Friday, May 25, 2007

verboten culture

The practice of forbidding particular words, of enforcing the use of one word over another via sanctions, systematically divests our language of meaning. Language is a holistic system and words carry meaning only in contrast to other words. Thus, to have many different words in use for the same object or property provides many shades of connotation, or subtlety of meaning. When we forbid the use of alternate terms in the public forum (because they are "derogatory" or "offensive" ( = Saxon)) the remaining, permitted word ceases to have any positive connotation, it subsumes negative connotations. Of course, the intended purpose of such regulations is to control thought. By forbidding the use of a derogatory term (the argument goes), we inhibit the spread of the attitude expressed by that term. (comparison: systematically erasing usage of the term "bad" in order to stem dissatisfaction with the government (Orwell, 1984)) Even if such derogatory attitudes are to be despised, surely a less-totalitarian strategy for combatting them could be imagined! In fact, historically, the effect of such sanctions has not been to eliminate prejudice but to introduce further layers of prejudice. Consider the suppression of Saxon terms by the Normans; we still feel the effects today of Norman intolerance in the persistent suppression of the "seven words" ~ it is no accident that they are of Saxon origin, while their Latinate cousins are regularly used in scientific journals and high school health classes! How ironic that our "freedom fries" eating government remains resolutely Francophile in its vocabulary choices! Consider also the case of "dwarf" and "midget" ~ these used to have distinct meanings referring to two distinct physiological types. The medical term midget became pejorative as it was subsumed into popular culture ~ here the causal direction is reversed! Surely the preexisting prejudice manipulated the term's connotation, and its legitimate meaning had little effect on this use. How long, then, will "little people," a term which erases the heterogeneity of medical conditions resulting in less than average stature, survive as a positive term? How long before cultural prejudices tar it with pejorative connotations? ~ when said with a sneer, or an ironic twinkle in the eye . . . when said bitterly, as if a nastier term merely has left the lips with the wrong sound . . .

No, the manipulation of language is a dead end in the quest for acceptance, the attempt to remove one prejudice by introducing another a profound hypocrisy.

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