Evolving Language: How your organization can adapt to the current linguistic landscape
I am fascinated by linguistics. The English language is a convoluted mess of stolen words and phrases, rules that are meant to be broken, and a mishmash of unpredictable and case-by-case preferences.
Looking back at the way English evolved through interactions with other speakers of other languages has helped me make sense of my native language. For example, why do we call the animal and the meat of an animal by different words when most languages use the same word for both? Well, when the French took over England they used their words for the food (since they were the ones eating the meat) and the locals used the English words for the animals they were tending (ex. 'du boeuf' or 'beef' for the meat, and 'cow' for the animal). Ok, now it makes sense and I can accept this and move on.
You see, language changes and adapts and evolves over time. Go back and read a newspaper from the 1700 or 1800s. It's nothing like an article from today. You may not even understand what the journalist is talking about. Re-read some Shakespeare. The English language has changed so much since then, it might as well be in a foreign language.
And for the most part, we as a society except these changes. We slowly incorporate new phrases and words as we leave old and outdated language behind. Like when we stop saying 'groovy' and start saying 'cool'. Other times, our language changes very quickly and it may take us time to adapt, like when the Soviet Union dissolved and we had to quickly adapt to referring to individual countries instead. There were occasional slip-ups by most of us, but for the most part we quickly adapted.
However, when it comes to the language around diversity, equity, and inclusion there seems to be some pushback against this natural linguistic change. Some people get frustrated with the change. Others refuse to adapt to the change. Still others are hurt by the continued use of words that are considered inappropriate or harmful.
Because, even though it may seem arbitrary, these changes happen for a reason.
For example, the word 'minorities' used to be used in a respectful way to describe underrepresented groups. Women, people of color, LGTBQ+ folks could all be described with this single word. In a way, it was inclusive. It could provide a blanket word for any group that has long been excluded form places of power. But here's the problem: 'minority' technically means 'a group that makes up less than half the whole number'. In reality, the sum of underrepresented groups makes up more than 50% of our country. White men make up less than 50% of our population and are therefore a minority. And as communities of color grow, there are fewer and fewer places that Euro-Americans make up the majority. To continue to use this word is not only inaccurate, it is also centers the conversation around what the group isn't (i.e. a minority is not a white male). A more detailed explanation can be found here.
Other words have changed and evolved in our society as well. To delve into each example would take more time and space than I have allotted here (but I am happy to delve deeper if you have any specific questions. Make a comment below or email me). Generally, when the reason is revealed, it makes sense - just like when you find out the reason behind how and when we use the word beef versus the word cow.
Linguistics gets even more muddled when used to discuss race and ethnicity. Whether we refer to the area or continent of origin (European, African, Asian) or we refer to skin tone (white, black, etc.), we run into sticky situations. There are interesting debates centered around whether or not race even exists. There are many misunderstandings about race versus ethnicity (check out this chart by the US Census Bureau that shows how the US government considers "Middle Eastern" as an ethnicity under the race "White"). There are numerous examples that show how our current language is steeped in racism of the past (try Googling "Why don't we use the word Caucasian?").
Yet, to let the myriad examples of the failings of the English language prevent us from discussing important issues would be a travesty.
English is a mess.
Our society has a long, often unpleasant history and still grapples with inequalities and injustices.
At the confluence of the two, there will be misunderstandings, disagreements, and possibly even embarrassments.
As we work towards creating a more just and inclusive society, we must educate ourselves, (gently) educate others, and continue to adapt our language to appropriately communicate our thoughts and ideas.
Your organization may want to schedule some time to review your language and determine if the words and phrases you are using in your grant proposals, promotional materials, etc. reflect the current linguistic landscape. Some organizations have a team devoted to this task. Some organizations work with a consultant such as myself to make this annual or semi-annual review.
If you are interested in hearing about the services I offer centered on DEI and asset based language, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can help devise a plan that works best for your organization.
Whether with outside help or on your own, it is important to have these discussions in a safe and comfortable way that empowers everyone. Microaggressions are real and a discussion like this can trigger a life time of hurt. The process should be well-planned - include diverse voices during the planning process - and allow for more than one avenue for input (written, verbal, anonymous, etc.). Review written materials from multiple perspectives: how would your client base feel about how you write about them in your grant proposals? how would a funder view your website? how would an average community member respond to your direct mailings?
I love to hear about thoughts, ideas and perspectives that have helped your organization re-evaluate language. Look forward to hearing them!