Politically Correct Speech

Francine Wattman Frank writes in Language, Gender, and Professional Writing that language "combines the functions of a mirror, a tool, and a weapon: ...[language] reflects society...human beings use it to interact with one another ... land] language can be [used] by groups that enjoy the privileges of power ... to legitimize their own value system ... by labelling others 'deviant' or 'inferior'" (108). The language planning movement that attempts to eliminate sexist, racist, and pejorative terms from the English language, often referred to as the "politically correct" reform movement, draws on all three of these aspects of language as the basis for arguing the necessity of language reform. Such reform can provide semantic empowerment for the powerless victims of those who use language as a way to maintain their advantages in society and, if such reforms take hold, the new sensitivity in the language may reflect a better society. In exploring this current language reform movement, which, for the sake of convenience, I will refer to as "political correctness" in speech, I will first discuss the history and reasoning behind the reform effort, then I will relate data gleaned from a small survey designed to determine the extent the movement is taking root in the everyday speech of students at S.F.S.U., and I will conclude by examining some of the criticisms levelled against "politically correct" speech by scholars, journalists, and S.F.S.U. students.

"It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought ... should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words." - George Orwell, 1984

This opening quote of The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook indicates the authors' understanding of the theoretical premises underlying the arguments for language reform. Linguist Edward Sapir said in the 1940's that language is "a guide to 'social reality'" and joining forces with fellow linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, the two developed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which holds that language influences our worldview and "powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes" (Frank & Treichler, 109); or, in other words, "it is the major force in 'constructing' what we perceive as 'reality'" (Beard & Cerf, ix). Though Frank modifies this assertion with theories developed from more current research, she concedes that modern thinking is still that "linguistic and social factors are closely interrelated..." (109). This idea based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language is a filter through which we view reality, is a cornerstone of the "politically correct" language reform movement.

However, it was the burgeoning of the feminist movement in the 1960's and 70's that utilized this idea when it launched the campaign to eradicate gender-based terms from the language. Aileen Pace Nilson writes that the National Council of Teachers of English was dealing with the Nonsexist Use of Language as an issue as early as 1975 (181). The struggle for civil rights and racial equality within the same period contributed to a similar interest in eradicating racial pejoratives from the language. Much work has been done by linguists and scholars in this field and the 1980's saw a gathering momentum. In explaining this momentum, Catherine R. Stimpson, in her Presidential Address to the Modern Language Association in 1990, says that the "politically correct" phenomenon is an obvious response to two developments: "The first is the formidable body of contemporary humanistic scholarship about the relations between power and culture .... [and] the second development is the linkages between the social changes on our campuses and the intellectual ones" (409- 10). As examples of the second development, Stimpson offers the fact that the greater presence of women, gays and lesbians, (as well as racial minority groups), on American campuses have contributed to the development of women's studies, gay and lesbian studies, racial studies, etc.

Thus, the "politically correct" movement is the result of many converging factors. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis provided a theoretical basis for linking language with social structures. For the feminist and civil rights movements that came a decade or two later, in which these disadvantaged groups were struggling on several fronts for more power within society, Sapir and Whorf's work made language another viable front to attempt such changes. As Stimpson points out, this trend toward "opening up" our society to diversity of all kinds has continued and the language reform movement, designed to aid this social change, has developed concurrently. As such, the best current definition of "political correctness" I could find, which takes into account this historical development, is that by Edward S. Herman, quoted in a book review by "The Nation's" Richard Lingeman: "The challenge of dissidents and minorities to traditionally biased usages and curricula, as perceived by the vested interests in existing usage and curricula and those seeking a basis for attacking the current challenges" (405). Or, to put it more succinctly, Beard and Cerf quote Betsy Warland: "If we change language, we change everything" (ix).

So it is evident that the motives underlying "politically correct" speech reform are quite laudable. I agree with Lingeman that "language should change to eliminate racist, sexist, classist, ageist, etc. pejoratives" (406). With this in mind, I distributed a questionnaire to seventeen S.F.S.U. students or recent graduates to determine whether their everyday speech reflected any of these new changes. The questionnaire consisted of ten multiple choice questions in which the students selected the most used term among older and more recent "politically correct" terms, The newer terms are taken from The Officially Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook.These choices focused on semantic labels dealing with race, gender, and disadvantaged groups. The breakdown of the responses are as follows:

1. 11 (64%) use Black, 3 (17%) use African American, 2 (11%) use these two terms as well as Person of Color.

2. 9 (52%) use Asian, 4 (23%) use Asian American 2 (11 %) use Oriental (One person did not answer these two questions, but instead, explained and defined these terms for me!)

3. 9 (52%) use Chairperson, 5 (29%) use Chairman, 2 (1 1%) use Chair

4. 7 (41 %) use Mankind, 5 (29%) use Humankind, 4 (23%) wrote in Humanity (which I failed to include), 1 (.5%) used Man

5. 14 (82 %) use Disabled, 2 (1 1%) use Physically Challenged, 1 (.5 %) used both Disabled and Differently Abled

6. 12 (70%) use Prostitute, 4 (23%) use Hooker, 1 (.5%) used both Prostitute and Hooker, 0 use Sex Worker

7. 15 (88%) use Minority Groups, 1 (.5%) wrote in People of Color, 1 (.5%) declined to answer, 0 use Emergent Groups, Traditionally Underrepresented Groups, or Members of the World's Majorities

8. 11 (64%) use Senior, 5 (29%) use Old Person, 1 (.5%) used both Senior and Old Person, 0 use Mature Person or Chronologically Gifted

9. 12 (70 %) use Fat Person, 2 (11 %) use Person of Size, 1 (.5 %) used Differently Sized Person, 0 use Individual with an Eating Disorder

10. 14 (82%) use Politically Correct, 3 (17%) use Culturally Sensitive, 0 use Appropriately Inclusive

It is difficult and inappropriate to draw general conclusions from such a small sample, but I think some trends can be detected. Questions 1. 2., & 7., dealing with racial identification, show more people using the preferred term for Asians but African American is still not used as much as Black (and there may be good reasons for this which I will mention later). Minority Groups is overwhelmingly used as opposed to the three alternative, newer terms. The gender questions, I & 4., show more success, with the majority using Chairperson or Chair, and Humankind or Humanity. Questions 5., 6., 8., & 9., deal with disadvantaged groups and here there is much less success for the newer terms. Finally, the no longer "politically correct" term of Politically Correct is still the preferred term over the other two, newer ones.

I don't think it is an accident that the alternatives for formerly gender based terms have taken hold in the speech of my respondents the most since the effort to change gender marking in language has gone on the longest. Time may be needed to see how well other alternative terms take hold, and which ones, if any, will never do so. However, besides the factor of time, there is also the factor of a very real backlash to the "politically correct" language reform movement that may hinder progress and many of the respondents mentioned this. The last four questions on my questionnaire dealt with respondents' attitudes toward language reform, "politically correct" language, whether they felt pressured by these reforms, and how well they felt these reforms were really benefitting society. I will present these answers in more general terms.

Only one person felt totally positive about the whole movement and felt it could change society. Seven people felt that it had no positive effect whatsoever, and actually had some negative effects. Nine people felt the movement was somewhat positive but had its problems and limitations.

Of the nine who felt it was somewhat positive, their basic reasoning was that changing our labels is a good first step toward changing society. However, many pointed out problems: Three people pointed out that many of the "politically correct" terms are cumbersome and awkward; Three people said the movement has gone too far, too fast in its efforts; Three people pointed out that changing the language does not eliminate racism, sexism; Two people said it can have the opposite tendency of separating people, and two people pointed out that African American may not always be appropriate since many Black Americans are from the Carribbean and South America.

Of the seven respondents who felt the language reform movement did no good at all, two simply felt it was a waste of time. Two people pointed out that "politically correct" terms can be offensive or separating. One person felt it was a shallow "feel-good" attempt to avoid dealing with real problems in society. Three people felt the movement exhibited linguistic intolerance and repression, and thus posed a serious free speech issue.

Many of these complaints and concerns are echoed throughout the media by scholars, writers, and journalists. John Seigenthater says in an article in "Editor & Publisher"., March 6, 1993, that the term "politically correct" strikes him as oxymoronic. He explains that his journalistic coverage of politics and political campaigns have inured him to the idea that political speech will eventually and inevitably be "hateful, meanspirited, insulting, personally demeaning and emotionally debilitating to those at whom [it] is directed, and uninvited and unwelcome, not only to the political opponents who [are] the brunt of [it], but to many neutral listeners as well who did not wish to hear [it]" (38). Jeff Johnson, an English professor, makes a similar point in discussing recent efforts on college campuses to eliminate a Western cultural bias from literary text selections. He says, "'Politically' implies coercion; 'correct' is relative only to the politics," and he continues by quoting Northrup Frye from his 1954 essay, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time": "social criticism being passed off as literary criticism is nothing more than a 'substitute for criticism'" (45). The point these two people are bringing out, I believe, is the one mentioned by some of the respondents: "Political correctness," as a language reform movement, has "gone too far" by trying to move beyond the provinces of language into other areas that many feel are inappropriate, ineffective and counterproductive. I agree with much of this criticism and believe this is the source of a lot of the current resentment and backlash against this movement.

Another even more significant source the backlash towards "political correctness" is the perceived, whether correct or no, rising intolerance of some who desire to promote certain language reforms towards the speech of others who dislike or resist these attempts. Johnson takes a quote from an editorial in "The Economist": "The most pernicious form of intolerance is 'political correctness' because it comes disguised as tolerance" (45). Seigenthaler expresses a similar concern that enforcing politically correct speech (as happens on many college campuses) is offensive to free speech liberties and to "the traditional concept that the academy should be an open forum" (48). Taken one step further, the logic of this argument becomes clear. The real problems of prejudice, racism, inequality, and powerlessness, cannot be significantly grappled with without honest, open dialogue, however messy and hurtful it may at times be. Forbidding or discouraging certain terms or certain kinds of speech will not enhance this process, and may instead drive another kind of wedge between groups which must deal with other issues that already divide them.

Many are coming to recognize that 'political correctness' may have gone too far and a new call for a sense of balance in promoting language reform is emerging. In regards to college campuses, Seigenthaler reports "that lines which were drawn around this issue a year or two ago are now being redrawn-as a result of court challenges, as a result from challenges within the academic community itself, as a result of the impracticality and unworkability of some of the codes" (38). Many are leaning away from linguistic reforms by pointing out its obvious limitations in solving society's ills. Stimpson says, "I predict that the PC phenomenon, now hyped up, will eventually dry up. Our many differences will persist" (410). Johnson's quote from "The Economist": "Imposing a new orthodoxy is not the way to tackle prejudice" (45). Lingeman choruses in, "Inventing new ugly, tendentious words is not the answer to old ugly, racist or sexist ones. Calling wives 'unpaid sex workers' or whatever is not going to reduce domestic violence" (406). A quintessential statement of a newer, more balanced approach ends Francine Fialkoff's editorial, entitled "The Word Police," in the January 1993 edition of "Library Journal": "Ultimately, however, we hope we use language that is more sensitive without enforcing strident political correctness or orthodoxy" (90). And finally, Lingeman closes his book review in "The Nation," which included a review of Beard and Cerf's "Dictionary," with a call for the use of humor in fighting against oppression, a call with which I heartily agree. One of the criticisms of the proponents of "political correctness" is that they can't laugh at themselves, but humor has always been an invaluable tool in breaking down barriers between people. As Lingeman points out, African American comedians, in the 1960's and 70's, like Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor, " effectively used humor to spotlight the absurdities of segregation" (406). Proponents of "political correctness" should not be upset that many, like Beard and Cerf, are also using humor to highlight the absurdities and excesses of PC speech. They are only pointing out the need for a more balanced approach to language reform.

Language can be used as a weapon, by the powerful against the powerless, by the powerless in fighting back. However, I believe language's true and most noble purpose is to serve as a bridge, as a tool for people to communicate with and understand each other. So far as language reform enhances sensitivity and understanding, I endorse it, but when the reform itself becomes repressive it's time to step back and reassess. I think "political correctness" in language is at this juncture and many recognize it. The students I surveyed seem to feel this also. Language reform is only one of the many fronts of social reform and hopefully, excesses will not derail good intentions.


Beard, Henry and Cerf, Christopher. The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook. New York: Villard Books, 1993.

Fialkoff, Francine. "The Word Police." Library Journal 118 (1993):90.

Frank, Francine Wattman and Treichler, Paula A. Language, Gender, and Professional Writing: Theoretical Approaches and Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage. New York: The Modern Language Association of America,1989.

Johnson, Jeff. "Literature, Political Correctness and Cultural Equity." English Today: The International Review of the English Language Apr. 1992: 44-46.

Lingeman, Richard. "The Devil's Dictionaries." Nation 255 (1992): 404-406.

Nilson, Alleen Pace. Sexism and Language. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1977.

Seigenthaler, John. "Politically Correct Speech: An Oxymoron." Editor & Publisher 126 (1993): 48, 38+.

Stimpson, Catharine R. "Presidential Address 1990: On Differences." PMLA: Publications of the Modern Langauge Association of America 106 (1991): 402-11.

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