Some common words of wisdom are that language can only have an impact on you if you allow it to, but that's not always true. The way that we react to language can be within our control, but that doesn't always have bearing on what we think and feel. Language, in itself, is structured in such a way that it will always have some impact regardless of intention.
Pamela Jakiela and Owen Ozier from the Center of Global development have performed research on, specifically, ways that gendered language impacts different aspects of our lives. "Drawing on data from the World Values Survey, Ozier and Jakiela found that those who speak a gendered language are more likely to agree with statements like 'On the whole, men make better business executives than women do' or 'When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.' Perhaps even more surprisingly, women are just as likely as men to hold these attitudes, suggesting just how pervasive the effect of language is on beliefs" (The World Bank, 2019).
By "gendered language", they mean language for which nouns can be categorized as "masculine" or "feminine." English is no exception to this. We sometimes associate certain nouns masculine or feminine traits due to stereotypes or language that we've grown up hearing. Implicit biases exist.
However, what these researchers found was that, while opportunities can appear equitable for anyone regardless of gender, our gendered language affects how we interact with and conceptualize the world around us, one another, and ourselves. The data included the structure of 4,334 languages. While the findings of this study can be criticized for being too broad or vague, it can be used to show [in part] consequences that our implicit biases can have.
These consequences do not end with gender. Ali Almossawi reminds us that the implications that our language can hold, even language we consider common, can hold the power of identifying others. The use of loaded language by anyone considered an authority can shape the way we conceive of ourselves just as easily as they can shape the way we conceive of others.
He provides this example. "Suppose, by law, your neighborhood is only allowed twelve hours of water a week, and the neighborhood across the street is allowed all the water it wants. It's obvious to you why their front yards are lush and green, and yours aren't. But to passerby...it may not be as obvious--the difference might seem to be somehow inherent in the group" (Almossawi, 2021).
What if it wasn't immediately obvious to you why your neighborhood is only allowed twelve hours of water a week? You are aware of the difference, but you don't know why that difference exists. The language of the neighborhood across the street from you and the passerby dictates that the difference is inherent to those in your neighborhood. Then, you start to believe the difference is inherent to you.
Our language can validate negative self-fulfilling prophecies even if it's unintentional. Calling someone by a name other than one they associate themselves with or claim can have consequences like this. Sometimes, people feel the need to shorten their names because of the way that people have reacted to them in the past. The shortened version of their name might not be what a person claims, but it's what other people are used to calling them. It accommodates others, not the person whose name it is.
Almossawi also points out how this works with regards to the question, "Where are you really from?" It's important to consider who that question is for and who the answer is meant to benefit. From there, we might recognize that the nature of the question is meant to benefit the person who is asking and not for the mutual understanding of participants in that conversation. Almossawi calls this a "nice" way of asking, "Why don't you look like me?" This is very well-put as the question appears to pick at a person's "otherness" and, again, does not aim to understand. Usually, it's an ill-intended leading question that expects the answer of a place that the asker looks down upon for one reason or another.
When describing something or someone, it's important to take note of who that language is for and how that language can act against others, even unintentionally. This is important if we want people to feel safe around us, and it can take time to learn, but with a concerted effort, it's possible.
Almossawi says, "The key, I think, is to recognize the impact that language has on our relationship with ourselves and our identity, and to use that heightened sensitivity to remain self-aware, confident, and independent in our thinking" (Almossawi, 2021). A lot of people do see language as "just words", not something that can hold the impact that it does. However, all of us utilize that power and benefit from it. We then have choices as to how to use that language to interact with ourselves and others. We learn and are influenced by it, and we are still learning about the extent of that influence to this day.
Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far and Happy Pride Month! Also, a special thanks to Dictionary.com for their post on the singular "they"!
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Almossawi, A., & Giraldo, A. (2021). An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language: Learn to Hear What’s Left Unsaid (Bad Arguments). The Experiment.
World Bank Group. (2019, February 7). Gendered Languages May Play a Role in Limiting Women’s Opportunities, New Research Finds. World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/01/24/gendered-languages-may-play-a-role-in-limiting-womens-opportunities-new-research-finds