Home > My Essays > What's Wrong with "Politically Correct" Language?
As part of two groups formerly or currently discriminated against - women and disabled people -, I have all too often seen excessive usage of "politically correct" terminology, meant to avoid discrimination in language. This, in my view, comes in two forms: the "people first" form and the "select group" form, that are in a way opposites.
"People first" language has often been invented by people not part of the respective minority group, who are however professionally or otherwise involved with the group. Common usage of this form of political correctness is with the disability community. People assume that by putting the person before the disability on the print page, disrespectful language will be avoided. They sometimes even say that the disability movement prefers this form. This is, however, not supported by any hard evidence - I, personally, have seen more arguments against "people first" language than arguments for it. Grammatical awkwardness is the least significant of the arguments people use against this sort of language. More important is the idea that the disability is something to be ashamed of, which can be avoided by pointing out the person is more important than the disability. M. Edwin Vaughan makes this clear in his article "People-First Language: An Unholy Crusade". He points out correctly that the use of "preferred" language will not cause attitudes about blindness to change magically.
The idea of "elite group" speak is not widely understood as politically correct language, so I will clarify it furhter. By this, I mean words often invented by members of the particular minority group that are meant to point out the identity of the group independently of the oppressive majority. It is not meant to point out the superiority of the minority, but to counter common assumptions of inferiority held by the majority. Feminists' use of the word "womyn" is a good example of this, aimed at removing the reference to "man" or "men". This sort of language is, however, also common among the disability community, in words like "Deaf" with a capital D.
Usage of this sort of "politically correct" language is, to me, less objectionable, if it is linguistically correct language. The use of the word "autistic" as a noun, for example, is quite appropriate, for other adjectives are also commonly used as nouns, even outside of the "preferred" language community, such as the not quite politically correct word "homosexuals". In fact, most adjectives in English can be used as nouns completely properly if the group is meant, eg. "the blind" or if used in the plural form, such as "dyslexics". Many of these words are correct nouns according to the dictionary. Some of these words would at least come across quite strange if they were used as nouns. For example, I'd be surprised to find the plural word "blinds" in a journal article.
Using neologisms as a form of identifying words is a bit more objectionable, for it is not easy to understand this jargon if one doesn't belong to the minority group. For example, if I were not involved with the blind community, I would likely not know that "blink" is a word used by some blind people as a substitute for "blind".
A specific group of emergent guidelines for preferred language, is that which is supposedly non-discriminatory towards women. The most noticeable example of this language, is the "he/she" usage instead of the masculine pronoun only, where this formerly was referring to women, too. In my opinion, this is useless, for we all know that the masculine pronoun refers to female and male people. Another way to avoid this "sexist" construction, is by using the word "they". My English teacher used to prefer it on writing assignments, so I use the construction, but when I do, I make my entire phrase plural. Statements like "A smarty is someone who thinks they know everything," are simply grammatical nonsense.
Yet more irrational is the replacement of parts of a word supposedly referring to males by feminine words. A quite stupid example is the word "herstory", assuming that "history" comes from the words "his story", while it comes from the Latin word "historia", which is by the way feminine in gender (and so are the words for "history" in many modern languages, like Dutch, German and French). The article "Femspeak" explains further what is linguistically wrong with feminist language. Also, "Against the Theory of Sexist Language" explains why "politically correct" use of sex-specific words makes no sense.
I briefly mentioned the fact that saying "people who are blind" instead of "blind people" does not change attitudes about blindness. This is a very useful argument in the disability community, since "people first" language has often been invented by professionals who don't have the best attitudes possible about the disabled. I'd rather be involved with someone who calls me "a blind person" but who treats me like a person than with someone who refers to me as "a person who is blind" (or, worse yet, "a person with a sight problem"), but who treats me like I'm a helpless thing.
This, however, extends to other minority groups. The fact that a language has no sex-specific pronouns, for example, does not make the country where this language is most spoken a female-friendly country. In Latin, the word for "his", "her" or "its" is always "suus" and agrees in person and number with the thing it refers to. Yet don't ever think that women and men were equal in ancient Rome! The same is true of a number of modern languages and countries.
We need, all in all, attitude changes and an end to discrimination, not discrimination and bad attitudes covered up with "preferred" language, which is furthermore linguistically incorrect. Professionals should quit their "people first" language and go over to "people first" treatment, and feminists and other minority groups should study linguistics before coming up with femspeak that makes no sense and does not change behaviour.