Are we imprisoned by our language? GEORGINA GUY joins the linguistic relativity debate.

Imagine you were born in a prison. You’d be unable to escape the restrictions of your cell, unable to experience things outside of your confinement, unable to even think about concepts beyond the surrounding four walls. What if I told you that the language you speak is that prison, restraining you from having experiences outside of the limits of your language? This is, after all, the strongest version of Edward Sapir’s and Benjamin Whorf’s renowned hypothesis, that language completely determines how we think about the world.

A less dramatic, and frankly more credible, version of their hypothesis is that language influences how we think about the world around us: it’s known as linguistic relativity (Hussein, 2012, p. 642). In other words, the language we speak can strongly influence how we live our lives! Just imagine that your language didn’t have words for numbers, just like the Pirahã tribe in Brazil (Everett, 2013, p. 260). Try to get your head around not being able to count how many pets you have! Or picture yourself alone in the middle of a forest at night, without your mobile phone, but knowing exactly where due north is, just like speakers of the Australian aboriginal tongue Guugu Yimithirr can do, because their language uses compass points instead of left or right (Nomikou, 2016).

On the one hand, linguistic relativity seems a very plausible theory, when we take into consideration the differences between languages. As I’m sure you’re aware, all languages have different structures, including different words, grammatical constructions, and pronunciations (Hussein, 2012, p. 642). But does this cause people to categorise the world around them, and therefore think about things, differently?

One study you may not know about that supports the existence of linguistic relativity involves the (I originally assumed universal!) difference between a mug and a cup. To me at least, a mug is made of enamel, has a handle and can hold hot drinks, whilst a cup is plastic and handleless. The Spanish language though doesn’t have this difference, so its speakers call both objects “una taza”. In an interesting experiment by Boutonnet, Dering, Viñas-Guasch and Thierry (2013), 13 native Spanish speakers and 14 native English speakers had their brain activity monitored whilst detecting differences between different objects. What they found supports the existence of linguistic relativity, as none of the Spanish speakers detected a difference between a mug and a cup, because their language doesn’t have this distinction. Who would have thought that language can influence how we categorise and think about even simple objects we use every day?

Other linguists disagree with the concept of linguistic relativity, and claim language doesn’t affect how we perceive things, as it’s merely a way to express what you’re thinking (Bloom & Keil, 2001, pp. 363-364). So, the differences between languages can be compared to a game of Chinese whispers: parts of the original message may be altered when passed between speakers, or when translated from one language to another. I wonder whether emojis could get the same message across, or is language really necessary?

Something else to consider is whether cultures influence language more than languages influence culture. Thinking back to the Pirahã language, which I mentioned before, does this not include numbers simply because their culture doesn’t need them (McWhorter, 2014, p. 16)?

Another argument is that we can still grasp concepts that we don’t have words for in our language. Gaining weight after binge-eating whilst emotional is known as “kummerspeck” in German, and whilst the English language doesn’t have a word for that, we can still understand the idea (and may even know how it feels!). Similarly, we have a film titled ‘The Day after Tomorrow’, a concept which translates to the one word “zeg” in Georgian. My German friend can still understand the concept of a fortnight, even though her language doesn’t have a specific word for it, as they instead use “vierzehn Tage”, or 14 days. If linguistic relativity is correct, then I should be better than her at tracking the timespan of a fortnight because English has a word for it. In my own experience, this isn’t the case; we both perceive the concept of a fortnight in the same way, and the different languages we speak don’t affect this.

So then, is language a prison-cell, restricting what we can think about? Is Wittgenstein (1921, p. 74) right to say that “[t]he limits of my language mean the limits of my world”? Or is language instead a thing of beauty, shaped by cultures and life experiences, which allows us to think about infinite concepts from all around the world?

GEORGINA GUY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bloom, P. & Keil, F. C. (2001). Thinking through language. Mind & Language, 16(4), 351-367.

Boutonnet, B., Dering, B., Viñas-Guasch, N., & Thierry, G. (2013). Seeing objects through the language glass. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(10), 1702–1710.

Everett, D. (2013). Language: The cultural tool. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books Ltd.

Hussein, B. A. S. (2012). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis today. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2(3), 642-646.

McWhorter, J. H. (2014). The language hoax: Why the world looks the same in any language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Nomikou, P. (2016, April 1). Language and thought [Video file].

Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company Inc.



Is the self wrapped up in language or does the concept of the selfie exist outside of the word? GEORGE MORRIS engages in some self-reflection

Have you ever thought about how you think? Ever wondered if I know what you know? I know that you know, that I know that you know.

“What is a thought without a voice to voice it?” Reynolds (2010) asks. But another question is: ‘would we have any given thought if not for our language in which we construct them?’ Academics are often torn by the two potential answers to this question – either our thoughts are determined by the constraints of our language, or the thoughts can still exist outside the barriers of verbal communication. However, the pedantic linguists among us, such as Lund (2003) describe a ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ version of something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – where all the brain straining commotion stems from. For example Whorf writes, “[w]e dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it” (1956). The ‘strong’ form of this theory, as described by Lund (2003) states, “language determines thought”, whereas the ‘weak’ form suggests “language influences thought”.  The language and thought can of worms cracked and spilled, it allows us to decide how we approach the vastly complex understanding of whether we believe language is a proverbial ‘straight-jacket’.

Bloom and Keil write: “nobody doubts that language can inform, convince, persuade, soothe, dismay, encourage and so on […]” (2001, p.351) to which Evans agrees arguing that “it is a truism, then, that language influences thought: we do so almost every time we use language.” (2014, p.193). In everyday life, the influence of language is evident – education, politics, work place, or even our romantic and personal lives. The way we function and interact with the world around us, and especially other people, is widely influenced by our language system. This view of language and thought is described as ‘determinism’ (Evans and Green, 2006). Lamarque writes that “[w]ithout language there would be no possibility of abstract thought or even perhaps self-reflection” (1997, p.1). The potentially depressing subject of ‘self-reflection’ could however lead to a different approach to the language and thought debate: what if language holds little influence on our thought? What if our cultural exposure and worldview play a part in our thought conceptualisation?

Pinker disagrees with the idea of determinism, arguing that “[t]he idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called conventional absurdity […] there is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking…” (1994).  So in opposition to determinism is the idea that ‘universals’ (Evans & Green, 2006, p.54) exist and concepts of objects, actions or even numeric values would still be present in a linguistically void hypothetical society. Bloom describes human thought to be responsive: “[t]here is no such thing as thought. There is only behaviour. The things humans say, the operations they perform, the reactions they have, and the acts in which they engage constitute nothing more than an integration of the responses that they have been forced to make” (1981, p.4). Thought could be perceived by the universalists as a response to the world around them. If there is a need to do something or react to something happening then the thought process will occur. For example, in communities where language does not exist to describe colour it does not mean the concept is void – rather the community may have a description or unique phrase to determine the concept. Everett describes his research into the Pirahã tribe who use language to describe colour concepts in a different way to English speakers: “[e]ach word for colour in Pirahã was actually a phrase. For example, biísai did not mean simply ‘red’. It was a phrase that meant ‘it is like blood’.” (2013, p.257).

Furthermore, the invention of new words to describe new concepts also defies the notion of linguistic determinism. In modern society, the Oxford English Dictionary is continuously updated in order to ‘keep up’ with an ever-changing Web.20 society. With words like ‘selfie’ (a photo of oneself), ‘binge-watching’ (watching many or all episodes of a TV series in rapid succession), and ‘humblebrag’ (to make a modest statement that intends to draw attention to one’s admirable qualities) are now officially part of our modern vocabulary. Surely this could suggest that language is warped around culture and thought?

Personally, I believe that language does shape our day-to-day lives and thoughts, albeit influentially and not totally. Although we can influence and plant seeds of thought into our peer’s own worldview, we still need new language to describe our ever-changing culture… Or maybe the whole language and thought debate is just one big ‘facepalm’ (to cover one’s face with the hand as an expression of exasperation).

GEORGE MORRIS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bloom, A. (1981). The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: a study in the impact on thinking in China and The West. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawerence Erlbaum Associates.

Bloom, P. & Keil, F.C. (2001). Thinking through language. Mind and Language 16(4) 351-367.

Evans, V. (2014). The language myth: why language is not an instinct. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, V. & Green, M. (2006). Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Everett, D. (2013). Language, Culture and Thinking. London: Profile Books.

Lamarque, P. (1997). Concise Encyclopaedia of Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Kidlington: Elesevier Science Ltd.

Lund, N. (2003). Language and Thought. (1st ed.). London, United Kingdom: New York: Routledge.

Reynolds, R. (2010). Tribalism. Retrieved April 7, 2017, from

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: United States of America. Penguin: Penguin Science.

Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality.


Are thought and language divorced from each other or destined for inextricable coupling? ISOBEL STANFORD acts as arbiter.

Language and Thought – the most controversial linguistic couple of the 21st century. The relationship between language and thought is certainly a highly debated topic in the field of linguistics. The relationship between language and thought can be defined in the sense that language is used both to communicate with others and to monitor our internal thoughts, or as Harley (2001, p. 1) notes, “in some form or another it so dominates our social and cognitive activity that it would be difficult to imagine what life would be without it’. But that’s exactly it. How would we be able to communicate our thoughts and feelings without language?

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is probably the most well-known theory of the language and thought relationship. We will begin with the fact that there are two versions of this hypothesis. The first is the ‘strong’ version (also known as linguistic determinism) which states that language determines thought. Seems like a good idea in practice right? Wrong. The theory is that the language we speak determines the nature of our thoughts, including ideas and concepts that we are able to have (Lund, 2001, p. 11). It also proposes that thoughts are possible in one language but may not be possible in another. Obviously this sounds like a ridiculous idea because different languages do not necessarily lead to different thoughts about the same concept. A perfect example is the German word ‘Schadenfreude’. Everyone has that little bit of evil in them that takes pleasure in the misfortune of others. Speakers of other languages recognise the concept without needing to have a word for it (Bryson, 1990, p. 4).

To put this into context a little, I will discuss the people of the Pirahã tribe. Everett (2005) noted that members of the tribe do not have numbers within their language. This means that they do not have the concept of being able to count. This side of the argument would say that this is because their language has determined their thoughts leading to them not being aware that numbers exist. If a language lacks a certain concept such as numbers, the question to be answered is whether or not lacking these concepts affects their lives in any way? It can be argued that if they do not know that this concept exists, they are not ‘missing out’ as it signals that they do not need this concept to live their lives. I mean it must be a good tactic to play down how many children you have!

The second is the ‘weak’ version (also known as linguistic relativism) which states that language influences thought. This means that language has a more subtle effect on thought and only influences what we perceive or remember about events or objects. This relates to the idea that if you have a word for something in your language you are more likely to recognise it and remember it than someone who does not have it in their language. Hunt and Agnoli (1991, p.377) have claimed that the hypothesis that language influences thought is so vague that it is unprovable. It seems that it is hard to distinguish whether studies relating to this identify whether perception or memory are being investigated.

Davidoff et al (1999) studied the Berinmo language of Papua New Guinea and identified a colour boundary in English (between blue and green) that does not exist in Berinmo. They also identified a similar colour boundary that exists in Berinmo (between ‘nol’ and ‘wor’) that does not exist in English. Those involved were asked to remember a colour over 30 seconds then to select it from two similar alternatives. The English speakers showed an advantage for blue-green decisions and Berinmo showed an advantage for nol-wor decisions. Davidoff et al (1999, p.204) claim that their results are “consistent with there being a considerable degree of linguistic influence on colour categorisation” and therefore support the weak side of the hypothesis.

Which side would you take in this controversial argument? I and many others are in support for the ‘weak’ side of the argument and this is simply because the ‘strong’ side is simply too abstract in what it believes. Linguistic relativism does have its drawbacks too though and these should not be forgotten. The arguments for the ‘weak’ side of the argument are exactly that – weak. The reasons for this are that there is a lack of tangible evidence for this form.

Language affects thought or thought affects language… Who really knows the answer to this million dollar question?

ISOBEL STANFORD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bryson, B. (1990). Mother tongue (1st ed.). London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

Davidoff, J., Davies, I., and Robertson, D. (1999). Colour categories in a stone-age tribe. Nature, 398, 203-204

Everett, D. (2005). Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã. Current Anthropology 46 (4). 621-646.

Harley, T., A. (2001). The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory (2nd ed.). Hove, United Kingdom: Psychology Press.

Hunt, E., and Agnoli, F. (1991). The Whorfian hypothesis: a cognitive psychological perspective. Psychological Review, 98, 377-389.

Lund, N. (2003). Language and thought (1st ed.). Hove, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Is language and thought just another chicken and egg situation? CHARLOTTE SCOTT ponders snow, colours and glass stains.

The relationship between language and thought has been debated for centuries by linguists. A good way of explaining this complex topic is to think of translating a joke into another language … no matter how hard you try, the joke is never complete until the very last detail. Linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf tried to make sense of the dilemma and were subsequently labelled the originators of what became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis supports the notion that language strongly influences thought and “that language influences the way people perceive and think about the world” (Lund, 2003, p. 10). It is important to note that they did not formally write a hypothesis nor support it with empirical evidence. Other linguists built on the original ideas which were put forward by Sapir & Whorf to form the linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism hypotheses.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis (this can be very complicated) and two versions were recognised. “The ‘strong’ version is that language determines thought […] [and] [t]he ‘weak’ version is that language influences thought” (Lund, 2003, p. 11). The strong version includes many ideas and concepts that we have. Thoughts which are possible in one language may not be possible in another. If you have a word for something in your language, you are more likely to recognise and remember it. For example, “the Italians even have a word for the mark left on a table by a moist glass (culacino)” (Bryson, 2009, p. 4) whereas in English language we do not. Whorf (1956) noted that Inuits use a range of words for ‘snow’ to indicate its category. Try and pronounce the following examples: ‘katiyana’ – night snow, and ‘kiln’ – remembered snow (James, 2017). Lenneberg and Roberts (1956) criticised this theory as it was a circular argument which assumed that “because languages differ, thinking must differ” (as cited in Lund, 2003, p. 13). Think back to those wintery nights, how would you describe snow? Slushy, thick or thin? Does this demonstrate that in the English language we do have variations?

The weak version is broken down into two sections. Firstly, language influences perception and secondly language influences memory (Miller & McNeil, as cited in Lund, 2003, p. 14). Carmichael et al. (1932) supported the weakest form and they showed participants a series of nonsense pictures with a verbal label. This seemed to influence the memory of these nonsense pictures, showing the influence of language on the memory of objects. The second theory links to the way that different languages name and divide colours into categories. Berlin & Kay (1969) compared the basic colour terms that were used in 98 different languages. If a language had two terms they would use black and white but if a language had six terms black, white, red, yellow, blue and green would be used. They were used systematically and the 11 basic colour terms were called the focus colours. People usually pick out the same 11 colours regardless of the colour terms in their language. Can you name all the 11 colours or are you on the conflicting side of the debate?

On the opposing side is the linguistic determinism hypothesis. It is often referred to as “‘the prison house view of language’” (Mooney & Evans, 2015, p. 28). This theory claims that language and thought are separate entities and “[i]f a linguistic sign is not available for a particular concept, that concept is difficult […] for the speaker to imagine” (Mooney & Evans, 2015, p.28).  It is believed that different cultures are shaped by different social interactions and experiences. They would therefore have a language that reflects the perception of their habitat because our thought processes originate from the experiences of our culture. For example, “Italian is the language of love” (Evans, 2014, p. 192). This shows a distinct characteristic of languages due to the way their native speakers think. Political correctness (sorry to add another dimension at this late point) could be described as a social phenomenon. The society and culture we are born into may determine whether we think a word is offensive or not. This shows that we are shaping our language because of the world around us.

So how is language and thought connected? And does language affect how you think? At this rate language and thought will become another chicken and egg situation, so I think we will continue debating this for centuries!

CHARLOTTE SCOTT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Berlin, B. and Kay, P. (1969). Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Bryson, B. (2009). Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Carmichael, L., Hogan, P. and Walter, A. (1932). An experimental study of the effect of language on the reproduction of visually perceived forms. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 15, 1-22.

Evans, V. (2014). The Language Myth: Why Language is not an Instinct. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

James, P. (2017). Inuit Words for Retrieved 28 March 2017, from

Lund, N. (2003). Language and thought (1st ed.). London; New York: Routledge.

Mooney, A., & Evans, B. (2015). Language, society and power: An introduction (4th ed.). London: Routledge.

Whorf, B.L. (1956). Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writing of Benjamin Lee Whorf. New York: John Wiley.


Should we ever call women ‘girls’? CASSANDRA-RAE JONES explores whether this is respect or political correctness gone mad

When discussing the modern-day phenomena of PC-culture it is important to first look at the foundations this concept is built upon. Hughes (2010) traces its emergence to the communist doctrine and how the Communist Party focused on “doing the right thing” and “thinking the right thoughts”. He uses quotes from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung when demonstrating the initial meaning of ‘Political Correctness’. For example, the title of Mao’s 1929 edict “On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in The Party”, the verb phrase ‘Correcting Mistaken Ideas’ plainly claims that there are right and wrong opinions and the wrong opinions need ‘correcting’. This elucidates the context of Political Correctness and that its emergence is linked with controlling the Communist Party line, Hughes (2010).

Political Correctness is, as defined by Hughes (2010), a “sense of obligation or conformity in areas which should be (or are) matters of choice. Nevertheless, it has had a major influence on what is regarded as ‘acceptable’ or ‘appropriate’ in language, ideas, behavioural norms and values”. As well as this, Hughes notes the relationship Political Correctness has with offensive language when he states that “[m]ost people would frame answers along the lines of ‘It means not using words like n*gger, q*eer or c*ipple,’ or ‘It means showing respect to all,’ or ‘It means accepting and promoting diversity’”. However due to its controversial nature, definitions vary from author to author. As an example, Browne (2006) describes political correctness as a “system of beliefs and pattern of thoughts that permeates many aspects of modern life, holding a vice-like grip over public debate, deciding what can be debated and what the terms of debate are, and which government policies are acceptable and which aren’t”. These contrasting definitions and opinions show how polarising the concept of PC is.

Now that we have seen some definitions of Political Correctness, we can look at the connection between language and thought and how PC culture may or may not affect the two. Edna Andrews (1996) discusses a theory relating to language and thought, the well-known Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. She describes this theory as a “linguistic theory that claims each language creates a grid of reality that impresses some restrictions on the speaker’s perception of external (…) reality. The restrictions in perception by the speaker are defined by those linguistic categories that are nondistinctive in the speaker’s language”.

This theory suggests that language and thought are connected and that modifying language directly affects the way in which we think. Andrews (1996) uses an example to demonstrate this, claiming that if a male co-worker refers to a female co-worker by the noun ‘girl’ he is less likely to view her as equal to him. This is because the connotations associated with this noun implies that the male co-worker views her more like a young child than an adult. However if he is forced to replace ‘girl’ with the noun ‘woman’ he is more likely to view her as equal because of the use of his linguistic counterpart ‘woman’, which suggests he views her as an adult and hence his equal. She adds to this by saying that this change in language could be passed on to the younger generation and that “[t]he strong connection between language and thought is absolutely central to this line of reasoning, which holds that changing linguistic behaviour will lead to reducing social inequality”. Andrews highlights this as a positive way in which Political Correctness can be utilised. Alternatively, Browne (2006) claims that PC culture could lead to accusing people with differing opinions of “hidden and malign motives avoids the often intellectually and emotionally difficult task of engaging with their actual arguments”.

After researching this topic and reading a wide range of source material I would agree that altering someone’s language with ‘Politically Correct’ terms can alter the way in which people think about certain subjects. However, when looking at the history of PC culture I can understand the worry and concern about Political Correctness muting opinions and debate.

CASSANDRA-RAE JONES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Andrews, E. (1996). Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming. American Speech, vol. 71 (no. 4), pp. 389-404.

Berman, Paul (ed.). (1992). Debating PC: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses. New York: Laurel Press.

Browne, A. (2006). The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the corruption of public debate in modern Britain (2nd edition). London: Civitas.

Hughes, G. (2010).  Political CorrectnessA History of Semantics and Culture. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Oppressive thought control or controlling oppressive thoughts? EMMA ALDINGTON debates the pros and cons of political correctness

It’s no secret that people today are increasingly concerned about the rise of political correctness, fuelled particularly by newspapers and posts on social media. We hear that political correctness is ‘thought control’ or disregarding the ‘free speech’ that we so often take for granted in this country. There is a mass of polarised views when it comes to academics and PC. Michael Barnard describes the issue as “a new strain of ideological virus”, but Chomsky calls it “a healthy expansion of moral concern” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 90). It can be understood why those who have researched the history of political correctness might be troubled by the obsession the UK has with being ‘PC’. Its roots are embedded in Chinese communism and the dictatorship of it former leader Mao Tse-tung, but it’s important to remember that the term has since been revived by slightly different groups such as the American New Left and the feminist movement (Hughes, 2010, p. 60-69).

A study by Pearson (2005) investigated students gaining their PGCE qualification to work in secondary schools, and their attitudes towards terms such as ‘special educational needs’ and ‘disability’, and their subsequent language use when presented with the terms (p. 18). Pearson (2005) found that “inclusion was rarely mentioned […] and some of the responses were exclusionary and offensive” (p. 21), and suggested that the results raised “concerns about the adequacy of current provision” (p. 17). Of course, using inclusive terms for people with disabilities is just one small part of the political correctness debate, but this study highlights that there are issues in the way people are educated on the topic.

Cardiff Metropolitan University very recently published a ‘check-list’ of words and phrases that they wanted their student body to avoid, to ultimately avoid offending oppressed or minority groups such as people with disabilities and women. Their aim in this, as reported by Gray (2017), was to “make everyone on campus feel valued”, but there has been a backlash against this and some “accused [the university] of attacking free speech”.

This really raises the question alluded to in the title of this blog. Are the ‘PC brigade’ trying to control the population’s thoughts? There are two ways of answering that question, depending on who you are and what your general beliefs are. The first is that, yes, Cardiff Metropolitan and anyone else enforcing rules on others’ language are somewhat ‘controlling’ the way we speak, and ultimately the way we think. However, it also begs the question, why should we have a problem with avoiding terms that potentially cause distress or exclusion to others? Is it oppressive ‘thought-control’, or is it controlling oppressive thoughts? Both of these justified points are often thrown up in debates on the topic, which is why it is seen as so difficult to come to a definitive answer.

There’s the age-old expression, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” that often gets brought up by the defence when talking about being PC. Whilst this can remain true in some instances, it is vital to look at real-life scenarios where being politically incorrect and using offensive terms can turn into a scenario which is physical and violent. The Intelligence Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center is an American periodical which monitors activity of far-right groups across the US. They published statistics that since Donald Trump (known for his offensive language and politically incorrect phrases) announced he was running for president in 2015, there was a 14% rise in “extremist groups” (Alexandersen, 2017). That comes as no surprise. If we want to get specific, “the FBI reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes went up by 67% in 2015” (Potok, 2017). Not everyone will wish to extrapolate that data to Trump’s campaign and anti-Muslim rhetoric, but it is certainly food for thought.

This is an ongoing debate that we may never get an answer to, but it is important to remember that while sticks and stones may break your bones, words can hurt too.

EMMA ALDINGTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK



Alexandersen, C. (2017). Hate, extremists groups rose 3 percent in U.S. during divisive 2016: report.

Allan, K. & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gray, J. (2017). Cardiff Metropolitan University accused of censorship over ‘gender neutral’ language policy. Huff Post Young Voices

Hughes, G. (2010). Political correctness: a history of semantics and culture. Chichester, United Kingdom:Wiley-Blackwell.

Pearson, S. (2005). ‘SEN – a politically correct phrase to replace terms such as disabled?’ A study of the views of students entering a secondary PGCE course’. Support for Learning, 20(1), 17-21.


Has political correctness actually gone mad? KATE GREEN explores the relationship between PC and race

So, what is ‘political correctness’? Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky labels it as a “healthy expansion of moral concern”, while Michael Barnard calls it an “ideological virus” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.90). The Urban Dictionary even defines it as “an inverted fascist philosophy that absolutely no-one should conform to unless they are an ignorant, bleeding-heart liberal idiot” (Urban Dictionary, 2004), so it’s already clear that there’s a lot of debate around the subject.

One of the most pertinent issues surrounding the minefield of political correctness is that of race. Allan and Burridge suggest that moving forward with our language in a way which mirrors our progressive social change is to “[call] groups by the names they prefer” (2006, p.96). They provide the example of members of the black community wishing to be called “African Americans […] to emphasise not genetics or colour, but [their] historical roots” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.97). This development perhaps helps to embrace and create the identities of minority groups, rather than focusing merely on physical differences which set them apart. Surely moves such as these should be seen as a positive thing, rather than a “fascist philosophy”, as it’s designed to create a more inclusive and welcoming society? It has also been suggested that “political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. But for marginalised groups, rather than the status quo” (West, 2015). Calling minority groups by the names they prefer may be a step in the right direction – it gives them a voice and seeks to even out the inequalities they face in today’s society.

Trevor Phillips, broadcaster and former politician, recently wrote and produced a documentary for Channel 4 entitled ‘Has political correctness gone mad’? As a member of the black community himself, Phillips discusses his attitudes towards the word ‘n*****’, reminiscing about how his grandmother used it throughout his childhood simply as a way to refer to other black people. Phillips then debates whether or not anyone should be allowed to use the word at all nowadays, given the derogatory connotations it has taken on. On the view that white people should never use it, but that black people can, Phillips has this to say: “that’s one rule for white people and another for black people, and there’s a word for that beginning with R”. Perhaps he’s right. People have already lived through years of racial segregation with certain words used as terms of abuse and as a way to oppress minorities. Allowing certain groups to continue utilising these words in their everyday speech, while prohibiting others from doing the same, does not exactly send out a message of equality.

This brings us to the point: is it politically incorrect to sing the children’s choosing rhyme ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’? Although it is perhaps not common knowledge, the rhyme originally contained the line “catch a n***** by his toe” (Opie & Opie, 1951, pp.156-158). In more recent versions, ‘piggy’ or ‘tiger’ commonly replace the racial term, and it’s these animal-related versions which appear in popular culture today (Boult, A., 2017). An example of this is the television show, The Walking Dead, in which a character sings the “eeny meeny” rhyme featuring the word ‘tiger’ before murdering two other characters. This graphic scene has become iconic among fans of The Walking Dead, so much so that fashion retailer Primark created a t-shirt featuring the words “eeny meeny miny moe” alongside a picture of the murder weapon. For members of the public who were not aware of the garment’s association with the television show, the t-shirt was seen as “fantastically offensive”, and even as a “direct [reference] to the practice of assaulting black people in America” (Boult, 2017). These accusations stem from the fact that the rhyme once had racist connotations and, while the offending word has been replaced today, its history hasn’t been forgotten. This raises the question of how much the past should influence the type of language we use today. Are idioms and rhymes, such as “eeny meeny”, still considered offensive and politically incorrect if the history behind them isn’t common knowledge anymore?

“The path to real progress may be learning to live with offence” is the line with which Trevor Phillips chose to end his Channel 4 documentary. But it’s important to remember that perhaps one’s linguistic choices can have a greater impact on minority groups than realised, and that a bit of “moral concern” can contribute to a more inclusive, “politically correct” society.

KATE GREEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K., & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boult, A. (2017). Is this Walking Dead t-shirt racist? Primark pulls item following complaint. The Telegraph Online. 

Opie, I., & Opie, P. (1951). The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, T. (2017). Has political correctness gone mad? For Channel 4, originally aired on 22/02/2017. 

Urban Dictionary. (2004). Political correctness definition.

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