Political Correctness

Notes on researchers for PC

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Deborah Cameron

  • Cameron researched the history of the term 'political correctness' and found that originally it was used in a disapproving way by left-wing groups in the 1960s +70s to refer to their own group members who toed the partly line very strictly and whose behaviour was therefore seen as 'ultra-correct'
  • Cameron points out that the phrase has undergone a 'discursive shift' and no longer means just one thing
  • 1994 - 'Is not precisely the point of the linguistic intervention to challenge the kind of discourse that defines people by skin colour?'
  • Kate Burridge comments on these ideas in 'Political Correctness: Euphemism with Attitude'
  • there is more to PC than just sensitivity, hence why Cameron prefers not to describe it as euphemism
  • PC language itself is a public action
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Barbara Ehrenreich

  • An American feminist and political activist who has questioned the linguistic changes upon underlying attitudes:
  • 'If you outlaw the term 'girl' instead of 'woman', you're not going to do a thing about the sexist attitudes underneath...
  • there is a tendency to confuse verbal pruification with real social change' - 1994
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Robert Hughes

  • In 'Culture of Complaint' 1993, Hughes commented that 'We want to create a sort of linguistic Lourdes...a dip in the waters of euphemism'
  • This implies that PC is simply creating a way of being nicer about things, and allowing for the suggestion that through a "PC phrase" something can become far less cruel
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David Crystal

  • 'In one 1991 survey of black Americans, carried out in the USA by the black-orientated Joint Centre for Political + Economic Studies, over 70% of blacks said that they preferred to be called black , notwithstanding the supposed contemporary vogue for the politically correct African-American' 1995
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Kate Swift and Casey Miller

  • Feminist writers who proposed new pronouns to tackle the problem of the generic-masculine problem in English
  • i.e. absence of a non-gender-marked, third person singular pronoun results in the masculine form being used as a default to refer to an individual
  • Swift and Miller suggested the terms 'tey', 'tem', 'ter' should be used as the third person singular gender-neutral pronouns, however they have not caught on
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Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf

  • Promote the idea of linguistic determinism which suggests that the language we use controls the way we think because the language we learn to use teachers us to perceive the world in certain ways
  • The 'Sapir-Whorf' hypothesis proposes that out mother-tongue determines our thoughts and limits our cognitive abilities and that the way we view the world is shaped by the language we speak
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Support for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

  • Whorf 1956 - found that Eskimos have 20 different words for snow, which English does not hence they can make finer descriptions
  • Guy Deutscher - an Israelie linguist who argued in his book 'Through the Language Glass', that a nations language influences its culture, psyche and modes of thought, hence linguistic determinism
  • There are various different researchers who have found that aboriginal tribes have more words for certain things than standard languages, or do not have words for other things due to the culture in which they live
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Criticisms of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

  • Language is more flexible than the theory suggests and can be used to describe unfamiliar concepts. Not having language for a concept does not necessarily mean it cannot be understood
    - Some Australian Aboriginals do not have have a developed system of words for numbers can can still count
  • If language controlled our thoughts, language change would not occur because we could never have any new ideas of concepts. 
  • Due the way that language is continually changing in response to developments in society, such as new technology, suggests that language reflects our thoughts rather than determining them
  • There is some truth in the idea that language influences our perception of the world, such as through its influence on our social values
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Language and Social Values

  • Relating to PC, some argue that the existence of prejudice language is simply a reflection of the prejudice attitudes that are held in society
  • This then gives the impression that these will still exist despite continuous efforts to create more positive labels to prevent discrimination against minority groups
  • It could then be argued that people should focus on making practical changes rather than altering the language we use
  • Despite this, it is also argued that the existence of prejudice language helps to perpetuate prejudice values
  • Reducing the use prejudice words + expressions will help to change society's perception of minority groups and help to prevent discrimination. 
  • The term 'linguistic engineering' is used for deliberate attempts to alter the language that people use
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