Who Owns Language?

meNot long after humans began to use shaped grunts as symbols for things, we discovered that we could argue as much about symbols as about the things they represent. The most obvious example of this is monotheistic religions which argue, among other things, about the proper name for God. This often baffles outsiders, who would suppose that if, as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all assert, there is only one God, then surely they must all be talking about the same Deity. Does giving Him a different name really change anything? As Shakespeare observed, “That which we call a rose, by another other name would smell as sweet.”

And yet words and names do matter to us. Though some names are neutral, many names carry the connotation of male or female, a phenomenon exploited by Johnny Cash in his famous song “A Boy Named Sue”, in which a father gives his son a female-sounding name in order to ensure ridicule will cause him to grow up tough.

The wrong words at the wrong time can lead to altercations: “them’s fightin’ words”. The right words can pour oil on troubled waters and broker agreements, and we even have a word for that: diplomacy.

Words have a magic all their own. In A Wizard of Earthsea, author Ursula K. Le Guin introduced a world in which a pebble could be made to look like a diamond, but merely by calling it by “tolk”, its true name in the Old Language, one could shed the spell of glamour and restore its appearance as an ordinary rock.

Nowadays, one of the more peculiar (and often annoying) uses of language is political. We feel that we can somehow right wrongs (or at least, prevent their recurrence) by changing the words we use to refer to things and people. The rise of Feminism, for example, has caused the term “stewardess” to be replaced in common usage by “flight attendant”. Stripping job titles of their gender-implications, it is thought, will stop men from viewing women as mere sex objects. As an extension of this, the use of the word they as a nonsexual pronoun was made Word of The Year in 2015.

Even words which change their meaning can be outlawed nowadays. The infamous “N word”, used in centuries past to denote non-Caucasians by the British has, because of its association with American racial slavery, been hacked down to a single letter used to represent the word that must not be spoken (except by descendants of the wronged who are allowed to use it on each other, for some reason).

But who owns language? As a writer, a person who views words as my pigments, and my ability to string them together into sentences as my paintbrush, I know that the words I use, precisely because humans instantly convert them into memories or imaginations of images, sounds, actions, and so on, affect people…and this puts me in an awkward situation. I want to trigger passions as well as pondering, but violating the new political taboos could limit my readership. I am reminded that the library of Samuel Clemens High School, named after the author who went by Mark Twain, had to take Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn off its shelves because Clemens used the N word. Think about that for a moment. They want to remember his name…but not what he actually wrote.  To moderns who excoriate him, I must point out in Twain’s defense that he did not use the N word to incite hatred or scorn for African-Americans, as modern racists do. He had his characters use that word because that is the way people spoke in the South before and after the Civil War. Clemens was doing what Steven King recommends in his book On Writing, in which he advises that characters must be allowed to speak as they actually would if they were real people: a coarse villain must be allowed to swear instead of saying “my goodness gracious” because to do otherwise would be out of character and destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

I have seen agents and editors and publishers and booksellers all state they will do no business with books that employ “hate speech”. And look, I get it. No one wants to be associated with hatemongers. No rational person wants to be the one who abused freedom of speech by shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, causing people to be trampled to death in the ensuing panic.

I would argue, however, that there is a difference between a real person shouting the N word at another in order to cause pain, and having a character in a book use that same word in order to explore and condemn the use of it. I’m not saying I’m a fan of that word or that I plan to use it in my own novels. But please, cut Mr. Clemens some slack. How can we condemn racism if we cannot even discuss it rationally…even in fiction? How can we see how far we have come in our discourse, if we censor out past references to hated words, out of fear of offending the descendants of the wronged?

So who owns language? The racists? The politicians? The scientists? No. We all own it. While it is laudable to try to correct certain ways of thinking by “correcting” the terminology we use, we must keep in mind that so-called “political correctness” can become its own kind of verbal fascism. We must use this tool of language-change cautiously…because you never know who will decide they are in charge of it in the future.


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