Speech, Action, and Freedom

It’s been a difficult week to be paying attention to the media. The events at the University of Virginia this weekend, where a white supremacist demonstration turned predictably violent, and many legitimately fear that the current President of the United States refuses to denounce these actions because he agrees with them. There are many things to say about these events, and many others who are better equipped to say them, but I want to zero in on the commentary about how to address the question of “freedom of speech” in light of this significant social threat.

Now, first off, remember that I’m Canadian, and while there are many in this country who believe in an absolute and unfettered “right to free speech”, our actual Charter of Rights & Freedoms places somewhat more restrictions on the concept than does the United States Bill of Rights. In particular, “hate speech” is disallowed, though in practice this remains difficult to define, and many marginalized groups in this country (especially Indigenous people) would note that a significant amount of violent rhetoric gets through the pages of our mainstream newspapers, but is never labeled as “hate speech”. These are longstanding debates, and I am only using the legal context to establish and remind others that it is, in fact, possible to develop a legal framework in which restrictions are placed on certain kinds of speech and still have a functioning democracy. This point seems often forgotten or ignored in discussions on this topic.

I’ll take a step back from the violence in Charlottesville for a moment to point to another case in which “free speech” has been on the public radar this week – the firing of a Google employee who sent out a company wide memo suggesting that the effort to get more women into engineering positions within the company was misplaced, since women are biologically ill-equipped for these roles. It was backed up with multiple pseudo-scientific arguments that have been debunked by multiple people, but nonetheless, certain segments of the internet have claimed that he was fired for his ideas and that this represents thought policing. In fact, he was fired for his actions – he wrote and sent a memo to his entire company outlining not only his beliefs, but also his suggestions for how the company should implement policies based on his beliefs. And these actions – the writing and the sending – entail acts of aggression against a specific group of co-workers (women). He has presumably thought these things for a significant amount of time, perhaps even prior to his hiring at Google, but he was never fired for thinking them – he was fired for the act of writing them in “manifesto” form, and sending it to the entire company.

The idea of “freedom of speech” in its broadest sense is premised on an ideology that posits speech is not action. There are any number of idiomatic expressions and signs that this is a commonly held belief among many English speaking North Americans. You have to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk”. “Stick and stone will break my bones” and all that. And to be clear, speech should be protected in some ways in a democratic environment – government silencing of dissent is a necessary part of authoritarianism, and people are rightfully highlighting press restrictions as one of the scary signs coming from Trump’s administration. But a robust theory of freedom of speech has to address the fact that ‘to speak’ is a verb – in other words, it is always an action.

How does this relate to what happened in Charlottesville? The march clearly crossed the line between acceptable speech and unacceptable acts of violence at some point, under all but the most hateful defenders’ definitions, as people were killed by the protesters. As many others are also noting, that point comes well before the killing, before the beating with torches even. It comes when they adopt the language and symbols of genocide as the semiotic frame for their speech. The use of swastikas, the “Heil Hitler” arm movement, and Hitler quotations on t-shirts — these are acts of symbolic violence. In and of themselves, they do harm to people (the ideas that they represent, if implemented, would do horrendous amounts of harm, but even in the absence of that implementation, their being stated publicly, justified by those in power like the police who responded only tepidly, or Trump who suggested it was somehow proportionate to violence on the left, does actual harm).

I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting “rights are rights” and that if I want to right to continue to speak openly in the way that I do here, I have to allow even actual Nazis to organize and publicly speak. That I must counter their positions with rhetorical force, and that it would be unconscionable to suggest that they should be legally silenced. This kind of argument assumes that these people can be reasoned with, and in making that assumption tacitly implies that promotion of genocide is a reasonable position that one should argue with. I refuse that assumption and its implication.

It is, of course, easy in principle to say that we will easily be able to recognize what forms of speech are acts of violence, and that we can guarantee that no democratically elected government would suppress legitimate speech. This latter point is obviously false, and the former is much more complex in practice. But at the same time, it’s not always easy, in practice, to spell out any clear cut rules that place limitations on actions. The same physical actions can, in one context, be loving, and in another, be violence, because of the presence or absence of consent. The presence of a law against arson doesn’t preclude us from setting a campfire. We are imperfect at interpreting legal and moral culpability and consequence in many of these situations as well, but it doesn’t lead to an interpretation that the underlying actions must be allowed to exist unchecked by legal authority.

All of this is to say: in order to effectively account for the impact of these forms of speech, it is important to move beyond an ideology that speech is not action, and therefore cannot be limited in the same ways as we limit physical actions. The oft-quoted statement that “my right to swing my arm ends at your nose” is meaningfully applied to the act of speaking as well. Because speech is an action, not an impactless idea floating meaninglessly in people’s minds, it can also be violence. Violence that not only can, but must, be restricted and stopped.


Conscious Word Creation

Members of primarily English-speaking communities (and those of many other large, widely-spoken, culturally dominant languages) rarely encounter a situation in which their language doesn’t have a word for something they need to say. Sure, there are the proverbial “untranslatable” words (which is a whole other thing to unpack, really), but English does have a word for the German-associated emotional concept of ‘schadenfreude’. It’s schadenfreude. If the term can be the title and central focus of a Broadway song, it’s pretty thoroughly integrated into our lexicon. In any case, when we encounter a situation where we don’t feel like we have a word for something, we borrow it, or we make one up. All speakers are essentially able to make words up; the question of whether they are taken up broadly and clearly enough to really ‘count’ as lexical items in that language is the one that dictionary-makers wrestle with constantly (I will almost certainly have a post about whatever word becomes the cause of outcry when it is authenticated as a ‘real word’ by Oxford, or Websters, or whatever, next year).

Speakers of very small languages have a fundamentally different experience. One of the defining features of a language that is losing ground to one or more dominant others is that it becomes used in fewer and fewer domains or contexts. It is less likely to be spoken in schools, in political leadership, in media, in business, in courts of law, in medical centres, etc. A common goal of language revitalization and reclamation is to bring it back into all areas of life for its speakers. In trying to do this, speakers and learners often encounter situations in which no one knows the word for a given concept – in some cases because it never existed (like with words for newer technology) and in some cases because it’s been forgotten as no one has used the language in those domains for several generations. In these cases, the stakes are different – borrowing words from the dominant language might be fine, sometimes, or for some languages, but there is often the (legitimate) fear that this will simply result in the complete use of those dominant languages because they’re ‘easier’. Inventing new words can be fine, but usually, there isn’t the body of speakers who can take the word for a test drive and see if it works in context; in addition, many communities have different beliefs about who has the authority to create new contributions to the language (it may be Elders, it may be a group of local linguists, it may be a community as a whole). The values that inform what makes one form a ‘good’ representation of its meaning are often deeply rooted in the cultural framework.

All this is to lead up to what I think is an especially lovely example of conscious, considered word creation, discussed in this short article about New Maori words for disabilities and mental health conditions. The story describes the specific words for ‘autism’ as translating directly as ‘his/her own time and space’ and for what we call ‘disability’ as ‘to have ability, otherly abled, enabled’. It clearly describes the values underlying these choices – consultation with the community of people the words describe, with the goal of having them feel inclusion, safety, and lack of judgment from their potential health caregivers. It also drop some information between the lines about how both Maori language and whanau health are being addressed as parts of a broader approach to improvement in their lives. Language development is a process incorporated within mental health initiatives, not one that is being done by linguists and then stapled on to these other concerns. In other words, language is embedded in understandings of health and wellbeing, and in treatment for health concerns. In addition, the ‘preferred language’ of Maori is being welcomed into these domains, so even where people may be fluently bilingual, they are able to access vital services that support their greatest vulnerabilities based on preference and comfort.

At the same time, there are elements of the process that tweak my anthropological eye, notably that the idea of ‘autism’ is treated as a straightforward, translatable concept, without addressing the implications of such a diagnosis as a socially-embedded phenomena. Some insights from medical anthro would be very welcome here. There’s also the pattern of reporting the ‘meaning’ of newly invented terms using the more literal gloss into English. Obviously, this is a phenomenon based in the use of English for reporting, but its widespread prevalence deserves more scrutiny than it gets. This isn’t to return to the ‘untranslatability’ trope mentioned above, but it is to note that translation is much more nuanced than this framing might suggest. There is often a notion that by presenting these kinds of glosses, we English speakers are able to gain a clear insight into the cultural world of speakers of these languages, when that strikes me as dismissive of the full weight of socially embedded meaning. This makes sense for short, journalistic reports, of course, but is something I see in more academic work in the area, and it is definitely something we need to think about changing.

(PS. Shortly after I bookmarked this post, I saw someone tweet about disliking the word for autism in one of the Canadian Indigenous languages – I believe it was Anishnaabemowim – but my internet research skills are suffering from summer atrophy and I lost it. If anyone knows anything about words for these concepts in other Indigenous languages, I would be very interested in expanding this discussion).


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.

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

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.

How Languages Get “Lost”: Did You Look in the Last Place you Colonized Them?

In my last post, I mentioned that the discourse around how Indigenous and minority languages are ‘dying’ almost inevitably involves erasure of the vibrant activity around learning them that has been taking place within these communities for decades. Another aspect of this metaphor that is also important to note, however, is addressed very clearly in this recent post by Rick Harp on MediaIndigena:

Yet make no mistake: None of these so-called ‘dying’ languages got where they are today by accident. Far from being ‘lost’, our mother tongues have been under constant attack – what some call premeditated linguicide – by forces hell-bent on their destruction.

Harp’s post directly attacks the colonial reasoning that continues to inform settler Canada’s approach to Indigenous languages – their presence is an inconvenient, nagging reminder that we are living on someone else’s land, and therefore, they must be eradicated. In anticipation of the federal Aboriginal Languages Act that Prime Minister Trudeau has promised is coming, Harp also calculates a baseline for the financial support that we should expect to see for each of Canada’s 58 (or so) Indigenous languages, given the amount that is spent supporting each of the English and French languages in regions where they are the minority. If that seems like a high demand to you, you might want to ask yourself why.

The point I want to emphasize here is how dominant narratives about languages being “lost” or “dying” are framed in such a way as to elide the agents who cause this loss. Indigenous voices often talk about having their languages “taken” from them in residential schools or equivalent institutions, but mainstream reporting presents the concerns in much more naturalistic terms. “Dying” is certainly a powerful and unpleasant explosion-123690_1280metaphor, but it’s something that occurs to living beings as they age; when applied to Indigenous languages it therefore performs double duty – not only does it naturalize the process, it also makes Indigenous languages seem old, like relics of the past more suited for museums than modern life. Where human subjects are present in these stories of loss, they are likely to be the Indigenous people – which on the one hand is appropriate, as this story matters deeply to them, but on the other, makes it appear as though these events are transpiring in some place and time that is detached from the actions of settler Canada. Non-Indigenous people only appear in benevolent roles, like linguists in rhetorical superhero garb arriving to save the day. Language loss, then, appears as no one’s fault, because the reality is, quite frankly, upsetting. This is a tale that has a villain, and it’s not a villain whose good intentions have gone awry. It’s a villain who has been very successful in working toward a selfish and malevolent goal, and who continues to manage the great diabolical trick of convincing the world he doesn’t exist.

Telling Stories about Indigenous Languages:”DIY” Immersion in Vancouver

My main area of research as a linguistic anthropologist is how to support the continued growth and strength of minority languages, and to try to understand how social, political, and ideological structures create challenges we need to address in this work. There is an increased awareness, in Canada at least, of how the eradication of Indigenous languages in particular has been a part of ongoing colonial violence, efforts to assimilate Indigenous people, and to eradicate cultural difference. Within the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the impact of Canada’s Residential School system, language appears as a central theme in statements about both the damage done within these institutions and the possibility of a new path in the future.

The reality is, though, that getting language programs to work is hard. Learning languages takes a lot of energy and time even when there are tons of available resources (like classes, online learning resources, dictionaries, pedagogical textbooks, immersion programs, conversation circles, exchanges to areas where the language is spoken, etc.), opportunities to use the language, and motivation (such as improved employment possibilities). For languages with small numbers of speakers, limited opportunities for use, and marginalized political status, it takes even more.

Which is not to say it can’t be done. The central theme of the best language revitalization stories is an unwavering focus and persistence of even a small number of people who commit to making the language an active part of their every day lives. This CBC story about a Vancouver-based Skwomesh language “Immersion House” is an example of exactly that. As the story illustrates, a group of young people felt frustrated by the classroom-based learning environment that had been their only opportunity to learn the language, and created a “DIY” solution. They set up house together and established specific times and ways of using and learning the language. For busy young people, time is often a factor, and bringing it into the home, setting language-learning around mealtime, is a way of combating the constant threat of other priorities. It also, as the house’s language teacher Khelisem notes in the article, keeps them insulated from the swinging winds of funding patterns that plague a lot of these programs – periodically supportive governments at the local, provincial, or federal level will offer one-time funding, or even commit to language programs for a few years at a time, but rarely are language advocates able to count on having truly sustainable funding sources. As one might imagine, starting an immersion school or even language classes, getting kids enrolled and participating, then forcing them to drop the classes when they reach grade 4 or 5…it’s not going to provide the kind of sustained commitment that language learning requires. All that the roommates in the immersion house need is their rent – which, given that it’s Vancouver, is not small change, but it’s split amongst them and, just as with the time taken for meals, it’s an expense category they were all going to have to meet anyway.

The article doesn’t say so, but this “Language House” initiative has some particular features that are somewhat rare in the revitalization world. First, it is in a major Canadian city. Often, revitalization initiatives remain focused on places where the majority of the population belongs to the speaker group – in Canada, this usually means reserves or the Northern territories. Cities, despite obviously being part the lands taken from Indigenous people, are not usually recognized as Indigenous spaces, either in formal initiatives or ideological frames. Settler Canada continues to construct a dichotomy that says that “Indigenous” is incompatible with “modern” and urban, and this has an impact on how programs are funded and planned. Second, it’s focused on young adults, and taught by a young, semi-fluent adult. The former part of that is not exactly unheard of – there are several revitalization strategies that target adult learners – but it isn’t all that common either. Schools, and a focus on children, remain central in most contexts. The latter part is something that needs to be encouraged a lot more. There is sometimes a tendency to over-emphasize the need for teachers to themselves be fluent, first language speakers. I think, to a degree, this is something that linguists involved in documentation and revitalization initiatives need to be conscious of – since we are most interested in how the language is spoken by these folks, we might be guilty of perpetuating this idea of who ‘counts’ as a ‘real speaker’. The tendency in articles like this to enumerate the number of “fluent speakers” (often, as in this case, very low), and I rarely see counts of strong learners emerging, or even fluent second language speakers coming to be added to those counts.

This connects to a theme that Khelisem himself raised about the article, and about the way these language initiatives are talked about in general – by highlighting those involved as “saviours” of the languages.

As Khelisem further noted on Twitter, the framing of stories about Indigenous languages is always about their decline, rather than their strength. The number of people who speak Skwomesh has been on the rise for some time, but as with any minority language situation, this is never the story that gets told. On the one hand, I think this is embedded in colonialism – Indigenous ways of life are never seen as thriving, vibrant, and changing, they are always relics of the past, dying, and incompatible with the contemporary world. On the other, I think it also connects to the privileged status that first-language speakers have in these discussions. Since this group, still, is almost always elders, who are never getting any younger, the numbers only ever seem to go down. And then at the same time, the people learning or supporting the language don’t necessarily want to be seen as “missionaries”, as Khelisem puts it (as a non-Indigenous person involved in these initiatives, I am especially reluctant about this, but media outlets, quite frankly, love it). Learning the language is a highly political act that connects in vital ways to Indigenous rights and decolonization; it’s not necessarily about saving it.

The happy ending to that tweet is that in response to Khelisem’s emailed complaint about the framing, the article was revised to remove that “saviour” dynamic. I didn’t see the previous version, but I’m certainly heartened to see that this type of feedback was taken seriously by the CBC journalists.

Anyway, I could, and probably will, write for ages about this topic, but the short version is – yay Language House! I’m going to be making a donation to their campaign at their website, and certainly encourage anyone able to do the same.

The Lines of Sociolinguistic Decorum

Here’s the first thing: I love swearing. I mean that in both a personal and a professional sense. I love the act of swearing, but I also love the study of how swearing works. It’s an incredibly poetic area of language – people swear so creatively, anyone who says swearing is evidence of linguistic deficiency is simply not paying attention – and it’s also one where the linguistic and the social are clearly and inextricably intertwined.

Here’s the second thing: I make no qualms about my opposition to the political positions of Kellie Leitch, a candidate for federal Conservative Party leadership who has gone on record praising Donald Trump, and advocated a screening mechanism for immigrants on the basis of their presentation of “Canadian values”.


So this story – ‘Cuck’: a modern swear word that’s as dirty as the old ones –  and the very astute analysis that Leah McLaren brings to it, is another perfect storm about which I am just forced to write (Ed: this blog was your idea, not mine. Stop making it seem like you don’t want to be here). The story has been credited as one of the central forces that led to the resignation of Nick Kouvalis as Leitch’s campaign manager – no small feat for an article about words!

The thing this article really drives home is the complexity of what counts as a swear word and what that means for the usage patterns of different types of vulgar language or insults. As an example, McLaren notes that the word being discussed – ‘cuck’ – is, once you understand its meaning, so clearly vulgar and offensive that it’s surprising that it’s publishable in a respectable newspaper like the Globe and Mail. This highlights the inherent question that we’re dealing with when we think about swearing – is it the meaning that makes a word offensive, or is it the form? The short version is…both. And neither. And it depends. Some examples might help here.

  1. McLaren points to and clearly explains how the meaning associated with the use of “cuck” as a political insult is a) racist, b) sexist, and c) drawn from internet porn, which would seem to be an excellent recipe for “guaranteed taboo term in appropriate for polite contexts”. But it’s not disallowed from the newspaper she writes for (though some instances reporting on the Twitter exchange in question are prefaced with a “Warning: Vulgar Language Ahead” sign), primarily because the newspaper’s rules are based on the listing of forms, not meanings that are disallowed. The connections and connotations underlying neologistic forms would have to be argued as needing to be included on this list (a case that McLaren herself seems to be making with her article), as it seems like it wouldn’t make sense for an organization to list a set of meanings or connotations that are prohibited.
  2. There are any number of cases where we can replace a taboo word with one that is, in terms of denotation at least, semantically equivalent, and suddenly it’s ok. The referent for “shit”, “crap”, and even the childish “poo poo” are the same thing, so no matter how much we want to pretend that we forbid words on the basis of some kind of logical pattern of conceptual taboos, something else is definitely at work. That said, there is such a thing as euphemistic drift, whereby if a substitution is made often enough as a swearing replacement – “oh, crap” as an interjection meaning “bad thing just happened”, or “crappy” for something bad, in addition to just the literal meaning of the term – it comes to have some level of prohibition itself. A certain proportion of parents wouldn’t let their kids say “crap”, or in some circles, even “darn it”, any more than they would “shit” or “damn it”. Again, the meaning and sound relationship is complicated.
  3. I’m fascinated by how this plays out in terms of “what you can say on tv”. Battlestar Galactica‘s invented term “frak” was among the most interesting examples of this, as the term became a direct substitute for literally every possible time we would use “fuck” – “that fraking cylon”, “she fraked him”, “FRAK!” Again, from the network regulators’ perspective, it was clearly the form that was prohibited, rather than the meaning. There are segments of the population that clearly subscribe to this understanding of what makes certain words problematic – these were the ones who couldn’t get past the idea that it was the vulgarity of the word “pussy” that made that Donald Trump recording so upsetting.
  4. This form/meaning dynamic plays out in especially interesting ways when it comes to racial slurs – this is a topic that deserves a whole post of its own at some point, but for now, I’ll just plant the seed of thinking about how people draw on etymological arguments (accurate or otherwise) to make very specific claims about why the Washington football team’s name should be changed (preview note: I absolutely think it should be changed. I just don’t think the argument from etymology is the best claim to make for that).

In short, McLaren makes a great point about just how shocking it is, once you understand the implications, to hear the use of an insult like ‘cuck’, and I think Kouvalis was absolutely correct to resign on the basis that he is apparently incapable of modulating his language in a public, professional setting. And now I will watch with some care to see whether the word continues to be publishable in major Canadian newspapers, and think about what that says about our contemporary relationship with the semantics, rather than the phonetics of vulgarity.