|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
8 - 14th
This paper has two main points. First, language is powerful – it reflects and shapes how we think and act (Crystal, 1995; Halliday, 1978; Whorf, 1956). Second, vegetarians can help to change language and, thereby, use the power of language to influence how we and our fellow humans act toward our fellow animals (Dunayer, 2001). This paper considers only the English language; however, parallel situations almost certainly exist in other languages.
The Power of Language
Advertisers recognize the power of words to shape our thinking. To make us desire the products they are selling, they use purr words: words that make us as contented as a cat with a comfortable place to nap. Words such as new, stronger, natural, and research-tested are used to bring happy images to our minds and influence us to like what the advertisers are selling.
Politicians also use words to convince us to vote for them. Some politicians attempt to label their opponents with snarl words: words that make us as upset as a cat who has been awakened from a nap. Words such as incompetent, flip-flopper, terrorist, and old are used to bring negative images to our minds and influence us to dislike the politicians’ opponents.
The point is that words shape our view of the world. Of course, words do not completely control our view of the world. We may refuse to buy particular products despite all the purr words the advertisers may use, or we may not support particular politicians despite all the snarl words they attempt to smear upon their opponents.
Language not only plays a role in shaping our thinking; it also reflects our thinking. We use purr words for that which we enjoy and snarl words for what we dislike. For example, meat eaters might see a picture of a large fish being cooked on a barbecue and talk about “the succulent fillet laced with a tomato-based sauce full of herbs, spices, and bell peppers,” whereas a vegetarian might describe the same scene as “slices of a poor fish’s flesh being cooked, with plant food used to disguise the disgusting taste of seared flesh.”
At the same time, just as the words around us only influence but do not control our thinking, the words we use may only partially mirror what we think. Thus, vegetarians may due to ignorance of alternatives or for other reasons use language that is not in line with vegetarianism. One of the goals of this article is to help vegetarians speak in ways consistent with vegetarian lifestyles.
Language shapes and reflects how we think about the world, but language is not static. Language changes. What is viewed as typical today may not have been the norm or considered correct 200 years ago and may change in another 200 years, or even two years. For instance, in the case of English, much of the grammar of Shakespeare’s day would not be acceptable today, nor would Shakespeare have any idea what a disk drive is or what frequent flyer miles are.
What leads to language change? The key force behind language change is change in society. Society changes, and language changes along with it in a kind of chicken and egg manner with each influencing the other. For instance, new inventions, such as airplanes and computers, change the way we live, and vocabulary related to these inventions comes into widespread use, such as frequent flyer miles and disk drive mentioned earlier. Similarly, the use of these new terms can accelerate the use of the phenomena they represent.
Another Example of Language Change
In addition to inventions, another force driving social change involves changes in people’s outlook. A fairly recent case in point centers on changes in the relative role of females in society. In many societies, females have taken more equal public roles, and language has changed correspondingly (Nilsen, 1987; Rubin, Greene, & Schneider, 1994).
Language changes in regard to the relative place of females and males in human society include changes in grammar and vocabulary. A prominent grammatical change has been the move from generic he (use of male pronouns – he, his - and the male possessive adjective – his – in a way that implies males are representative of females and males), such as using “A doctor should take care of his patients” to include all doctors, female and male. Instead, people nowadays are more likely to use, “Doctors should take care of their patients,” “A doctor should take care of her/his patients,” “A doctor should take care of their patients,” and other alternatives that do not place males as representatives of all humans.
Similarly, in the area of vocabulary, alternatives have arisen for generic man (the use of male nouns to imply that males are representative of females and males). For instance, instead of fireman and policeman, people nowadays are more likely to use firefighter and police officer. Instead of man and wife, we might use husband and wife.
These language changes in regard to the roles of the sexes have both reflected change and promoted change. However, this change has not been automatic or uncontroversial. Nor is the change complete. Generic he and generic man are still in use.
How does an actual language change happen? Does some governing body of English (or some other language) meet to decide? In the case of the change in English just discussed, the change has been happening slowly as individuals make conscious decisions about how they speak and write. Some publications have changed their practices; dictionaries and scholarly descriptions of contemporary grammar first began to list what came to be called “nonsexist language” as an acceptable alternative and later as the desired option. The point is that we can all be factors in shaping language, just as language is a factor in shaping us.
To summarize the paper thus far:
Making Language Fairer toward All Animals
Does language need to change to become
fairer for all animals, nonhuman and human? If so, what needs to be changed
and how can these changes come about? Jane Goodall, the world-famous researcher
of the lives of chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals, provides an example
of needed changes and how they can be made. In her 1990 book Through
a Window, Goodall recounts that in the early 1960s, when she started
her research in
In the area of the connection between
language and humans’ views of other animals, the key book is Animal
Equality: Language and Liberation by
Speciestist and Nonspeciesist Language
Dunayer uses the term speciesist for beliefs and language and other practices that do not treat nonhuman animals with the same respect accorded to humans or that in other ways differentiate among species of sentient beings in a way that signals members of some species are lesser than others. Table 1 describes speciesist language use and alternatives. In the table, the first column contains speciesist language, the second column contains nonspeciesist alternatives, and the third column contains sentences that provide first speciesist and then nonspeciesist examples of the language element depicted in that row. Explanations accompany language items in columns one and two.
Table 1. Examples of speciesist and nonspeciesist language use (based on Dunayer, 2001)
Political Correctness? Language Police?
The use of nonspeciesist (vegetarian) language and attempts to convince others to move away from speciesist language will undoubtedly be met with some resistance. Four complaints and possible replies to them are presented in Table 2 (Cameron, 1995; Stibbe, 2004).
Table 2. Objections to efforts to promote nonspeciesist language and responses to these objections
Where to from Here?
We can change language to make it more respectful to other animals, as Goodall did in such areas as the use of who with nonhuman animals. Furthermore, in regard to the use of who, some of the larger dictionaries, such as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com), and larger scholarly works on grammar state that who can be used with nonhuman animals (Jacobs, 2004). For example, the Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, states that who can be used with sentient beings.
Future actions to popularize language that promotes equality among animals include research (see Jacobs, 2004 for suggestions), language use, and educational efforts. Research involves studying what it means to speak Vegetarian, i.e., what changes in vocabulary, grammar, usage, and other language areas might promote vegetarian lifestyles. Research also involves finding out what people are already writing and saying in magazines, novels, textbooks, radio shows, conversations at birthday parties, etc. Language use can also be compared across time, place, and language.
Language use to promote change toward means that every time we write or speak as members of vegetarian organizations or as individuals, we should give some thought to our language to see whether we are using Vegetarian. Here, the Style Guide and Thesaurus chapters of Dunayer’s (2001) book, ideas from which appear in Table 1, will be especially useful. The language we use should be consistent with the ideas we are expressing about concern for our fellow animals.
At times, speaking Vegetarian may mean using language that appears unusual, perhaps even incorrect, to others. For instance, nonhuman animals and humans and other animals may sound strange, but such language use makes the point that we humans are animals too, rather than standing separate from and above our fellows. Furthermore, nonsexist terms, such as firefighter, also sounded strange at first. Similarly, in some cases, when we use the pronoun who with nonhuman animals, we may be accused of being grammatically incorrect. Such objections provide excellent opportunities for explaining why we believe that other animals merit who, not which, just as humans do. Indeed, the whole topic of nonspeciesist language can be seen as just one more way that we can encourage our fellow humans to examine their beliefs and practices regarding food and other aspects of human-nonhuman interaction.
In addition to doing research on the use of Vegetarian language and using such language ourselves, vegetarian organizations can also seek to educate members and the general public about Vegetarian language. This education can take the form of articles about Vegetarian language in our publications and on our websites, as well as workshops on the topic. Key audiences for such education include people who use language as a main aspect of their work, such as teachers and writers.
In this paper, I have attempted to make two main points. One, we should appreciate the power of language as a medium that mirrors and manipulates how we view the world in which we live. Two, vegetarian organizations should seek to utilize this medium as we strive for a healthier, happy world.
However, changing a language is a huge task. Is it too huge a mountain to move? Not at all! If we do research to understand the current situation, use Vegetarian language every chance we have, and educate others about why and how to speak Vegetarian, little by little we can succeed. Language is an inseparable part of everyday life, and modern technology brings us even more ways to use this vital tool. Let’s use this tool to improve our lives and those of all our fellow beings.
D. (1995). Verbal hygiene.
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