JACK HOLLAND tries to distinguish dream from reality as he tackles linguistic relativity

The relationship between the language we speak and the thoughts we envision is rather hazy. In many ways it is like trying to remember a dream. You almost come to a conclusion, but you can’t quite finalise that last detail. Of the many sides to this debate, I aim to detail the belief that language determines or influences thought. This train of thought is often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Before delving into the two forms of this hypothesis, it is important to note that the titular Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf are not the first to propose this argument, but they are arguably the most strongly associated with it.

The first form we’re going to look at is the strong form, also known as ‘linguistic determinism’ (or, more affectionately, the ‘prison house’ view of Language). Edward Sapir is considered a proponent of this form of the hypothesis, and he’s quoted as saying “The ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality” (1958. P. 69). To dumb this down a bit (largely so that I can understand it), he’s basically saying that because different languages are, well, different, they can’t all possibly represent the same concepts. Let’s take a look at this in context.

Take an experiment that involved speakers from two different countries, straight lines, and squares. Then, according to McWhorter (2014: 5),  “show an English speaker – who says a long time – a line slowly lengthening toward an end point on screen, and then a square slowly filling up from bottom to top, and she’s better at guessing how long it will take the line to hit the end than for the square to be full”. Taking this experiment at face value, it seems obvious that linguistic determinism is relevant, and exists in the real world. To further support this, observations of Brazil’s Piraha tribe have shown that they don’t have numbers, and they also do not count. A proponent of linguistic determinism could reasonably argue that the lack of numbers in the Pirahas’ language has determined their thoughts (or should I say, lack of thoughts) involving numbers.

However, unfortunately for linguistic determinism, we don’t have to stop there. While there are differences in the times it took for different language speakers to guess how long the line or square takes to reach a certain point, these differences are practically insignificant. In fact, they’re so insignificant that it’s difficult for me to present it as an argument without feeling dishonest. We’ll come back to the Piraha tribe momentarily.

The second form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is known as ‘linguistic relativism’. Benjamin Whorf is strongly associated with this form (though some critics argue that he is misunderstood – the arguments never end!). Linguistic relativism argues that languages only influences thought, rather than determining it. Whorf states that “[t]he world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds” (1940: 213-14). Whorf is basically saying that as different concepts become apparent to us, it is the linguistic systems in our mind that sort and decipher them. This means that while language does not govern our thoughts, it organises and therefore influences them.

Earlier I mentioned the Piraha tribe. Well, it turns out “that the Pirahas’ lack of counting and their lack of number words are both caused by a cultural taboo against unnecessary generalisations beyond the here and now” (Everett, 2012. P. 256). To put it simply, while a linguistic determinist might (absurdly) argue that the Piraha can’t conceive the concept of ‘quantity’ because of their lack of words for it, a linguistic relativist might argue that their cultural taboo of generalisation has influenced the thought processes in their cognitive linguistic systems which in turn influenced their language, and their thoughts about quantity.

In case you haven’t guessed already, of the two forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I (and pretty much everyone else) support the weaker form, as the implications of the strong form (1984, anyone?) are just plain unreasonable. Unfortunately, I have a problem with linguistic relativism too. Earlier I made a rather odd comparison to dreams. Well that’s because nobody can provide concrete evidence for the weak form. Any evidence or claims provided are often weak, and are themselves, debatable, and it just doesn’t leave a curious linguist with any satisfaction, a bit like eating at McDonalds.

It’s always close to convincing me, but nothing more.

JACK HOLLAND, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Everett, D. (2012). Language: The Cultural Tool. London: Profile Books.

McWhorter, J. H. (2014). The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sapir, E. (1958). Culture, Language and Personality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Whorf, B. L. (1940). Science and Linguistics. Technology Review, 35, 229-31, 247-8.


‘Can we count on language influencing the way we think?’ asks OLIVER TAYLOR

Does language influence thought? Can we think without any linguistic influence at all? These questions present two conflicting stances in the debate as to whether or not language and thought do indeed share a relationship.

People who generally believe that there is a relationship between language and thought will mostly agree with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis is usually split into two forms, strong (linguistic determinism) and weak (linguistic relativism). Linguistic determinism, being the strong form of the argument, views thought as being completely determined by language. With no concrete evidence to prove that thought is determined by language, the weak form of the argument exists as a view of language only influencing thought, and not completely governing it. To argue against this hypothesis is to believe that language and thought share no connection. With no way to prove or disprove an influence of language and thought, let’s take a look at some key arguments for and against this relationship with a more focused look at those against.

In his research into the language usage of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe, Everett (2013) argues that a lack of number words in their language may affect the way the Pirahã think. They in fact do not count because of this absence of language. It’s hard to imagine a world without any concept of counting. Surely even without language for it there are ways of conveying number. Everett (2013: 256) concludes that “the Pirahãs do not count because they do not have number words” stating that this conclusion “would support the Whorf hypothesis”. This statement seems kind of obvious and leaves me feeling very underwhelmed by the conclusion. McWhorter (2014) responds that it’s no mystery that a lack of numbers “in the language of one group makes them bad at math”. Of course without language for numbers the concept of counting is void. McWhorter (2014) goes further to state that “hunter-gatherers don’t need to count, and thus often their languages have no word for the number 307”. You can’t just showcase a particular group’s restrictions in language and claim that therefore because there is no understanding of concepts around that particular language usage, their thoughts are influenced by language. If the Pirahã have no use for counting in their language, maybe it isn’t as fundamental to their lives as ours.

Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) argue that “thought does not require language” by giving examples of thought that couldn’t possibly be formulated as language in the brain, scenarios “in which children did not use spoken or sign language”. One example is of a girl reaching for candy in a grocery store. When she is told that she cannot have it by the mother, she throws a tantrum, “her mother’s cheeks flame, and she gives the girl the candy” (Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010: 51). Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) present the farfetched idea that because deaf children act in similar ways to other toddlers who are not “linguistically deprived” in scenarios like the example mentioned, they are able to think without linguistic input. I find this statement difficult to wholly agree with. There is no concrete way of truly knowing whether deaf children have developed without linguistic input just because they have not been diagnosed. We cannot know when a deaf child begins to interpret signs around them as a language, before conventional sign language is implemented into their life. Despite this obvious thought, Napoli and Lee-Schoenfield (2010) conclude that “there is no possibility […] that their thought is in a specific human language since they have not begun to acquire any specific human language”. It seems to me that they are just stating how things are with little evidence to support their claims.

With the problem being that “any influence of language on thought is difficult to prove or disprove empirically” (Deutscher, G. 2011: 20-22). I think we can only sit on the fence in this debate. The position of linguistic relativism seems a fair one to take as I believe language does influence thought to some extent, not completely. Since there’s no way to prove or disprove my position, it frustrates me to not be able to sufficiently argue it without holes being picked in backing theories, but I guess it’s better than having an extremist neo-Whorfian determinist view.

OLIVER TAYLOR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Everett, D. (2012). Language: The Cultural Tool. London: Profile Books.

Deutscher, G. (2011). Through the language lens: Why the world looks different in other languages. London: Arrow Books.

McWhorther, J. H. (2014). The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Napoli, D. J., & Lee-Schoenfeld, V. (2010). Language Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


How far can language really influence our thoughts? EMILY PAGE investigates

There’s an on-going debate questioning whether our language can limit our thought processes. The distinct syntactic and lexical differences between different native languages are obvious, but do speakers of these languages think in different ways because of this? Ultimately, it’s a chicken-and-egg question – are we unable to think of things because we lack words for them, or do we lack words for things we don’t think about? It’s been proposed that an absence of vocabulary for a concept would inhibit our ability to think about it. But is language really hindering our ability to think to this extent?

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf believed they had all the answers with what became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The strong version of this hypothesis  is known as ‘linguistic determinism’ i.e. that our thoughts are totally determined by our language, with the linguistic system as “the shaper of ideas” (Whorf and Carroll, 1956). Such a strong proposal would be needing some solid evidence. Whorf argued that due to Inuits’ prolific number of words for snow, they view it in a different way to English speakers who only have the one word – ‘snow’ (cited in Pastorino & Doyle-Portillo, 2011, p.283). Further support for linguistic determinism comes from the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon who apparently have no number word in their lexicon. Despite attempts to teach the Pirahã to count, they are unable to learn to do so. But if our language entirely determines our thoughts, then without it we would be unable to think? I’m not convinced, and neither is McWhorter (2014). He argues that English speakers do have more words for ‘snow’ such as ‘blizzard’, ‘sleet’, ‘flurry etc., and a hunter-gather tribe like the Pirahã have no need for the word ‘116’ or to do long division.

A more considerable, weaker version of the hypothesis is linguistic relativity. This is the idea that our language merely influences our thoughts and that the language spoken by a person guides the way they see the world (Beek, 2006). Evidence for this idea comes from how Russians distinguish light- blue (‘goluboy’) and dark-blue (‘siniy’), compared to the one term (‘blue’) which is held in English. A study asking English and Russian participants to match squares which were perceptually identical in colour, showed that having different terms for dark/light blue results in people differentiating those colours more quickly (Winawer, Witthoft, Frank, Wu, Wade, & Boroditsky, 2007). In terms of linguistic relativity, this shows that language does influence the way we see/differentiate colours. However, it goes without saying that McWhorter (2014) has a view on this. He makes the point that we all know the difference between light-blue and dark-blue, but we don’t need separate words for them. He also discusses the Namibia people of Africa who only have one single term for both ‘green’ and ‘blue’. They obviously know the difference between the two colours and found the idea of having two separate words ‘silly’. Support which I feel does have some scope in terms of linguistic relativity is Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams’ (2013) consideration of gender-marked languages. A study requiring German and Spanish participants to describe different nouns using English adjectives, showed how both nationalities described masculine-marked words using adjectives with masculine connotations, and vice versa. This is a clear demonstration of how language influences how we view things.

There is also huge support for the idea that there is no connection between language and thought. Pinker slates the Sapir- Whorf hypothesis, suggesting it is “all wrong” (1994, p. 57). Gethin (1999) points out how we are able to think about concepts which we have no words or symbol for. For example, the Ghanaian word for ‘moving hot food around in your mouth’ is ‘pelinti’ (Buzzfeed, 2015). Despite our lack of vocabulary for this concept, we remain able to think about it, it is just expressed with lower codability (how easily language can express a thought) (West & Turner, 2008). I can’t help but think it’s unlikely that language and thought have no connection at all since, as Gethin (1999) points out himself, without thought we would be unable to produce language.

For me, linguistic determinism can be written off as an improbable contribution to this language debate. Linguistic relativity seems a more significant proposal and the evidence for language influencing thought seems more likely. I personally believe that our language does affect how we see the world to an extent but our experiences and culture also play an important role. In my opinion, Birner offers the best explanation of the relationship between language and thought: “It seems likely that language, thought and culture form three strands of a braid, with each one affecting the others” (1999, www.linguisticsociety.org).

EMILY PAGE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Beek, W. (2006). “Linguistic relativism: Variants and misconceptions”. Retrieved 2 December 2015 

Birner, B. (1999). Linguistic Society of America. [Weblog]. Retrieved 1 December 2015

Buzzfeed.com. (2015). BuzzFeed. Retrieved 3 December, 2015

Fromkin. V, Rodman, R. & Hyams, N. (2013). An Introduction to Language. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: Harper.

West, R., & Turner, L. (2008). Understanding Interpersonal Communication: Making Choices in Changing Times (2nd Ed). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning

Whorf, B. I, & Carroll, J. B. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A. R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007).  Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences of the United States of America, 104(19), 7780-5.


Will we ever know how language and thought are connected? HANNAH NESBITT gives it some thought.

After decades of theories and criticisms, just what is the connection between language and thought? This blog summarises the three main viewpoints: linguistic determinism, linguistic relativity and no-connection, acknowledging critiques encountered along the way.

Linguistic determinism is the belief that a speaker’s native language determines how they perceive the world. Like a train track that dictates the route of a train, our world perception is trapped by what is and is not possible in our language. Presently dismissed due to a lack of feasibility, Whorf famously justified this theory by referring to the language of the Inuits. Inuits possess a mass of snow-related vocabulary and this, Whorf argued, causes them to perceive snow in ways that English speakers, with their ‘lone’ word for the substance, cannot (see Whorf 1940 in Carroll, 1956, p.216).

This controversial outlook has since been met with numerous critics. Pullum (1991) rejects any notion that English speakers have a single word for snow, confirming English snow-related lexis such as: ‘slush’, ‘sleet’, ‘hair’ and ‘frost’ (see p.163). Pullum also references Boas (1911) to illustrate how additional words are created though the modification of the root word ‘snow’ i.e. ‘snowflake’, ‘fluffy snow’, ‘good-packing snow’ etc. (see Pullum, 1991, p.163). Similarly, Garnham & Oakhill (1994) use the example of skiers to demonstrate that the reason for the Inuits’ snow-heavy vocabulary is not because of a difference in their concepts of snow, but because of their environmental requirements (see Lund 2003, p. 14). They state that skiers have a snow-full vocabulary but that this is different again to Inuits due to their differing surroundings (see Garnham & Oakhill 1994, cited by Lund 2003, p. 14). This point is reiterated further by Pastorino & Doyle-Portillo who argue that “researchers have found that despite significant differences in language, cognitive processing of information is often very similar across cultures.”(2011, p.283).

The other, less extreme half of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that “[w]e see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation” (Sapir, 1929, p.207). Linguistic relativity judges language to not determine thought, but to influence it. Evidence to support this theory can be found when observing the way that speakers of gender marked languages percieve the world. Fromkin, Rodmano, Hyams, (2013) give the example of a study which required Spanish and German speakers label the word ‘bridge’ with English adjectives (p.24). The results found that speakers described the word using adjectives which possessed connotations in line with its grammatical gender e.g. Spanish speakers labelled the femininely-marked bridge as “beautiful, elegant [and] fragile” and German speakers defined their masculine-marked bridge as “big dangerous [and][…] strong” (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, 2013, p.24).  Here the influence that gender-marked languages have on a speaker’s perception of the world is clearly exhibited.

Despite this, some linguists still dismiss the language and thought connection all together. Pinker (1994) rejects the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, raising problematic matters such as the invention of novel words, which would be unfeasible if thought was reliant on language (see pp.57-58). Instead, Pinker puts forward the idea of ‘mentalese’, an “internal language upon which the expressed language draws” (Birtchnell, 2003, p.178). To demonstrate this claim, Pinker gives the example of writing a sentence that doesn’t accuraely express what we intended it to; this intended expression is the “language of thought” (1994, p.57). Defined by Birtchnell (2003) as “the ideas, meanings and concepts that lie behind the words, to which the words give expression” (p.178), Pinker highlights the more straightforward nature of mentalese with “constructions (like a and the) [being] absent” (1994, pp.82).

Although seemingly sounder than linguistic determinism, this theory also has its critics. As Gethin (1999) points out, a potentially problematic issue with Pinker’s mentalese is that “if words such as a and the do not exist in Mentalese, how can they arise in languages humans actually use?” (p.39). Surely we can think about these articles when translating thought into verbal language, but then how would this be possible if the language of thought did not contain them? (see Gethin, 1999, p.40).

So what, if any, is the connection between language and thought? I have tried to provide a small insight into the vast research available and the most rational explanation encountered thus far, is that of Birner (1999). Birner uses the metaphor of a braid, with the three strands represented by language, thought and culture, to comment on how “each one affect[s] the others” (see Birner 1999). Surely there is a slight connection between language and thought, but how can we truly prove that our language determines, influences or has no connection to our worldly perception?

HANNAH NESBITT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Birner, B. (1999). Linguistic Society of America. [Weblog]. Retrieved 1 December 2015

Birtchnell, J. (2003). The Two of Me: The Rational Outer Me and the Emotional Inner Me. New York: Routledge.

Boas, F. (1911). Introduction to The handbook of’ North American Indians, Vol. I , Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 40, 1 , Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Reprinted by Georgetown University Press, Washington D.C. (c. 1963) and by University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska (1966).

Fromkin. V, Rodman, R. & Hyams, N. (2013). An Introduction to Language. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Garnham, A & Oakhill, J. (1994). Thinking and Reasoning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gethin. A. (1999). Language and Thought: A Rational Enquiry Into Their Nature and Relationship. Exeter, UK: Intellect Ltd.

Lund, N. (2003) Language and thought. London: Routledge.

Pastorino, E. E & Doyle-Portillo, S. M. (2011). What is psychology? (3rd ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: Harper.

Pullum, G. K. (1991). The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 159-171.

Sapir, E. (1929). Language. New York, USA: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Whorf, B.L. (1940/1956). Science and linguistics. Technology Review, 42, 8, 229-231, 247-248. Reprinted in Carroll, J.B. (Ed.), Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (pp. 207-219). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

‘Can I say that?’ The dichotomy of ‘Political Correctness’ and Free Speech, by RICHARD STOTT

Emotions have always run high in the debate surrounding ‘Political Correctness’, ever since its rise from an American culture obsessed with freedom of speech in the 1980s. Let’s first consider the positive motive behind the idea. ‘PC’ is a phenomenon which seeks to demonstrate “progressive ideals, esp by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgmental, esp concerning race and gender” as defined in the Collins Dictionary. However, from a philosophical perspective, how do we actually place a restrictive boundary on what we can and can’t say in language?

In recent years, stand-up comedians are just one group to have suffered in an age of sensitive language. A few days ago, Newsweek reported the views of comedian Jim Norton from a documentary issuing concern about stand-up comedy and the policing of speech. Norton sensitively regards this hot topic as no laughing matter, claiming the offence taken from those labelled ‘PC zealots’ to be ridiculous. Norton claims: “If you think you have the right not to be offended, either change the parameters of what offends you or realize you’re wrong. Those are your two choices.”

There is a sense of emotive hyperbole in his words, but how annoying must it be when people are oversensitive and can’t take mere jokes? However, you could say Norton is playing with fire drawing material from topics areas such as ‘transsexuality’ and ‘body dysmorphia’. Although, aside from Norton who seems to embrace offensive comedy, other comedians are ever more conscious of crossing such boundaries, concerned that with the technology available to audiences today, they will be publically shamed in doing so.

Along with stand-up comedians, many other groups find themselves at the centre of a war with ‘PC’, particularly within the social network Twitter. In April 2013, American football quarterback Robert Griffin tweeted “[i]n a land of freedom we are held hostage by the tyranny of political correctness”. Subsequently, the tweet went viral and has over 13,000 retweets and almost 6000 likes, displaying the sheer number of support for the claim that ‘PC’ is suppressing free speech which should be a given right. Additionally, there is an emotional, personified notion that ‘PC’ binds language use against our will. Politician Donald Trump has also been criticised for a number of tweets in the media, and is openly averse to ‘PC’ conformity. For instance, he tweeted “[s]o many ‘politically correct’ fools in our country. We have to all get back to work and stop wasting time and energy on nonsense”, supporting the pejorative mood surrounding ‘PC’, and disregarding it as human oversensitivity.

To flip the coin, Lindy West reported last month in the Guardian, that “Political Correctness doesn’t hinder free speech [but] expands it”. The article instantly attracted public attention with almost 12,500 shares to date on various social networks, due to the presentation of ‘PC’ in a completely opposite light. Details of the report claim ‘PC’ enhances free speech for ‘marginalised groups’ rather than ‘the status quo’. For example, Lindy sheds light on the culture war within the American university system when she claims that “[i]f you’re genuinely concerned about ‘free speech’, take a step back and look at what’s actually happening here: a bunch of college students, on the cusp of finding their voices, being publicly berated by high-profile writers in national publications because they don’t like what they have to say. Are you sure you know who’s silencing whom?”

Instances of journalists and right wing elites exercising their power over the speech used from students have made campuses a hostile environment. For example, ‘silencing tactics’ used against American students have triggered backlashes. Lindy questions how ‘PC’ is suppressing speech as evident protests show they know their given right in the first amendment permitting them to exercise their voices.

The past few decades can be characterised by Western society’s ever growing concern in a number of sensitive areas. However, to stay neutral, isn’t it time we accept that the control and conformity ‘PC’ enforces is essential to keep order in language, and suppress anarchy across highly sensitive domains? Let’s think rationally, open up to understanding different cultural and social relationships, and in turn consider ‘PC’ in specific contexts to channel our language more positively for others. With this in mind, let’s not naively dismiss the concept comprehensively, screaming the wild claim… ‘PC has gone mad!’ We should assess each case individually, and attempt to stay neutral on a unique phenomenon. ‘Political Correctness’ draws so much pejorative attention due to sensitive propagandists abusing the system, that we quickly overlook the positive intention at its core, and its essential presence embedded within a language which would run far too freely without it.

RICHARD STOTT, English language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Gillespie, N. (2015, November 26). Political Correctness Gone Mad. It’s No Laughing Matter. Newsweek. Retrieved December 01, 2015.

Griffin, R. (2013). Twitter. Retrieved November 19, 2015.

Hughes, G. (2010). Political Correctness: A history of semantics and culture. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Political Correctness. (2015). Collins Dictionary Online.

Trump, D. J. (2015). Twitter. Retrieved December 04 2015.

West, L. (2015, November 15). ‘Political correctness’ doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. The Guardian.

DOMINIQUE HITCHEN asks: ‘Has political correctness taken a word too far?’

Political correctness is, and probably always will be, a contested issue. For a long time now, political correctness has been considered by many as a restriction of speech, a control mechanism and a total waste of time. But to what extent are these views entirely true?

Political correctness (PC) is defined by the OED as “[t]he avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against” (The Oxford Dictionary of English, 2015). Nothing wrong here. It can just be summarized as being nice to each other.

There are many views that support this definition. Yes, they were much harder to find but I found them… eventually.

Hugh Muir (The Guardian, 2009) describes PC as “a good thing” and continues to explain reasons for using PC – “[…] to have respect, to be civil, to be inclusive, to avoid unnecessary offence, to try to act to give the various sections of society equal opportunities”. Sounds great! Views like this are also linked with the discussions about the relationship between language and thought. Hughes (2010, pp. 62) portrays the idea that PC is “[…] not just doing the right thing but thinking the right thoughts”, suggesting that by using PC language it will encourage the users to construct better thoughts. Okay… somehow I don’t believe this. We still think the ‘politically incorrect’ terms, we just try and figure out a better way to say it. So is it just me that thinks thoughts don’t change with language?

Anyway, on the other side of the fence, some views about PC contradict and disagree with all of the above. Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail (2012) points out that political correctness is not a fair system; it is one rule for one and one rule for another; “[…] others manage to get away with vile remarks — while still others are attacked for the use of words whose meaning has been wrenched out of context”. Other remarks range from PC limiting our human right to freedom of speech to PC acting as a control mechanism (debate.org, 2015). Ally Ross in The Sun (2012) simply states “[t]here is…no limit to the stupidity or madness of…political correctness”. Very emotive – but how have we got to this point in the debate?

Political correctness has changed as regards to meaning, relation and interpretation. In earlier years, PC was consider to consist of strict guidelines that were believed to be important and universal; “[…] in the 1980s, PC was very serious. It didn’t do jokes” (Sawyer, 2012), whereas, today people tend not to be so ‘serious’ about it. Sawyer (2012) later explains a bus journey where she hears teenagers calling each other ‘politically incorrect’ labels. In the defence of political correctness, I think it is much more effective within professions and in the public eye; teachers, tutors, presenters, comedians and many more, have to be extra careful in what they say as it could offend pupils and listeners and cause various disputes. However, as regards non-professional people, PC is a broad term which doesn’t really mean as much to us. Without us knowing, I think we are ‘politically correct’. We try and say things in different ways to try not to cause offence. Basically political correctness, right? Political correctness and its meaning changes from person to person, from generation to generation and will continue to change throughout the years. There will be no regularity regarding political correctness nor two views that are the same. The opinions that relate to PC create anxieties about language. People will begin to say not what they want but what they believe people want to hear. What kind of society is that?

As a generation, there will always be a divide between those who believe political correctness is what shapes our thought and creates a harmonious society and those that see PC as a restriction of our human rights. It is not what we say, it is what people infer from what we say The connotations that relate to what has been said. How far people take what is said out of context to be offensive. Are we being too sensitive? Has political correctness gone that word, phrase, sentence too far? Maybe PC is just infinity….

DOMINIQUE HITCHEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Debate.Org. (2015). Is political correctness a good thing? 

Hughes, G. (2010). Political Correctness: A history of semantics and culture. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell

Muir, H. (2009, December 21). In defence of political correctness. 

Phillips, M. (2012, January 9). Tourettes and how David Cameron fell victim to the ‘sensitivity police’. Retrieved from Daily Mail.

Ross, A. (2012, January 11). Premier Bin, Len.  Retrieved from The Sun

Sawyer, M. (2012, January 8). Your Mum is so fat: when she fell in love she broke it. Retrieved from Observer Magazine.

The Oxford Dictionary of English. (2015). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Orwellian Newspeak or respect for others? CHRISTINA SOMMERVILLE explores ‘political correctness’

The debate on political correctness can be a sore subject for most, as it is such a controversial topic on which everyone seems to have a different opinion. It has been simmering away for decades, however, it seems that the debate has reached its peak in the 21st Century. Social media, online newspaper comment sections, blogs – these are all platforms for people from any background to express themselves, a modern luxury which gives everyone a voice.  Of course freedom of expression isn’t a bad thing, it is our legal right after all, but the controversy lies in the way we utilise our freedom of expression. In the following, I will be addressing both sides of the argument regarding political correctness from a primarily linguistic perspective, drawing on modern topical issues to support my arguments.

Merriam-Webster.com (2015) defines political correctness as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people” whereas Collinsdictionary.com (2015) defines it as “demonstrating progressive ideals, esp. by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgemental, esp. concerning race and gender.” Both definitions ultimately state a very similar point, however there are subtle differences between the two. Notice how Merriam-Webster.com say “to not use language or behave in a way that could offend […]”. This suggests that we should restrict our language and behaviour and eliminate words from our language that could, at any time, cause offence, even where offence wasn’t intended. Collinsdictionary.com address the definition slightly differently, as they use terms such as “demonstrating progressive ideals”, and “avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive…”. Unlike Merriam-Webster.com, Collins-dictionary.com has more of a descriptive approach, suggesting that our language should expand and adapt to our modern culture, that we should avoid certain vocabulary which is already deemed as offensive in today’s society. These two definitions represent the two main arguments I am addressing. Has political correctness gone that far that we need to eliminate words from our vocabulary and be conscious of our language at all times in case we cause offense? Or should we celebrate the positive influences and progression that political correctness has brought to our language?

The BBC caused outrage when it was revealed that they had edited out the word ‘girl’ in their coverage of the Commonwealth Games, in which Mark Beaumont said “I am not sure I can live that down – being beaten by a 19-year-old-girl” (Marsden, 2014). Some members of the public reacted, saying that it is “finding offence where none is taken” (Marsden, 2014) whereas the BBC felt that they needed to edit the word out ‘just in case’. This is where political correctness goes too far. The media have an immense privilege in that what they publish or broadcast does influence/manipulate the thoughts and behaviors of its recipients, however this time the BBC were trying too hard to remain politically correct by conjuring up an issue that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Browne (2006, p.49) summarizes this point, stating that “[o]ne tactic of political correctness is to follow the Orwellian Newspeak approach of trying to eliminate thoughts by eliminating the words, or even unintended associations.”

If we read Uuganaa Ramsay’s blog “The Meaning of Mongol” (Ramsay, 2014) we see how one word, “Mongol”, can be received so differently depending on the context. Initially, the term was used in a derogatory way to describe people with Down’s syndrome before a diagnosis had been discovered, because the physical appearances of the Down’s syndrome patients (then known simply as “idiots”) were similar to those of Mongols. Ramsay’s main point in this article is to use the term as it is intended, the name of a race, rather than as an insult. Here we see a positive use of politically correct language, as instead of blaming people for using the term or wanting the term abolished, she understands that some people are unaware of the etymology of the term and hopes that, by making them aware, the usage of the term will change over time. Hughes (2009, p.3) makes a point which summarises Ramsay’s views quite well, that political correctness is a “…slightly puritanical intervention to sanitize the language by suppressing some of its uglier prejudicial features, thereby undoing some past injustices […] with the hope of improving social relations.”  The main point to take away from both arguments is that context is key. A word is just letters, it is just a signifier. The offence is caused when the word is given meaning when used in a particular context.

CHRISTINA SOMMERVILLE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Browne, A. (2006). The retreat of reason. London: Civitas.

Collinsdictionary.com,. (2015). Definition of “politically correct” | Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved 8 December 2015.

Hughes, Geoffrey. (2009). Political Correctness. Wiley-Blackwell. 

Marsden, S. (2014). BBC mauled for ruling ‘girl’ is offensive word. Mail Online. Retrieved 8 December 2015.

Merriam-webster.com,. (2015). politically correct | agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people. Retrieved 8 December 2015.

Ramsay, U. (2014). The meaning of Mongol – BBC News. BBC News. Retrieved 8 December 2015.