Friday, April 2, 2010

A Great Post from Debbie Reese

I've always been really interested in how language is used. More precisely, it fascinates me how specific choices in the use of language can communicate as much or more than the words on the page. This is especially interesting - and illuminating - when we look at how language and culture shape each other.

Dr. Reese often calls attention to the assumptions (maybe it's even better to say presumptions) illustrated by word choice within cultural frameworks (specifically American Indian cultures). Here is a particularly wonderful and clear example from a recent blog post and here is the link to her blog which is updated often and full of wonderful information for pretty much anyone but especially those who are looking out for good books for children.

I've noticed criticism of her attention to this type of detail and it's always really surprised me. First and foremost because she focuses on literature for children. How can anyone be opposed to clear and fair representation of information in the education of children? (stupid willful ignorance rears its ugly head again) But what also really surprises me with this type of criticism to detailed, accurate, and thoughtful use of language is that it implies that people aren't noticing the power of language.

Think about how much power comes with free access to accurate information. Think about how most information is transmitted through language. Now think about how information can be controlled through the use of language.

I can think of innumerable examples from my own life where I have deliberately changed my language use because I didn't like what my careless use of language was implying. And, admittedly, I can think of a few instances where I have taken people to task for their careless use of language because it was so far gone as to be not merely spreading misinformation but to actually be offensive.

Here's a real quick example that I see discussed often. English doesn't have gender neutral pronouns so the grammatically correct way to be gender "neutral" is to use the masculine pronoun. Think about what that language rule does within a cultural framework. In every situation in which one does not know gender one must say or write the masculine. In other words, if the person under consideration is not a man then one indicates otherwise, like it is unusual or not the norm. Taking this a step further think about when you're reading a book and titles are used - such as Dr; Special Agent; Officer; Representative; CEO - without gender neutral pronouns, and so in turn gender neutral thinking, language has shaped us to assume the masculine. Language then, our number one strategy for information dissemination, has marginalized the feminine.

I realize that in some cases this can start to seem really nitpicky but I invite you to take notice of your language use, and its use by those around you and in what you read. What is it saying about your presumptions and what information are you being fed from others? Is it accurate? Equitable?


  1. Good morning!

    A link to your site was in my "google alert" this morning, so I clicked on over.

    Thanks for reading my blog, and, for sending others to it. Yes! Language is very powerful.

    Yesterday I was listening to a radio interview with a man who has a new book out about the violence in Juarez. He cited a lot of statistics, and then he said that all those people involved in drug trade were "feral children."

    Feral?! He went on to say their parents were at work and weren't home to watch over them. I was astounded by his use of "feral" and as I listened further, there was another word (can't recall it right now) that made me shake my head. That is when I quit listening.

    It wasn't a children's book author, nor was it a book for children.

  2. Hello! Thanks so much for stopping by. And for all the great information you make available on your blog.

    I've had the same objections to speakers myself; and switched the station accordingly. It's amazing how I can't hear what they are saying anymore because I am so distracted by their unintended message. I wonder if they realize how badly that sort of thing undermines their credibility. Or at least it does with me.