N.B.: This is an adapted version of a paper I wrote for Applied Linguistics 623: Sociolinguistics Spring 2020 // I would love to hear your thoughts
Sociolinguistics seeks to explore the function of language in a society. As we use oral, written, and non-spoken language at every point of our lives, there are many spaces in which we can examine the linguistics choices we make and why. Language continually shapes how we live and our interpretations of what words and actions mean. Linguistic relativity also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that a language completely determines a person’s worldview and how a person thinks. Lucy stated that “each language embodies a particular interpretation of reality… which influences thought about that reality” (1997). As a result, with the linguistic diversity that is present in our schools and in the city of Boston, there are so many realities coming to play with every cross-linguistic and even intra-linguistic interaction.
Personally, my worldview has changed radically from about 10 years ago. I have been forced to examine the ways that I and others use words to unknowingly maintain heteronormative standards. This examination has exposed many ways that we default to words and phrases that are not inclusive of all genders and sexualities. For example, there are many issues with telling students to talk to their “mom and dad” from the assumption that a student lives with both parents, that the student lives with either parent, that the student has a good relationship with said parents, etc. All of these underscore the expectation that the ideal or typical family unit consists of a mother and a father. This has been problematized from a class lens but less frequently from a gender lens.
The most specific way that my change in language use has impacted my habits of thought has to do with the way I refer to people I don’t know: while telling stories in the past, I would say “this girl” or “that guy” and use pronouns that align with their gender presentation and expression (which I now know is not always the same as their gender identity). These days, I make a conscious effort to avoid using gender exclusive language in my speech and, whenever possible, gently correct others who might accidentally do something similar. Even phrases like the New England “y’all” you guys can be unintentionally hurtful to people who are experiencing gender dysphoria even though for others it may not be a big deal.
Gender inclusivity impacts me in the classroom especially considering I teach Arabic, an incredibly gendered language. There are very few opportunities for breaking out of the male-female dichotomy in Arabic. In English, the word “you” is gender neutral whereas in Arabic, you must gender whomever you speak to both in the pronoun and the verb conjugation. This becomes particularly tricky in that there are no collective, standardized ideas on how to work around this.
On a larger scale, I work in an arts school and as a community, there is a high percentage of students who identify as trans and/or queer and who are free with regards to their gender expression and presentation. It is of utmost importance that we are conscious of the effects that our language use has in setting the culture of acceptance and inclusivity. Sexualities outside of the standard have already been so normalized within our community and even moreso with this generation of students. Our students are moving away from heteronormativity especially with more public figures and celebrities being more open about their sexualities and gender identities.
If I were speaking to parents and educators in my school community to address gender and LGBTQ+ inclusivity, I would explain the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but also address that I, personally, accept a less rigid interpretation of it: language shapes our ideas as well as perpetuates ideas of language but we do have the ability to change and learn and internalize new ideologies. That’s what makes our work around gender even more important. While using the singular “they” may have been challenging for me at first, it becomes second nature almost instantaneously. It is almost standard practice now to include your pronouns in your email signature when just five years ago that would have raised many eyebrows outside of the queer feminist circles.
Pauwels said, “taking linguistic action to improve the plight of women was seen as an integral part of women’s liberation” and while I don’t agree wholly agree with this belief, I do think that linguistic action does impact visibility and causes people to consider why they make the linguistic choices they do and where those ideas come from (2002). This could be incredibly important when it comes to changing our internal dialogues and ideologies around gender and sexuality. In learning more about the expansive terminology at our disposal and what words mean, we can make choices about how we want to move forward with our language use.
It is important to include actual queer representation as a starting point. This way, we can critically consider ways to decenter the normative social discourses. Moving forward, we can find ways to represent the even more marginalized LGBT identities (i.e. queer people of color, disabled queer people, “non-passing” trans people). But for now, it’s most important to raise our collective awareness, alter our daily speech to be more inclusive, and honor and value the pronouns of the people in our lives regardless about how we feel about the person. For example, misgendering someone when you’re upset with them or they have done something to hurt you is not acceptable, regardless of the circumstances.
So much of education, or at least my experience as an educator of a language for which I’m not a native speaker, has been me situating myself as a non expert of the material or topic. For non-queer educators and parents, we should do this as well.
This movement towards inclusive language should not be sensationalized or happen just during Pride Month: it should be a habitual practice! We should not be afraid to problematize the dominant discourses that are present in our textbooks and articles and academic resources. Our students are wise enough to challenge the materials and discuss how they marginalize and silence the real, lived experiences of people in their classrooms, in their lives, and in the world. Ultimately this shift is not about changing minds or hearts or opinions on queerness or sexuality, but rather an attempt to move the needle on our perception and acceptance of those ideas. We are trying to budge our cultural habits of thought by intentionally engaging in a slightly different habit and discovering why we do so.
Pauwels discusses how feminist movements in the 1970s focused on the “male dominance in language regulation and planning” and their overwhelming attempts to subvert English’s inherent androcentrism (2002). 50 years has passed since then and while there are still issues in the way that our language use still points to a male-dominated society, we need to be expanding our focus beyond the gender binary. Using the impact that feminist linguistic activism has had on our use of language can be great inspiration for this new wave of linguistic activism and maybe, just maybe, in 2070 the next generation will have normalised a more gender-expansive English, a queer-accepting curriculum, and a trans-inclusive understanding of society.
Deborah Cameron Styling the worker: Gender and the commodification of language in the globalized service economy Journal of Sociolinguistics 4/3, 2000: Institute of Education, London 323-347
Pauwels, Anne (2002) Linguistic Sexism and Feminist Linguistic Activism