“Language is a skin.” – Roland Barthes
I think about this and contemplate the folds and pores of my writing. I wonder if it ages through repetition and predictable motifs throughout the years, if the words need scrubbing or stretching. I imagine the skin of sentences skimming the surface of a lake, pressing palm to the wrinkles in what someone else wrote. If our meditations have met through an accidental collision, or an intentional caress. If the words feel a prick or a burn when things break down, if they seek shelter from precipitation. I am certain a poem senses electricity in the air and comes out, on some nights, to invite sudden light into its lines.
I read two articles by a Spanish blogger, Sergio Parra, the other day which stuck with me like a little splinter in a nail, perhaps because I wasn’t sure if I completely agreed with him or not. In one article, he talks about the relationship between language and reality, and how the addition of new words to our vocabulary or new ways of expressing certain things can’t possibly change our behaviors or prejudices. In another similar article, he challenges the idea of political correctness and makes the case that language reform isn’t an effective way of battling racism since it doesn’t address the root of the problem, but rather perpetuates it by emphasizing the otherness of the subject spoken about.
Parra claims that language cannot affect behavior or the reality of things, but rather that language IS reality in itself, that it should, and does, provide a faithful reflection of life – e.g., the Inuits have so many words for snow because their language is consistent with their reality: a plurality of snow forms which exist in their immediate environment. Since there is this direct relationship between words and what is perceived to be true, he says that the usage of politically correct terminology is a moot point since we should call things as they really are. For example, it is highly common in Spain for African immigrants to be called “negros,” and many commentators have agreed with him, making the case that we should call them “as they are” instead of using the more politically correct term, “persona de color,” which seems to be an even more divisive, and not to mention awkward, term. Something I’ve heard a lot here is that the language you use needs to be interpreted with the intention behind the words, something which in Spain is completely true, more so than in Anglosaxon cultures. Here you can call your best friend a son of a bitch with all the best intention in the world, and no one will bat an eye.
Parra also makes the case that politically correct terms are consistently replaced by other terms deemed even more correct (water closet to toilet, to bathroom, to restroom, to lavatory), and this endless cycle goes on without actually changing the attitudes of the people who use them: “This obsessive substitution of terms shows that words don’t have an influence on the minds of people, but rather on concepts. We could baptize a concept with different names, but the concept still remains as it is, and ends up taking over the new name.”
I have my doubts about his argument, first of all because I come from a country where race is a highly touchy and complicated subject, and where political correctness started officially as a progressive language reform movement in the 1970’s which attempted to eliminate sexist, racist, and pejorative terms from the English language. Spain has only had to deal with immigrants within the last 10 years, and although racism is a growing problem here (more of a latent, instilled racism stemming from ignorance rather than hatred), it’s a country which hasn’t had much experience, relatively, in dealing with foreigners or in incorporating immigrants into its society. So I’m not sure if Parra is speaking just on behalf of his country, but then again it doesn’t all have to do with race. It’s also about the finesse of the language used here, which is quite alarmingly scarce, unless you’re listening to a politician. So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a Spanish person would condemn political correctness, when people here consistently use the words “vagina,” “fuck,” and “whore mother” on an everyday conversational basis (literally).
But, going back to his argument, my question is, from what perspective is he, and his supporters, claiming “reality” and “things as they really are?” How does the use of terminology reveal the relationship between the speaker and the thing spoken about, intention aside? Is refusing to use language that is agreed upon as politically correct really a way to assign a “realer” reality to people and things?
What you see as a “negro,” may be to you a “negro” – that’s your reality that you perceive and that you are perpetuating, the reality which makes skin color the most defining attribute of someone, the linguistic reality which assigns an adjective to a person and prefers to describe a person’s appearance over place of origin. An African person in Spain isn’t called a “black person,” he’s simply “a black” – “un negro.” I am not an “Asian person”, I’m a “Chinese” – “una china,” even though I may be from Korea, Thailand, or Vietnam. My reality is that I’m an Asian American, his reality is that he’s from Senegal. How can we possibly assign ONE corresponding “reality” to the words that we use or the things we perceive? Or one corresponding interpretation to the words that are relayed?
I want to make the case that the meaning of words, just like reality, is tinted, warped, and influenced by the whole gamut of other synonymous and antonymous words that can be chosen for different occasions and registers, and this power to choose the language one uses CAN change perceived reality, since, in Parra’s argument, language not only reflects it but names it. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which was actually the basis of the language reform movement, considers language as a “guide to social reality” that powerfully conditions all our thinking and which basically constructs what we perceive as reality.
For example, I can’t help thinking of the word “bed” if I conjure up an image of a bed. But if I talked enough Spanish nonstop for a week, that immediate word might change to “cama.” But I if I say “cama,” for example, the image that comes to mind may be my bed in Spain. The overall concept is similar, but definitely not the same; each synonymous word has its own history, layers of meaning, and connotation. If I am called “señorita” at a bar rather than “chinita,” I immediately feel much more respected than being called the latter. That may not be the cultural reality of the speaker, but that’s the case for me, on the receiving end of the conversation. It’s true, many of these differences and misunderstandings are cultural, but when the population of a country begins looking a lot different, I think there needs to be a heightened effort in communication and in understanding the cultural references of other people. That is where political correctness and cutting down on stereotyping comes in. Contrary to what Parra says, I believe that words DO influence the way we think and behave.
I don’t think that an institutionalized language reform can actually decrease racism, nor can it change prejudiced attitudes overnight. Nor should its goal be, like Parra believes, to “exhibit purer thinking,” and nor should we enforce it like the language police. But, I do believe that when we pause to think about the words we use, we are choosing to relay not just our own perspective and reality but are also attempting to incorporate that of our interlocutor and anyone who may be listening. We are valuing their judgment and their interpretation of our words, practicing a heightened sensitivity to what we say, exercising our skill to convey the correct message with the appropriate language, and therefore, yes, showing more respect to our listeners.
I’m not saying that I will raise hell if someone calls me “chinita” or that Africans should be called “personas de color.” However, I do think that easy labels and stereotypes can be bred from lazy habits, off-hand comments, and badly chosen language, and the collective conscious created by society around certain people, including prejudices and conditioned thinking, can be triggered upon the use of one word. We are held accountable for each and every word we choose to use, since words, as powerful as they are in conditioning us, do not control our reality — WE do.
Middlebury College, Vermont — in the summer it becomes a campus for the ten language immersion schools
I’m breaking the rules writing in English. This “No English” rule is pretty effective — I’m even dreaming about having to say things in Spanish. Classes are mentally invigorating yet physically tiring. I went to bed yesterday at 10:00 — I just couldn’t even start to read Borges. And after the first half of the football game today, I crashed and took a glorious nap. Once in a while you take these naps that completely clear your head and you wake up not wanting to sleep more. And when you wake up the world is still sunny, pre-sundown, warm, green.