I was feeling so cranky that I had worked up a little language-related rant in my mind; and then I read some similar rants at other blogs, and I was a bit ashamed. On one blog, there was a bitty rant about adverbs with a comment thread in which we are invited to supply our own language-related pet peeves. Now, I am as much of a stickler as anybody–I loved the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. But I followed another link and while I found it humorous, I realized that I actually had never understood the difference between farther (refers to distance) and further (referring to time or quantity). Since I know the difference between, and proper usage of, for example, mucus and mucous, and I still remember mispronouncing the word “intriguing” in front of my fifth grade teacher and watching his face as he tried not to laugh out loud while gently correcting me, I have to believe that if anyone had ever explained the further-farther thing to me before, I would have remembered it. So I was gently returned to humility by the reminder that the best-educated and most practiced among us have holes in our knowledge–even me, with my Seven Sisters undergrad degree, my years of reading and writing, and my trade, which requires an intimate knowledge and daily application of the fine points of English grammar. We all make language mistakes.
I was also reminded of colloquial usages–where I come from, it is perfectly acceptable and understandable to use the word aggravate as a synonym for irritate. So this made me start thinking about the purpose of language. Isn’t it, on some level, to communicate? There is a point at which mangling language too much makes one unintelligible, which is obviously not what you’re after. But if people know what you mean, if you get your point across, and even better, if it’s colorful and amusing, does it matter if the dictionary definition of aggravate means to add to? At what point does mocking someone’s speech become a convenient stand-in for specificity, the lazy way out of identifying what we really don’t like about them? Because I know I’m ready and willing to overlook grammatical mistakes or misspellings on the part of people I love, whether it’s down to carelessness or lack of education. It’s kind of like when people call me a fat bitch–the insult is there, ready and waiting, and they don’t have to do any introspection to see if the cause of their hatred for me has anything to do with my fatness or my allegedly bitchy nature. Trashing someone for their language skill is often a cheap way to feel superior, and has strong ties to classism. Why exactly is anyone entitled to consider herself better than anyone else because we know the proper placement of an apostrophe? I mean that–why?
The reference to split infinitives in the post referenced above reminded me of the brilliant radical feminist linguist Julia Penelope’s excellent book, Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Fathers’ Tongues. Anyone who knows me knows that I have an embarrassing literary crush on Penelope, have had for some time, but that does not diminish her excellent point that “Language has been, and remains, among the primary methods of subjugating and colonizing other nations. A history of English…is a chronicle of whose language or dialect would be accepted and, therefore, spoken or written, and the subjugation and assimilation of women and other men: those who would be acknowledged as acceptable speakers, and those who would not.”
So I think it behooves us, as writers, as language critics, and most certainly as feminists, to be very concerned with the whys and the who benefits?–in other words, the politics–of our criticisms of language use. English has developed to describe white men’s perceptions of the world, and to create a framework in which only those perceptions are valid or even intelligible. Penelope says,
In the fourteenth century, for example, femelle, from Latin femella (‘little woman’), borrowed into English from Norman French, had been “standardized” to female, by analogy to the word male. This “standardization” simultaneously fixed the spelling of female and made the word look as though it were derived from male. (In fact, the two words are not etymologically related.) Here, as in other areas, men’s certainty of their innate superiority to women elevated the ridiculous to the status of “fact,” and misogyny, masquerading as standardization and “correctness,” fabricated an etymology to justify a whimsical spelling.
She goes on to describe that many of the rules of what is considered “proper” English were adopted from Greek and then Latin, languages with significantly different structure and development. For example, “The rule forbidding us to ‘split’ our infinitives, to + verb (to eat, to dream) was introduced because one cannot ‘split’ infinitives in Greek or Latin. It’s an impossibility.* In English, it’s not only possible, but often necessary to neatly split one’s infinitives. We ‘split’ infinitives in English because we can.” (p. 9)
All of this is to say, who does it serve when we get all cranky about other folks not following rules made up by dead white Latin-lovers? If it serves us–if it helps us get our radical and subversive points across to as many folks as possible–then I say, more power to us. If it’s about consolidating our place in the hierarchy, about cementing our privilege due to family standing or education, I say, boo.
So after saying all of that, I will go ahead and share what’s bugging me lately about language, and I’ll also share some of my thoughts about the whys and who benefits, and you can see if you think I have a point at all.
The first thing on my mind is the word issue. The way folks in my circles are using this word lately really bugs me, particularly the oft-heard, “I have a lot of issues with that.” What bothers me about this is the lack of specificity. What exactly does this mean? Statements like this not only show a disturbing paucity of vocabulary, since there are plenty of ways to say the same thing that would be more specific–“I don’t like X,” “X makes me angry,” “I have a philosophical or moral objection to X.” Referencing your issues furthermore suggests that analysis has not proceeded to the point of even identifying the problem such that a more specific explanation could accurately be made–i.e., you don’t really know what your problem with X is, and you’re too lazy to figure it out, so you present it in terms of “issues.” I then perceive that I am expected to drop the subject or not insist that you go wherever or do whatever it is that you have the issues with, without being told exactly what your objection is. If you want me to know why you don’t like something, say why. If you don’t want to give out such personal information, then just say, “No thanks, I’d rather not.” This vague use of the word “issues” leaves me feeling like I’ve been given too much information and simultaneously not enough–I know that you’re uncomfortable or disturbed in some way by the topic under discussion, but I don’t know the specifics so I can’t suggest alternatives or question your perceptions, and I also suspect that that’s the point. This reference to your “issues” warns me to respect your tender feelings; I’d be boorish and inconsiderate to insist on an explanation under those circumstances, and so not only do you not have to explain yourself, you don’t have to understand yourself, and you still get your way. It’s really quite manipulative, and perhaps that’s why it makes me fume. And politically, who benefits from women having impoverished vocabularies, eschewing introspection and analysis of their thoughts, feelings and preferences? I’ll give you one guess.
My next peeve-o’-the-moment is similar. It concerns popular usage of “need” versus “want” and “I feel” versus “I think.” Nothing cheeses me more** than to hear some middle-class white feminist talking about getting her needs met. Because, you know what? I think we humans have very few actual needs. In my opinion, needs include things like food, shelter, air, water, and perhaps social interaction or companionship of some kind, and we almost never mean stuff like this when we talk about our needs. Lots of people like to think they need a lot more than this–flat screen TVs (hi mom), SUVs, children, approval, rough sex, everyone to pay attention to them. I disagree. And I’d much rather someone say to me, “I want to spend 20 minutes of this meeting discussing my personal situation even though that’s not what anyone is here for. Is that okay?” At least then I have the option of saying, “Hell no!” But this use of need I think is purposeful because it allows for no argument. If you need something, how could anyone but a heartless cruel bitch (me) consider denying it to you? Especially if I don’t consider my desire for a productive, brief, efficient, to-the-point meeting a need–how can I then prioritize what I want over your need? Since a want can never take precedence over a need, you’re practically requiring me to use your language, to acquiesce to beliefs about what constitutes need to resolve our conflicting interests in the situation. If I refuse to characterize my want as a need, and you’re willing to do so, then you will always get what you want, and I won’t. This is unfair and manipulative, folks, and I want you to really think about it. Particularly think about what you consider your needs in the context of women and children living in mud huts, walking miles every day to a source of firewood or fresh water. Then practice saying, “I want.” Say, “I need your attention.” Then say, “I want your attention.” Say, “I need to leave the meeting by 5.” Then say, “I’m going to leave the meeting by 5.” How do they feel different? Doesn’t saying “I need” something you don’t really need make you sound like a whiny baby? Like a victim? Like everyone else is more powerful than you and if they don’t give you what you need, you’ll be devastated? How about when you say “I want”? Doesn’t that sound like a confident grown-up addressing an equal? Someone who, if her want is refused, can try to figure out how else that want might be met? Or can figure out how to live without it? Talk about empowering–it’s even better than spike heels, thong underwear and a push-up bra.
Now do the same exercise with “I think” and “I feel.” Because “feelings” are popping up all over the place, attached to stuff that is in no way a feeling. For example, “I feel that you are being insensitive.” That’s not a feeling, that’s a thought, an opinion, even (god forbid!) a judgment. For cryin’ out loud, in my work now the doctors are even dictating, “We feel that the patient has bronchiolitis obliterans.” What the hell!??!?!? How on earth is a medical diagnosis a feeling?*** I think the popularity of this turn of phrase is, again, that staving off of argument thing. If you feel something, no one can argue with you, because feelings are (supposedly) sacrosanct. If you think something, well, it’s your opinion, and at the very least you might be asked to come up with some evidence to back it up, whereas what kind of clod would try to argue with your feelings? If think is too cold and clinical for you, try believe. That’s a great blend of thinking and feeling, or thinking with a spiritual component added, if you will. Or, perceive. Perceive is a deplorably underutilized word that Julia Penelope loves. It’s descriptive, to the point, leaves open the possibility that your perceptions could be mistaken, and doesn’t back the hearer into the corner of having to irreparably damage your psyche by questioning what you feel. “Oh, you perceived hostility in her statement? Gee, I thought she sounded fearful.” Hearing another’s perception of a situation might make you rethink your own and, hence, behave differently than you might if you announced you felt the speaker was being hostile, leaving your friend only the response of “Oh, I’m sorry you felt like that.” And again, doesn’t saying “I think” or “I perceive” make you feel like an intelligent human being addressing an equal, rather than like a baby or a therapy patient? Don’t we want women to be strong, entitled self-advocates? Don’t we want to have conversations where we swap perceptions, perhaps learn from one another’s perceptions or, failing that, agree to disagree and go our separate ways? When we start expressing everything in terms of how we feel about it, and only how we feel about it, it cuts off our awareness of our ability to create options, and life becomes a support group where everybody feeling good all the time is the most important thing. It’s great to feel good, but oftentimes learning about ourselves, and particularly unlearning the ways in which we participate in and support systems of privilege doesn’t feel very good–but it’s absolutely necessary to creating the better world we all want, and selves who are worthy of living in it.
*In Latin, as in languages developed from it (the Romance languages like Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish among others), infinitives are a single word. For example, to eat in Spanish is comer. Thus, it can’t be split; you must say “comer rapidamente” when in English it is perfectly possible (and understandable) to say, “to quickly eat.”
**In the interests of accuracy and specificity, which after all is what I am ranting about, this sentence should really read, “Nothing cheeses me more–unless you count 90% of what men do, oh, those little things, like rape, and war, and corporate greed. That cheeses me more.” But I hope by now that goes without saying.
***Not to be construed as support for the medical profession’s assertions of possessing absolute objectivity and scientific truth, in contrast to, say, medical intuitives, whom regular doctors would probably accuse of diagnosing by “feeling.” From my eavesdropper’s view of medical science, diagnosis may as well be a “feeling” as anything, but they should at least be held to some standard of internal consistency regarding their assertions about their practice and the way they describe it in their own documentation. That is, if you go around claiming to be the epitome of scientific knowledge and wisdom on the human body and all the shit that can go wrong with it, you don’t get to characterize your opinion of a particular incident of wrongness as a “feeling.
Edited to remove old, broken links and references, and to clarify, 05/06/2016.