Is political correctness taking language regulation ‘too far’? Or should we seriously try and regulate our language to include everyone?
Noam Chomsky described the debate of ‘Political Correctness’ (PC) as a “healthy expansion of moral concern” (Allan and Burridge 2006, p.90). Much like Chomsky, I agree that being PC shows that as a human you are trying to be more aware of including everyone equally in your speech. For example, a PC person would believe that ‘fireman’ is politically incorrect because it implies that only men can be someone who ‘fights fire’, so perhaps the gender neutral ‘firefighter’ is a more suitable option?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, being ‘politically correct’ involves avoiding words and phrases which purposefully exclude or marginalize groups of people. I have no problem seeing myself as being politically correct and adopting alternative language so as not to offend certain groups. With the struggles of my generation, for example the high rate of male suicide, LGBTQ+ discrimination and equal pay, I think that we all have become much more thoughtful about our linguistic choices. No one should want to purposefully exclude and offend people.
Language tends to belittle women because of their gender. ‘Fireman’, ‘spokesman’ and ‘chairman’ demonstrate this. Nowadays, as Berry (2016) suggests, “there is an increased awareness of gender and how we define it”. Are we moving forward? Shockingly, according to Berry (2016), there are still 220 words to describe a ‘promiscuous’ woman in English, but only 20 for the male equivalent. Many television programmes and news shows have regulated their language to avoid using ‘loaded’ terms. However, does this mean we need to avoid using the term ‘female’, ‘woman’, ‘history’? It’s food for thought that there are shades of meaning and whilst some may take offence from these words, others may feel that there are more important battles to fight.
Instead of being offended by words that have been in our dictionary for generations, why don’t we let them empower us? After all, a comma can change everything. If a comma can change everything then surely a whole word has even greater power? ‘Let’s eat grandma’ vs ‘let’s eat, grandma’?
AA Milne famously wrote, “[i]f the English language had been properly organised, there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’ ” (cited in Berry, 2016). Berry claims that ‘they’ is the singular pronoun which could outright solve sexism in the English language. According to her (them?), you literally only need these four letters to “stand against the prejudice embedded in the English language”.
Alongside this, Gray (2017) comments on the uproar created by Cardiff Metropolitan University which was accused of censorship over a ‘gender neutral’ language policy. They undertook what would be a PC language system, advising replacement of words such as ‘right hand man’ with ‘chief assistant’, ‘waitress’ with ‘waiter’/’server’ and ‘forefathers’ with ‘ancestors’/’forebears’ in a move they described as a “crackdown on gendered language” (Gray, 2017). They threatened students with ‘disciplinary procedures’ if they failed to adhere to the university’s language policy. In their place, they offered an extensive list of gender-neutral terms which included 34 alternatives. This included using ‘same-sex’ and ‘other-sex’ instead of ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’. Dr Joanna Williams, “academic freedom expert and University of Kent lecturer”, claimed that the ban was “unnecessary” (Gray, 2017) because the “words have evolved over a long period of time and they don’t have sexist associations”. She argues that this is not only an attack on free speech and the over-policing of language, but also puts too much pressure on students to regulate their language in an unnatural way.
Are we a ‘snowflake’ generation who need to ‘man up’? (excuse the politically incorrect term….!)? Why have gendered terms become such a controversial topic recently? It was clearly something on Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s minds. The singular pronoun ‘they’ was in fact first used to describe someone as early as 1386 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as well as in famous literature works like Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1599 (BBC News, 2019).
So can using ‘they’ instead of ‘he’/’she’ solve sexism? According to Berry (2016) the legendary romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge rejected ‘he’ as the generic pronoun at the start of the 19th Century “in order to avoid particularising man or women, or in order to express either sex indifferently”.
So, if ‘they’ could do it, why can’t we?
ELLA BEEBY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK