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Gehrke's Language Analysis
Pat Gehrke wrote:
> I think this rough draft of a paper I am working on will serve to answer
> Dove and others regarding language use.
I think the paper is rather interesting, though it primarily just reviews
ideas that have been out there for quite some time. What, exactly, is the
intent? It clearly doesn't answer the discussion on pronoun usage, since
I've already granted that language use is an important overall concept to
evaluate. I've included some comments below, but I'm not sure what this
contributes to the thread. If your intent was more generally informative,
then I apologize in advance for misinterpreting the statement you made
> Language matters: Language choices as social construction and activism.
> Pat Gehrke, California State University Chico, 1996
> I am unendingly amazed at how many communication theorists and
> professionals still see activism and social reality as somehow only
> tangentially related to language use and language choices. Making
> efforts to change our language choices and language use are a very
> important part of activism. As any other single act or choice must
> be, it can only be a part, but I contend that it is a very important
In a general sense, I agree completely. If minority groups, for example,
are still referred to by derogatory terms that they find offensive, this
should certainly be a focus of activism in getting those groups treated
equally. Your point with respect to the pronouns discussion was...?
<very large snip>
> This likewise implies that those who create and control language
> use (or are allowed to) have the power to create and define what
> is "normal" or "proper" or "acceptable." Thus, when we lend the
> power of linguistic determinations to style guides, professors,
> tradition, or even social conventions we give power to define
> reality away from ourselves and to something else. You may call
> that other the "herd" or the "they" or simply an other, and at times
> such a release of power may be the choice one authentically
> chooses to make, but it is a choice and should not be made pre-
> reflexively. "Language is involved in making things the same for
> people, in their commonalty and communality. It is also therefore a
> means of enforcing a common behavior on individuals (Strong,
> 1976/1984, p. 91)."
But to what extent does this shaping of language impact culture? How can
we even remotely quantify the effect, or are we just blowing smoke and
guessing that it must be profound if we grant the premise that language
and culture interact? Also, what level of change in language is necessary
to effect change in the culture, and vice-versa? The Sartre example ("God
is dead") is an odd choice, both for its extreme nature and its ambiguous
impact on the culture. Yes, if the dominant power structure can affix a
name to an "out" group, they can exert power over that group. Outside of
this rather concrete example, things get considerably more vague.
> Some would argue that the social construction is actually
> perceptions of the natural order or that language simply describes
> how things are. These arguments are facile theoretically and
> unfounded conceptually. The connections between a symbol and
> what it claims to represent is not founded on any reason. "In the
> multiplicity of languages the fact at once manifests itself that word
> and thing do not necessarily coincide with one another, but that the
> word is a symbol. But what does it symbolize? Most certainly only
> conceptions... (Nietzsche, as quoted in Strong, 1976/1984). These
> conceptions are our pictures of the world.
Very poetic, but not very informative. A word is a symbol for a
conception, which, you infer, is our picture of the world. But when a
Frenchman refers to an object as an "apple of the Earth," is his view of a
potato really that different from mine, with my more mundane name for the
object in question? To what extent do these names change our real world
> As we describe our interpretations and pictures of the world we
> speak a world to others. "For far from leaving language as it was,
> the writer adds to it new possibilities of thought and feelings and
> thereby opens up new experiences to those who speak it and are
> sensitive to its nuances [...] In each instance the language, and the
> minds of the language's speakers, were subtly altered" (Megil,
> 1985, p. 176). Our words do not simply help us to point things
> out, but cut into them, divide them, sculpt them, shape them, and
> recast them. "[...] the serious error of pure stylists is to think that
> the word is a gentle breeze which plays lightly over the surface of
> things, which grazes them without altering them, and that the
> speaker is a pure witness who sums up with a word [her or] his
> harmless contemplation. To speak is to act; anything which one
> names is already no longer quite the same; it has lost its innocence"
> (Sartre, 1965/1993, p. 319).
Again, quite poetic, but not one of Sartre's better moments of analytical
exposition, and not very much to the point if we are talking about pronoun
> Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can define me.
> To speak to or about a person or group of people is hence not
> only to discuss them but it is (knowingly or not) an exercise of
> power. "If you name the behavior of an individual, you reveal it to
> [her or] him; [she or] he sees [herself or] himself. And since you
> are at the same time naming it to all others, [she or] he knows that
> [she or] he is seen at the moment [she or] he sees [herself or]
> himself (Sartre, 1965/1993, p. 319)."
Is it just me, or do all those bracketed phrases really break up the
continuity? Sorry, just had to get that in.
> The question really is whether we should try to make our language
> choices reflectively as a part of our social action, or allow
> convention or social inertia to determine our language choices.
> "The 'engaged' writer knows that words are action. [She or] He
> knows that to reveal is to change and that one can reveal only by
> planning to change (Sartre, 1965/1993, p. 320)." Do you want
> change? Why not a little language change? If language is a tool,
> then let's use it well. If it's a dance, let's try to avoid constantly
> stepping on the same toes. "With a creative hand they reach for the
> truth, and all that is and has been becomes a means for them, an
> instrument, a hammer. Their 'knowing' is creating, their creation is
> a legislation, their will to truth is -- will to power (Nietzsche,
> 1886/1989, p. 136)."
> To avoid completely imbedding ourselves in existentialism, we can
> turn to the works of I. A. Richards. What is especially important in
> Richards, which sets him apart from many other linguists and
> philologists is that Richards looks to how the act of interpretation
> and definition can be viewed as a power relationship. Harkening
> back (knowingly or not) to perhaps the most famous philologist
> turned philosopher (Nietzsche) as well as precursoring the work of
> many post-structural philosophers and linguists, Richards
> recognizes the act of interpretation as an expression of power.
> Two things in Richards' brief essay, How to Read a Page, make it
> clear that Richards is at least interested in the use of interpretation
> as a mechanism for power expression.
> First, Richards presents the position that there is not, and can not
> be any singular agreed theory of language (p. 21). This has two
> implications. Initially, it represents that Richards has no intention of
> laying out how it is that we all do, or should, go about meaning.
> Richards is not attempting to tell us that there is one right way to
> read a page, nor is there one right way to assess a reading of a
> page. Second, and stemming from the first, this means that
> interpretation is agonistic by nature. Interpretation will always
> come up against other interpretations and counter-interpretations.
> Each interpretation enters into a negotiation or relationship with
> other readings and interpretations.
> The second indicator of Richards' concern with power is his
> recognition, many decades prior to Foucault's, that the authority of
> interpretation is the beginning of the construction of truth. When
> one interpretation can claim to have authority over other existent or
> possible interpretations we have the social construction of truth.
> Hence whether Richards explicitly concerns himself with it or not,
> he has outlined the mechanisms by which power exerts itself to
> create relatively stable relationships between conflicting
> interpretations through a claim to authority, or truth.
Fair enough. I won't use the phrase "proper grammar" in this discussion
again. Frankly, that phrase choice caused almost as much trouble as the
<another large snip>
> Thus, we have the option in debate, in communication studies, in
> law, in rhetoric, in business, in our personal interactions, in our
> workplaces, and in every aspect of our lives to help shape culture,
> society, and consciousness. Activism takes many forms and
> performs many functions. I think it is a sad day when those who
> wish to take up the mantle of activism (in whatever form) forget
> that language choices may be the first place such activism should
> begin. It is especially disheartening to find people arguing we
> should stop thinking about and considering our language choices.
> We can do better.
Who has argued that we should stop thinking about our language choices? I
agree that it would be a sad day, but the widespread use of critiques
seems likely to continue in debate, at least. However, carrying this
notion to an extreme leads to absurd arguments about etymology and modern
usage. Very little of the language would be left after such a crusade.
For example, someone who says "gosh," but is also a devout Christian and
refuses to swear or blaspheme would have to re-think this choice. "Gosh"
is derived from "God shame it." "Gipped" has come to mean "cheated," and
while some would question that use because of its racist etymology, if
this etymology is unknown to the speaker, how could that person be accused
of using a racial epithet? Electrical sockets and plugs are referred to
as "female" and "male," for reasons which are quite obvious. Is this
usage sexist? Must we rewrite all of the engineering texts? I think
about my language choices, and will make changes in them if I think I'm
truly in danger of hurting causes I support, but how much time should I be
expected to spend on this admittedly enormous task? And what right do
others have to enforce their personal language choices on me?
Archive created by Jonathan Stanton (email@example.com)
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