How to choose meaningful words: why language matters

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One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.

Ursula K Le Guin

Narrative and meaning go hand in hand. We all need stories that make sense of experience, particular and universal. But if the language functions to exclude our experience then how do we find this meaning?

Man-made language

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Almost three decades ago I completed a PhD in feminist theology. One of my main concerns was the lack of inclusive language in organised religious structures and in liturgy.

it was obvious that research done by Dale Spender into how language functions was spot on. In Man Made Language, Spender argued that since language is crucial to how we form identity, patriarchal language has a detrimental effect on women.

Her studies of mixed sex gatherings demonstrated how men maintain the dominant positions. She found endless examples of how men exercise linguistic control by diminishing female talk on the grounds of it’s style rather than content. For example there was a consensus that women’s language is more irrational, emotional or aggressive.

Spender also found that women are more often interrupted, their opinions more often discounted and .that men will hold private conversations while a woman is talking.

The he/man rule

Spender went on to describe the phenomenon of ‘he/man language’:

In 1746 the male grammarian John Kirby made it a grammatical rule that the male gender is ‘more comprehensive’ than the female gender. He encoded this personal opinion, with the support of other male grammarians, into the language structure. By 1850 the rule had become an Act of Parliament.

In the 90s, when I was doing my PhD, women stood accused of ‘tampering with the language’ when they challenged this rule. This was particularly the case with liturgical language. Such an accusation assumed that language was the property of males. In fact, women were doing what men have always done: producing linguistic forms which did not diminish them.

Research shows that people think ‘male’ when they hear the word ‘man’. Aileen Pace Nilsen showed this with young children, using the sentence, ‘man needs food’.

In the same year Schneider and Hacker came up with the same conclusion about college students. They used such phrases as ‘Political Man’, ‘Urban Man’ etc.

Linda Harrison showed that science students think male when presented with the phrase ‘the evolution of man’. We are thus led to project male images onto the world and become blinkered about perceiving female images.

The lesser part

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For males identity is constant. But females must then look for clues about whether a reference includes them. Moreover, we often regard males as the whole species. Eric Fromm’s assertion that, ‘man’s vital interests are life, food, access to females etc.’ is an apt example. On the other hand, females are never the whole species, for example, can we say, “man may have difficulty during pregnancy and menopause.”?

The ‘he/man’ rule makes women the outsiders. A woman achieves humanity by labelling herself a man and this means losing her identity as a woman.

Religious communities can exacerbate this by addressing women as brothers, sons etc, or in hymnody and liturgy that excludes female pronouns. With such language the image of woman as an equal part of the species soon disappears.

Things have moved on since I did that PhD, but has language moved with it? There is some progress, but reading Man Made Language now, it’s depressing how fresh it feels. And there are other voices raised in concern.

An imitation man

In an entertaining but pointed performance piece in The Wave in the Mind, Ursula Le Guin begins:

I am a man.Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender… because my first name ends in a and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, … But details don’t matter. If we have anything to learn from politician its that the details don’t matter. I am a man. And I want you to believe and accept this as a fact, just as I did for many years.

The satire becomes more poignant as she talks of herself as a ‘second rate or imitation man’.

And it’s not only that language fails women by defining them as ‘men’. The he/man rule is only one aspect of exclusion.

The problem of war metaphors

In an interview with Jonathan White, included in Talking on the Water Le Guin notes how vital metaphors are to our thinking:

We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. One reflects the other. A lot of people are getting tired of the huge pool of metaphors that have to do with war and conflict [and] the proliferation of battle metaphors, such as being a warrior, righting, defeating, and so on. In response, I could say that once you become conscious of these battle metaphors, you can start “fighting” against them. That’s one option. Another is to realize that conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting. This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behavior.

Language either diminishes or enlarges our understanding of our own experience. Many of our ways of imaging experience assume that not only is their a normative gender, but that conflict is the major symbol of experience. If our metaphors don’t come from battle, they are likely to come from competitive sport, which has already borrowed a military vocabulary.

This is not only the case in politics and business, which use adversarial metaphors all the time, but also in relationships:

  • He won her heart.
  • She fought for him, but lost to his mistress won.
  • He had to fend off women.

It’s the case in many forms of dialogue:

  • I shot down his arguments
  • I left her without a leg to stand on

It’s worrying that it’s how we view disease, often to the detriment of those suffering. Conflict metaphors can leave those whose illnesses are incurable feeling that they are guilty of ‘losing’, as in

  • He lost the fight against cancer
  • The war against obesity …

It’s also the case in personal development. Rather than talking about questing and exploring, we are likely to read about

  • how to crush our goals
  • how to dominate our morning routine

Finding new metaphors

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Metaphors shape our thinking and behaviour. Metaphors of excelling, flying, being alight, realising a vision are all available and many more that do not rely on internal conflict.

To quote Le Guin again:

One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say.

Language is rich and nuanced. As writers it’s our most basic tool. It behoves us to use it to include and to make experience meaningful. When language is a battlefield or a no-go area for women, it’s not working. As writers, we can do better than that.

We can make language fresh and inventive.

We can narrativise in ways that enhance meaning, even in dark times.

We can refuse to use language that excludes or metaphors that set us in opposition.

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