Last week the Government of British Columbia, Canada, announced legislation to “correct outdated language.” Apparently, it’s so trans and non-binary people can’t be “erased” by laws that use only “he and she.”
But that’s not what this legislation is doing. What it is doing is signalling to women that we shall continue to lose protections under the law.
Sex is binary and fixed. The term “non-binary” is a fiction that serves nobody and claiming that “he and she” are outdated terms reveals deep confusion about reality. Those who are making up this new language are missing the point that:
- Pronouns are about sex, not gender.
- It is neither kind nor respectful to cater to the fantasies of the very young or very confused.
- Language doesn’t change by brute force.
It’s not just pronouns that are under attack. It’s adjectives, too. Or rather, its word order in the English language.
Referring to fat people is mean (and obesity isn’t bad for you!), but referring to individuals as “people of size” somehow solves the problem.
Don’t talk about survivors, either. These are people who have experienced … survival, I guess. Victims: same deal. Best to refer, for instance, to rape victims as people who have experienced rape.
People aren’t disabled – they’re people experiencing disability. People aren’t mentally ill – they’re people living with a mental health condition. People aren’t addicts – they’re people with substance use disorders.
Politics, medicine, and public health have all failed spectacularly and publicly in the last three years, but I need to change the position of adjectives to save the world!
English is in the minority among world languages in putting adjectives first. That doesn’t make English a language that embraces hatred. A hate language, if you will. It just makes it English.
Imagine we want to use more than one adjective at a time. Let’s imagine it’s cows we’re talking about, rather than people. A big brown cow becomes a cow of size and colour. A slow-spotted cow is now a cow of reduced speed and abundant spots. That crazy wild-eyed heifer in the corner is now a cow of enthusiasm and femaleness who is experiencing a different mental state.
Not only do our adjectives come before our nouns in English, but when we use multiple adjectives to modify a single noun, the order in which we use them is understood by native speakers to require a specific order, despite very few of us ever having heard explicit rules about such a thing.
Consider this claim: Yesterday, I rounded a corner and stumbled upon a:
- grey small terrier, lying on a …
- French old blanket, which was spread across a …
- velvet antique couch, in a …
- fishing pristine boat.
You may not even have been able to consider what I stumbled upon, so thrown were you by the order in which I presented my adjectives. “Grey small terrier” sounds wrong, even if it has never before occurred to you that it might.
This for-most-of-us-implicit set of rules for how we order our adjectives in English helps those adjectives to support communication, without drawing undue attention to themselves. Moving the adjective behind the noun doesn’t render it hidden or unreal. Quite the opposite. It makes everyone hyper-aware of language and makes it nearly impossible to politely ignore or downrank whatever thing you just moved around. People of colour, size, disability, and the rest, are now forced to live in a world in which their colour, size, and disability are constantly on everyone’s minds.
What language policing does is raise to consciousness the most mundane aspects of communication. This has at least two broadly negative effects. First, it makes it far more difficult to engage with people as the individuals that they are, rather than as an aggregation of demographic markers. And second, it makes it more difficult to discuss things of actual substance. Thus, we have the dumbing down of a population. When individuals in a society feel free to speak their minds – including not just that of which we are certain, but especially that of which we are not certain – we can actually educate ourselves and become wiser.
The above are extracts from ‘How Now Cow of Brown?’ published by Natural Selections. You can read the full article HERE.