Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What's in a Name

In society we talk about things that are important to us. We give things names to show their importance. Additionally, we give multiple words to describe specifics within a greater concept. A common example of this would be the multiple words to describe types of snow in some Inuit cultures. The anthropological term for this is ethnosemantics.

Along those same lines, if a word does not exist within a language, it seems logical that the word had no relevance to the culture. According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, language influences how we think. Words have immense power.

A concept without a name is hardly a concept at all.

If we look back at our culture before the coinage of the term sexual harassment, we will notice some serious differences to things as we have them now. Putting a title on something brings it to reality. Language shapes awareness. Because we can name what is happening in a case like sexual harassment, we can fight it. It takes the proper language to gain control. Without words, we have no case. How do you explain a problem that you cannot identify?

As a part of culture, language is constantly changing. We are building, tearing down, and renovating our language all the time. Take for example, gender neutral pronouns. Many people have yet to hear about them, yet they now exist within our language. English is no longer dependent on he/she. We have pronouns like the refashioned they, and completely new ones like hir,ze, or co. While it is true that these words are far from mainstream, they are gaining footing in everyday conversations.

Where did these pronouns come from? This too lies in ethnosemantics. As our culture continues to be more accepting of alternate gender identities, our language in turn must adapt. We need more words to describe something that is relevant to us so we create them.

This is not to say that our language is completely adequate when it comes to gender identity. Many people are finding that they still do not fit into the available pronouns. People who identify themselves as neither gender may not be comfortable with a mix of male and female pronouns like hir and ze. Our language is built on pronouns. Disregarding them completely would mean changing the language we are speaking.

I am holding out for a remake of this video with gender neutral/inclusive pronouns.

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