. 

Bialik bases her argument on the claim that the language we use influences the way we think, briefly name-dropping Sapir-Whorf and encouraging readers to Google that to get an explanation for it. I would advocate against googling those names and that term, though, as you’re likely to land in a morass of pseudoscience, possibly getting lost in the blizzard of “words for snow” debates. It can, or should, be taken as nearly axiomiatic that, as Bialik says, language matters. It neither comes from nowhere nor does nothing, and if you continue to see language as a neutral descriptor of an objectively existing world, well, I’m not sure this blog is for you.

And in this specific example, Bialik hits on a major issue: women are construed as inferior to men through the not-so-subtle use of language. This language is not the cause of women’s inferiority, nor is a shift in word choice the be-all-and-end-all of feminism, but it is meaningful. Using a term whose primary reference point is small children and applying it to unambiguously adult women, whether they are in a bar (as in the initial example Bialik gives) or acting in power positions (as in the CEO she mentions, or in a recent example I heard, university professors [Ed: Ouch]) is an act of infantalization. The semantics of the word “girl” continue to include not only female, but female + child, and using it repeatedly reinforces the notion that women are not as capable, not as intellectually advanced, and not to be taken as seriously as men. It’s a solid four minutes of feminist linguistics in pop culture action, to be honest.

But as the maxim goes, don’t read the comments. As I’ve seen this video shared several times on my social media feeds, I’m coming across some repeated arguments used to counter Bialik’s ideas, and they are hitting all my feminist linguist buttons all at once, leaving me to need to put the giant grading pile aside and get some thoughts about them out.

  • We call men “boys” too. Isn’t that the same thing?  It’s true, there are times when grown adult men are called “boys”, but there are definite contrasts between these uses and the ubiquity of calling adult women “girls”. A key aspect is that “boys” is used in contexts where adding the connotation of youthful play or even childishness isn’t seen as an inherent negative – they’re the “boys” on one’s sports team, for example. Bad behaviour among adult males may even be excused using the colloquial phrase “boys will be boys”, where yes, being a “boy” is a bad thing, but paradoxically, that “boyness” is something that we just have to tolerate and doesn’t preclude the male in question from a position of authority or responsibility. It’s also clearly used in a way that distinguishes adulthood from childhood, as in “separating the men from the boys”, which just doesn’t work when you try to feminize the expression into “separating the women from the girls”. That in itself is kind of telling, because Bialik’s whole point is that we erase the separation between women and girls. “Boy” is not generally used to refer to adult men in their regular, everyday lives (except: see the last point in this section), and you don’t hear someone asking to speak to the “boy in charge of this office” in the same way that you would often hear them refer to “the girl at the desk”. The diminishing of women’s authority and capability is generalized, not based on behaviour, and it’s pervasive. Yes, Bialik says it “never” happens. Yes, she’s wrong about that. But no, that doesn’t erase her point or make it okay for you to dismiss everything else she says, and taking her error that way is simply making an excuse not to listen to women.
  • Well, what about “guys”? We use the phrase “guys and girls” for everybody, so isn’t that the same? Not so much, no. It’s true that this has become a paired set (which reinforces both a binary notion of gender, erasing the many forms of “neither”, and also places identity focus on gender as a relevant enough category to use as a standard, necessary differentiator [Ed: Wow, that’s a lot happening in a couple of words]), but the connotations of the terms are fundamentally different. Only one of them includes the sense of “small child”. When applied to young kids at a school, you don’t actually hear “guys and girls” – you hear “boys and girls”. Washrooms for male identified kids aren’t labeled “guys”, they’re labeled “boys”. And so on. So we give a substitution for adult (or even teenage) men, but the women’s term stays the same. Boys get to grow up and change, while girls don’t. See how that’s not equal?
  • I’m a woman and I refer to my friends as “girls”. Yep. Stop doing that. This isn’t a matter of “only men treat women like children”. It’s a matter of “women are socially constructed as lesser than and our interests are dismissed and diminished”. It’s pervasive, societal, and structural.
  • There isn’t a better word. Sure there is – “women”. We find some of these terms awkward to use in everyday conversation because we’re not used to using them in everyday conversation. The only way that changes is by habit.
  • Wait a minute, are there really no times when using “boy” to refer to adult men is offensive? I’m glad you asked that, fictional comment writer who I haven’t actually seen, because there is one damn important point that Bialik misses and that I wanted to detach from the earlier points because it deserves to be more than a side note. “Boy” is regularly attached to adult men…if they’re black. And in this way, it is clearly infantalizing, diminishing, and reinforcing white supremacy. A quick google search turns up several discussions of why (see here, here, and here – that last one has a whole bunch of legal discussion and analysis of racism that deserves its own post, but still highlights the basic point). That first linked article reacts to an incident where then-Senator Barack Obama was referred to as a “boy” by a white Republican Congressman, and includes this passionate articulation of the problem with that label

    it’s the ultimate sign of disrespect, and is often more offensive than calling them the N-word. For years black men were summarily dismissed and treated with disregard. It was as if their stature was diminished when someone white called them a boy. I’ve heard black men describe the hurt and pain of growing up and having someone white call them a boy in front of their own child.

    In this context, “boy” is a means of diminishing, dismissing, and infantalizing specific types of men, of deeming them less than, and of establishing a racial power hierarchy. The semantic and pragmatic properties of “girl” have a lot in common with this dynamic in terms of power (and we should absolutely add discussion of differential usage patterns that emerge based on other lines of privilege and power, including especially race and disability).

  • Why should we care what a TV star thinks? Here’s an interesting angle on this discussion, to my mind. Bialik is famous because she’s an actress on TV, yes. But she also has a PhD in neuroscience. She’s not a specialist on the relationship between language and cognition, but it’s close enough to her general area of expertise that she’s able to bring that background to bear on her interpretations, in much the same ways as I’m doing here. I’m honestly tired of seeing popular posts by, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson where he comments on language or culture in ways that are totally ignorant because that’s not even remotely close to his area of expertise (Ed: Seriously, stay in your lane, NdGT. You’re so good in your lane), but that are attached to his authority as a scholar and serious thinker, while women’s expertise is ignored. So maybe this should be linked as “Dr. Mayim Bialik, neuroscientist, discusses the relationship between language and thought”, and I would still critique some of her points, but also – Respect to scholarly women saying scholarly things.

To close this now long and ranty post off, if language, gender, and power are your jam, you can find much better and more authoritative commentary on this and other related issues at debuk.wordpress.com.

Translating “Mansplaining”

This article on The Establishment has been thoroughly linked in the rounds of linguist Twitter (sidenote: my favourite Twitter [ed: wow, you really are a nerd]), and for good reason. It contains several fun and informative things – an account of how useful new terms work, crowdsourcing, and creative multilingual language play. On the one hand, it speaks for itself, but I want to add to a few of its points, and then be a killjoy just for a minute.

  1. The ‘splain morpheme as a wondrous piece of semantic change. While the article covers the origins, meaning, and spread of the term “mansplaining” quite well, it only briefly touches on how productive the “splain” morpheme has become. There are widespread examples of it with any form of dominant identity as the prefix –
    mansplainer1
    Grateful acknowledgment for this meme goes to Femina Invicta 

     

    whitesplaining, cis-splaining, profsplaining, etc etc etc. It can even be used on its own, as simple “splaining”. Although this Merriam Webster [ed: the go-to dictionary of the resistance…because who knew that would be a thing?] post argues that ‘splain’ predates mansplaining, in the sense of a reduction of the original term “explain” (as in the famous “Lucy, you got some splaining to do” formation), its current use does shift that meaning. “Splaining” is not just “explaining” – it’s a condescending, unnecessary explanation based on the presumption that the splainer knows things and the splainee doesn’t. It’s such a great word that captures such a clear meaning, it’s almost hard to believe it’s not even a decade old.

  2. Semantic traveling. ‘Splaining’, and mansplaining in specific, is also a concept with legs, and as it was likely born on the internet in an age of internet communication, it’s only natural that it should strike some of those who encounter it in English that it may be useful in their native languages as well. Two different types of such applications were documented naturally, as Swedes comfortably borrowed the English term, while Icelandic speakers created a translation with relevant nativized terms and metaphors. Both excellent strategies for different contexts. The later “crowdsourced” list also includes a few examples that have developed on their own (as in they weren’t made up just for the sake of making the suggestion), like the French “mecspliquer”. As a reasonably decent French speaker, I particularly like this one, because it captures the “guy + explain” basic structure, but has the added bonus of punning on the reflexive “m’expliquer” (explain to me).
  3. THAT CROWDSOURCED LIST, OMG. It makes me happy for so many reasons. First, it reveals the varied strategies and selections from homophones to make the words fun and flowing. The Chinese correspondent used discourse-level markers (the wind character) to reinforce the perception of a haughty attitude. Some of the correspondents hesitated because their language lacks some key features – like say, gender marking in Swahili – that are necessary to capturing the translation. It wasn’t impossible to convey the term, you’ll note (the trope of ‘untranslatable terms’ is one for another day), but the structures of the language really do create different ways of expressing ideas.
  4. Inclusion of unusual languages. This deserves its own marker – there are even some endangered and marginalized languages on that list of only 34, which is something distinctly rare. The Mohegan example is particularly striking – the language had its own term for a concept like this, and in response to the inquiry about ‘mansplaining’, a correspondent brought it forward to illustrate a similar concept with different cultural roots. Irish and Welsh are also nice inclusions. Language endangerment contexts often involve a lot of opportunity to think creatively about the languages, developing new forms that sound and feel natural on the languages’ own terms, so it’s nice to see that represented here as well.
  5. We are all verbal artists. One more highlight – it’s worth noting the extensive engagement with the way the words sound. It might be easy to think of new word creation as a somewhat utilitarian enterprise, but as these show, it’s also fun because of semantic play, and it’s poetic. The words take hold because they capture something not just in their meaning, but in the way they sound/feel as we say them. We don’t always pay much attention to this fun point of language, treating it as something that professional wordsmiths get, but normal people don’t. In fact normal people are pretty linguistically fun, which is why I like paying attention to them.
  6. It’s all fun and games, except…Finally, my killjoy moment – yes, it’s presumably intended to be cheeky, but I hate when “cultural universal” is demonstrated by a few dozen examples, the vast majority of which come from Indo-European cultures or a couple of large major non-European ones like Chinese or Arabic. This one admittedly goes farther than most, with the inclusion of Swahili, Mohegan, Tagalog, and Indonesian…but please stop with the use of “universal”. Please?

Language Change, Racism, and White Ideologies

*Content note: This post is explicitly about language that some consider racist, and it’s extremely difficult to talk about that language without using the terms themselves. While I will endeavor to avoid some of the slurs when I can make my point without them, some will end up being used.

A week or so ago, a friend linked this post on social media. It’s a common type of post, really – here are some words you might be saying that actually maybe you should think about *not* saying, because racist. And as happens in many instances when this type of point is raised, some (generally white) people respond with some questions about whether all of these terms really are, in fact, racist. As I’ve observed the way these conversations happen, I notice two types of arguments that are raised:

  • Look, this term wasn’t originally intended to be offensive. Here’s an etymological dictionary that says it meant something innocuous. Therefore, it’s not racist.
  • But…language changes, doesn’t it? So just because this term originates as a racist insult, does that still matter if we no longer know about that original association?

If you noticed that these are inherently contradictory, ten points for you! They are, of course, not applied to the same terms, nor are they necessarily arguments used by the same people. But it is worth comparing and contrasting the ideas, assumptions, and beliefs about how meaning works that are underlying each of them.

The first comes up a lot in relation to the controversy surrounding the Washington NFL team name. This NPR article does a nice job outlining the point in detail. The work of linguist/historian Ives Goddard is the authoritative reference point invoked in these, and

no-redskins
Source website: Indian Country Media Network (image uncredited)

as that article outlines, it is possible to conclude that indeed, the word was not a hateful slur from its origin. There is, however, an alternative possible origin story for this word, which is indeed very offensive and violent, and which is cited by many Indigenous people as what they were taught about the word’s origin. It’s worth recognizing how this works as yet another example where Western academic knowledge is prioritized over Indigenous knowledge, but at the same time, I want to make the case that even if the benign story is the accurate one, using that as justification to keep the name and logo is still racist.

A very similar type of argument (complete with another etymological trace done by Goddard himself) is outlined in Jane Hill’s fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, where she refers to this as a “baptismal ideology”. The idea is that the most authoritative definition of a word is found in its original meaning, and it’s one we use in a number of different contexts beyond debates about racism. In academics, for example, we often explicitly try to return to the original coinage of a term in order to ensure that we aren’t relying on misinterpretations or a kind of “broken telephone” effect. In addition to the weight of the origin, this argument treats linguists like Goddard as authorities not just about the history of certain forms of language, but about the actual meaning of particular words (to my knowledge, Goddard has never commented on these ways of deploying his name in support of the continued use of these words). This is rooted in assumptions not only about etymology, but about authority, in establishing meaning.

 

The opposite comes up with respect to words like “gyp”, meaning “to short change, rip off”. As the article linked above notes, this is derived from the word “gypsy”, which is itself a slur applied to Roma people (who remain a highly marginalized group of people living primarily in Europe). That meaning is, to a degree, opaque at this point, so the argument goes – if the vast majority of people using a term are not only not trying to be offensive, they’re not even aware that there is a semantic connection to this other word, has the meaning drifted enough from its source that we don’t have to call it racist anymore? This perspective is rooted in the (correct) notion that language changes, and places authority over what a word “really” means in the intentions and knowledge of the speakers who use it.

What is important about this argument, to me, isn’t to decide which of these two views is more “correct” than the other. Both contain some elements of truth, in a historical as well as a broad theoretical sense. Both also contain some ideological bases that assume meaning works in specific and limited types of ways. The overall picture of how meaning does work, especially in regard to heated and complex areas like linguistic racism and what constitutes a ‘slur’, is far more complicated than either of these positions can singledhandedly capture. As someone who is very much invested in expanding people’s acceptance of language change (because refusal to allow it to change is so often a tool used by the privileged to put down those most likely to change it), I will admit I wrestled for a while with what was wrong with the second one. And then I saw it – the position used changes depending on what is the most efficient ideological approach to allowing dominant folks to feel okay about using terms that are, at best, problematic (and at worst, overtly racist). Though they are, on their face, opposite to each other, they work to accomplish the same task. That task, at its core, is about the maintenance of privilege.

Slurs – whether racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other mode of oppression – are particularly potent forms of language. Because their meaning and the weight different connotations carry within them is subject to such constant commentary and debate, these meanings are enhanced – we don’t just hear them when they are used, we hear them when they are discussed, and analyzed, and discussed again (like I am doing right here, yes). To an extent, this is why the negative meaning is almost always going to outweigh any neutral version. At the same time, the very fact that such heated debates emerge whenever people point out that specific words are hurtful or upsetting to them illustrates how hard privileged people work to protect their privilege. The loss of a few (or even a lot of) words from my repertoire doesn’t really hinder my communicative creativity all that much – it limits me verbally about to the same degree that not being allowed to hit people limits my range of acceptable arm motions. The fact that we strive for ideologies of maximal offensiveness allowed is yet another ugly feature of a structurally racist society.