/ 25 August 2017

The words we use do matter

It's an art to develop an ear for words and to use them not to devalue others but to promote their dignity
It's an art to develop an ear for words and to use them not to devalue others but to promote their dignity


I have had the frequent overheard conversations about the use of “they” as a personal pronoun. Almost without fail it starts like this:

Buhle: I’m gender nonconforming, so my pronouns are “they” or “their”, not “she” or “her”.

Thomas: But that makes no grammatical sense because “they” cannot be used in the singular.

What follows is usually a back-and-forth about the linguistic or grammatical sense of Buhle’s pronouns — a casual academic topic for Thomas, but a never ending trial for Buhle, who has provided Thomas with useful information and now just wants to get on with their life without repeatedly being asked to justify their gender identity.

(If you want to learn more about the recognition of the singular “they”, type it into your search engine and read about its centuries of usage in the work of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Austen.)

Language is important; words have meaning and shape how we think, conceptualise ideas and communicate them. But language is nuanced. Language can be used in a way that is inclusive, but also as a tool to devalue or exclude people. Learning to navigate this nuance is tricky, but it is vital if we are to achieve an inclusive society that respects and promotes the rights, freedoms and safety of everyone in it.

We don’t need to look far for an example of language being used as a tool of oppression — the enforced the use of Afrikaans or English as a medium of instruction in schools for black pupils.

Then there are the ugly slurs: the n-word, the k-word, “slut”, “bitch”, “whore”, “hooker”, “moffie”. Recent examples of the way slurs are used in hate speech or to incite violence are the brutal murders of David Olyn and Michael Titus, whose assailants called them “moffies”, and the xenophobic attacks that rocked South Africa between 2008 and 2015.

There are many subtle ways in which language is used oppressively, or just left unquestioned. Consider the different connotations between these terms used to describe the same thing: sex worker and prostitute; victim and survivor; slutty and sex positive; gardener and garden boy.

And then there are personal pronouns. A person’s pronoun, like their gender, is assumed on the basis of norms that categorise how that person dresses, speaks and behaves as either feminine or masculine. But there are those who do not subscribe to the binary categories of man or woman. Some women can be butch, some men can be femme, and somewhere between are people who do not identify as either, and who are not accommodated by the binary gender identities that we have constructed to describe people. Most of us will probably remember a time when something about us did not “fit” social expectations and how difficult that was. There are many people who live their whole lives experiencing this discomfort, and some have been brave enough to ask us not to refer to them as he or she.

There are times when it’s important to halt the conversation and call someone on their use of specific words. And there is a time to abandon pedantry and go with the flow. How do we know which route to take? A useful rule of thumb is the following:

Has someone used a word, term or expression to refer to a group of people to support their oppression or exclusion, or in a way that is derogatory or hurtful? Halt the conversation and request that different language be used.

Are you refusing to adjust your language and use certain terms or pronouns because you believe it’s grammatically incorrect or burdensome? The rules of language are conventions that evolve through practice. They do not trump somebody else’s humanity, so change your language.

Language use is a habit and it may take a short while to adjust, but if you are mindful and persistent, the change happens fairly quickly. If you make a mistake, it’s best just to apologise and correct yourself. Finally, don’t expect recognition for using the right term. It’s not necessary to award prizes for treating people with respect.

It is easy to argue that politically correct language stifles expression, but, to paraphrase author Toni Morrison, such an argument is usually made by someone whose identity has never been determined by anybody else, someone who hasn’t suffered from oppression on the basis of their skin colour, sexual orientation, gender or disability. If respect for people amounts to political correctness, then political correctness should be encouraged.

As the Constitution recognises, our right to freedom of expression ends where another’s rights to dignity, freedom from discrimination and safety begin.

Ariane Nevin is a national prisons specialist at Sonke Gender Justice