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How political correctness is screwing up our tongues and minds

There’s no need to be politically correct when we’re morally wrong. The reason we say “I really appreciate it” is because we don’t really appreciate it when we say “I appreciate it.” Not only are we lying; we’re screwing up human language, too.

And as George Orwell said, our tongue “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Yet there’s hope, for “the process is reversible.”

Orwell wrote these words in his famous essay, “Politics and the English language.” His universal advice conveys just as well in French and Polish translations or my Albanian rendition.

So I say we’re screwing up human language, because this isn’t just about English. Here’s what I (and many others) find wrong with political correctness in many world tongues, at least in terms of gender neutrality.

1. We’re making language redundant by adding needless words.

But humans are naturally inclined to do and say more with less. For example, tech companies shortened telephone to phone, tabular key to tab, and contracted application to just app. It saves time and money.

Meanwhile, proponents of PC prescribed that secretary (one word) become administrative assistant (two words)? Because secretary didn’t sound good enough.

Coming up with a Soviet-style acronym such as adminass sounds not only ridiculous, but awfully inappropriate. (I’m not sure if the ass is referring to a donkey, unscrupulously highlighting body parts, or simply mimicking the ending of feminine nouns such as mistress.)

Being called something else — even a Vice President for Administrative Assignments, if you will — won’t change anyone’s role and position in the society. Everyone will soon learn that vice president is a fancy word for one of the many guys that are important but not so important as their name makes it sound.

The Republic of Cuba has some six vice presidents. Multinational corporations generally have more. Meanwhile, every member of the Strong Party, a satire political group in Kosovo, is officially a vice president. They’ve even coined a verb, nënkryetarizohu, meaning “become a vice president of the party.”

It’s needless to drop businessman for the gender-neutral business person, if the social norm will generally exclude women from the profession. And even if the social norm changes, why should words? Isn’t it the society that decides what meaning a word will have?

Why couldn’t cameraman refer to both genders? It does in Italian, which borrowed the word from English. Polish, on the other hand, simply adds the feminine ending –ka to many English loanwords that contain –man: biznesman becomes biznesmenka.

Neil Armstrong may have omitted the indefinite article a before man when he spoke to the planet from the Moon. But I certainly never thought of his historic lunar greeting as excluding women: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Using human for man worked well here, but not elsewhere. Man becomes anything from a person, officer, or some other appellative of two or more syllables. (And that’s typically not an English word to begin with. Remember Anglish?)

Policeman was split up into the mouthful police officer, and serviceman dragged out to serviceperson. The semantically overcharged chair struggles to succeed chairman, while chairperson is too long to do any good.

Why attack the man? The once masculine actor didn’t become acting person. Unlike congressman, legislator wasn’t cast aside for a neuter form. Nor did feminine possibilities such as professorix and professoress make professor exclusively male.

Mann in German, a cognate of the English man, also refers to a human being in general. Die Mannschaft means “the team,” whether it’s boys or girls playing. But teaming up with man in English is no longer allowed.

It just makes it seem like an unfair war against man, when in reality it’s a struggle against continued inequality and segregation that go beyond mere black-and-white divisions.

We’ve surely expanded he to he or she (except for those cases where one can use they, like I frequently do). But we’ve failed to understand that the problem doesn’t lie in grammatical differences: he was traditionally the ultimate being or the default rather than masculine gender; she was the exception, the “thing” that was unjustly made into a subordinate class that couldn’t have what he had.

Why can’t everyone be a he now? Just like Melissa McCarthy is an actor, not an actress.

2. We’re screwing up grammar.

Anyone who’s taking a basic Spanish course should remember a simple rule: Any noun that ends in a –o is masculine; replace –o with –a to get the feminine. Nouns that take a final –e though, such as estudiante, can refer to either genders; you simply add the correct article — el for boys, la for girls.

With that said, your most ignorant of the Spanish language should know how to handle the noun presidente. But that wasn’t the case with politicians in many Spanish-speaking countries.

The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela superfluously refers to the “Presidente o Presidenta de República.” It’s adopted the unnatural feminine form la presidenta, as if to say that a lady president in the authoritarian regime would indeed be an anomaly.

Why is it so?

I recall what George Orwell had to say about political language. Cunning politicians will mean X and they’ll say Y, knowing fully well that you’ll think they’re talking about Z. So they’ll screw up the language if need be.

How correct is that, especially when it changes nothing in our lives?

3. We’re condemning useful words and ideas to death.

Since the Korean War of the 1950s, few Americans have been able to travel to the northern part of the Asian peninsula. And even fewer have done so to represent American interests. Former governor of New Mexico and U.S. congressman Bill Richardson has flown to Pyongyang several times to encourage the North Korean government to cooperate with the West.

As reporters followed him around in one of his trips, Richardson said his work was tough. There wasn’t much he could tell the media, but he said he asked Korean officials to “be statesmen.”

It was about statesmanship. Or it wasn’t. For statesmanship today is unfortunately a sexist word.

We could arguably substitute grace for the biased term. Or we could arguably leave it in place; for the North Korean decision-makers asked to “be statesmen” were in fact all men. But what can’t be fixed is the loss that the English language will suffer here by having its words condemned to death without proper candidates to replace them.

Indeed statesmanship includes the word man, but it is a virtue not restricted to men. No one would argue that Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, was incapable of demonstrating statesmanship in her decade-long tenure as Britain’s prime minister.

It is a whole category of words that is somehow destined to die out because of the word man. Sportsmanship is another example of a virtue that isn’t naturally confined to males, but is cast aside as a misogynist term.

Do such qualities have to be forgotten altogether now? When we can’t talk about it, we may have to let go of it, too.

Among other languages, feminists find issues with the very word for virtue. In Albanian, it’s burrní (or burrëri), an exact mirror of the Latin-derived virtue, for both come from the respective words for man: burrë and vir. In turn, the terms originated from the Indo-European root wiHrós.

The early Indo-European language wasn’t written, so any discussion of Indo-European roots is merely theory. But there is a strong theory that wiHrós meant — first of all — hunter. Its meaning was later expanded to include man or husband. wiHrós is the noun form of the verb *weyh₁-, which meant to hunt.

Thus, it had nothing to do with the masculine gender. Evolution had men hunting, while women were — initially the privileged, and later the condemned — ones to stay in the caves. Men became the hunters or the breadwinners and praised their role as a good quality, as virtue.

But virtue wasn’t and is not a masculine trait. Nor is any talk of burrní undesirable, simply because it may suggest manliness.

“Real men do cry.” “True men wear pink.” Women, too, can be hunters — or breadwinners! Isn’t that what equality is all about?

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Getoar Mjeku

Getoar Mjeku

A free man from Prishtina, Dardania, and a lawyer in Texas. He writes anything about his neck of the woods and a few things about languages, history, politics, and world trivia. He helps curate Plisi.org.

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