The Just So Story of a Pronoun

There’s something about language that makes linguistics a field rife with hubris. We know there’s something powerful about words, so we fight over them as a proxy for social movements.

This energy is misplaced. No amount of fighting over pronouns is going to bring about the social change that pronounistas want. Instead of making political correctness the goal, we should see it as the result of properly using emotional language.

Emotional manipulation of language

Political correctness is cast as the primary manipulator of language. This belies the fact that the most powerful wordsmith in the US is, without a doubt, Frank Luntz. Thanks to Luntz, estate tax became “death tax” and people are terrified of the “government takeover of healthcare”. The GOP continues to successfully hoodwink people into voting against their interests by using emotionally manipulative language.

Don’t underestimate the power of emotional manipulation. The core concept of the Affordable Care Act came from a conservative think tank and was first implemented by Mitt Romney. It was the conservative answer to a single payer system.

Cooperating with Obama to enact solidly conservative legislation was obviously unthinkable to the GOP. Thus, the name Obama, which right-wing media had already made synonymous with everything wrong in the world, was tacked on to healthcare reform. Obamacare. The result is that Kentuckians hate Obamacare but love it when it’s called something else.

Grammatical manipulation of language

Linguistic social justice warriors believe that changing the core characteristics of a language will bring about social change a la Luntzian black magic.

There’s the old myth of Eskimo words for snow: Inuit languages have a bunch of words for different types of snow because of its cultural significance. Taken further, Inuits are better at perceiving subtle variations in snow because these words exist. The PC mythology hinges on the inverse being true.

The logic runs thus:

  1. Certain words are used almost exclusively in racist, sexist or other discriminatory contexts.
  2. Those words need to be eliminated from public discourse.
  3. The elimination of these words means that racism and sexism have gone away.

I’m happy that the n-word can’t be dropped in casual conversation anymore, but that has hardly put a dent in institutional racism. Instead we have politicians and casual racists speaking in dog whistles. We’ve created a new absurdity of a genuine racist seriously thinking they aren’t racist since they don’t use the n-word. Is that real progress?

Going back to the Eskimos for a minute: the whole idea has long been disproven. English is just as descriptive as any Inuit language, we simply use adjectives and phrases instead of distinct nouns.

Of course, not having a specific word doesn’t mean a concept doesn’t exist. In English, there’s no direct equivalent of the Russian word сушняк, which specifically refers to the thirst experienced during a hangover. To posit that I never knew the agony of desperately wanting to rehydrate after a night of heavy drinking because English doesn’t have the word сушняк is idiotic. Yet this is precisely what the success of political correctness hinges on.

Gendered language

Gender is hardcoded into European languages. Even less extravagant languages like English force you to classify everything as he, she or it. For transgender / non-binary / intersex activists and feminists this makes English and other European languages inherently discriminatory.

The PC crowd is trying to spin a just so story that Sweden’s hen, a newly minted gender-neutral pronoun, is stamping out discrimination.

This is a two-pronged claim to unpack:

  1. Gender neutral language causes rapid social change.
  2. Social change is driven by linguistic change and not the other way around.

The first claim is laughable. Kyrgyz and Uzbek don’t have gendered pronouns. It’s no secret that Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan aren’t feminist paradises. If you go through the list of languages that are gender neutral, it’s hard to see any relationship between language and a country’s politics.

Chinese presents an even more interesting case that Kyrgyz. Spoken Chinese doesn’t use gendered pronouns. That didn’t stop foot binding and widow suicide nor turn pre-modern China into an LGBT utopia. Incidentally, written Chinese added a feminine pronoun, 她, in the 20th Century under European influence.

Taiwan is a progressive society with relatively strong protection for transgender rights. Using the logic of the Swedish study, adding gendered pronouns to a language reduced discrimination in Taiwan.

The fact the billions of people have been using gender-neutral pronouns for millennia is uncomfortable to both sides of the PC debate. Conservatives can’t fear-monger over slippery slopes, while progressives can’t count on grammar rules to dictate social change.

The second claim, that the introduction of hen in Swedish has caused social change rather than social change driving the introduction of hen, is equally tenuous.

Sweden of the 1960s illustrates this with the Du-reformen. Social changes in Scandinavia caused the formal form of “you” to fall out of use. Nobody claims that dropping the formal form of “you” caused the changes. Hoping you can adopt the outward result of a change and somehow affect the change is literally the definition of cargo culting.

Spain and France are going through a similar shift at the moment, with tu / tous becoming the new default. The internet is behind this, not progressives demanding change.

The rapidity of social change adds confusion to causality and was completely ignored by the Swedish researchers in question. It’s easy to forget that Obama was against same-sex marriage as late as 2010. The same social forces were likely at play in Sweden during the same time period. I’d aver that the adoption of hen is the result rather than the cause of social changes.

As an aside, English has been using singular they as a gender-neutral pronoun on and off since the 14th Century. Was Chaucer a non-binary feminist after all?

Soft strands of linguistic determinism

None of this is to say that language doesn’t influence us on some level. Most linguists have discounted the strongest claims of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but there’s still some wiggle room left.

Suppose you show a colored object to an English-speaker and ask that person a week later to recall what color the object was. Your test subject responds, “blue”. You press further, “Light or dark blue?”. An English-speaker may very well not remember the shade of blue.

This exercise would be impossible with a Russian speaker as there is no single word for blue. The Russian-speaker would have to choose either синний (dark blue) or голубой (light blue).

English speakers are equally capable of distinguishing shades of blue; rather, they don’t add it to a narrative unless the shade is important. In this case, Russian and English are equally expressive, but they have different levels of minimum required information.

Soft linguistic determinism is such a narrow niche, that it seems odd to fight political battles with grammar.

The power and impotence of words

Emotionally manipulating words has a powerful effect on people. If you want to empower your social cause, grab a copy of Luntz’s Words that Work and have at it.

Making low-level grammatical changes to a language in the hope that linguistic determinism will drive social change is tilting at windmills. For a look at how grammar shapes thinking, check out Through the Language Glass. Don’t expect a blueprint for social engineering.

Many of today’s activists are fighting linguistic minutiae in the belief that winning these battles is how to master the emotional power of words. Pronouns are a lost cause, stories aren’t.