November 17, 2017
We need a language beat
by Michael Erard
Politics and language have always been linked in overt and implicit ways. During last year’s presidential campaign and in the post-election environment, many people began to note the multifarious slipperiness and co-optations of words, such as substituting “alt-right” for “Nazi” and “white supremacist.”
Now, nearly eleven months in, it is impossible not to acknowledge that securing the meanings of words apart from their normalizing distortions has become an important political activity. In reality, it always was; just ask George Orwell. For that matter, ask Socrates. Doing so now is a pressing need, not only because egregious examples are proliferating, but also because right-minded people are struggling to hang on to a previous reality, built on words, that’s eroding. The sentiment of our utterances is changing already.
Immediately after the election, Masha Gessen, in a podcast interview with ProPublica, called for a “language beat” to track the erosions. But here’s a reality check that I hope isn’t merely pedantic: language consists of more than words. This gives the writer interested in politics, language, and the shifting of realities many topics to tackle beyond lexicography and semantics. As someone who’s been writing about language and linguistics for a long time—I consider myself a “language journalist”—here are some that I have my eyes on:
- Linguistic discrimination. After the election, reports of hate-inspired attacks against people of color, women, Muslims, and LGBTQ individuals increased substantially. In the three months after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1372 “bias-related” incidents. But even the SPLC’s list doesn’t single out language-related discrimination, incidents of which are likely on the rise as well. (The same speculation could be offered about the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote.) What is it like to be a non-English speaker, or a multilingual person speaking multiple languages in public, in an atmosphere of hate?
- Language access. As Brian Rosenthal of the Houston Chronicle reported last December, schoolchildren in Texas who are non-native speakers of English and who need special education services are being systematically refused those services so that school districts can meet special education quotas set by the state. “If English Language Learners were in special education at the same rate as they were in 2004, about 40,000 more of them would now be receiving those services,” Rosenthal wrote. In many states and for many communities, access to social services and the exercising of rights has long been constrained because linguistic resources don’t exist or aren’t prioritized. This is likely to get even worse under a continuing Trump administration.
- The well-known linguistic diversity of reality. At the end of October 2016, a White House working group called the Interagency Working Group on Language and Communication published a wide-ranging report on all of the federal government’s investments in language. This is not wonkery — it gets to all the ways that federal policy influences what we do with language, like how foreign languages are learned in schools, how language technologies are developed for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, and how crucial materials about health and safety are translated into dozens of minority languages. (An email I sent to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to ask about the future of the working group was not answered.) Since Trump became president, we know that his administration has shown little commitment to linguistic diversity in the US — their outreach to Spanish-speakers continues to be poor to non-existent, for example. Fortunately, protections in medical contexts for people who don’t speak English and for individuals with disabilities, including the deaf, have been preserved in a part of the Affordable Care Act you’ve probably never heard of, called Section 1557. Without a repeal of the ACA, these protections aren’t going away.
So don’t get me wrong — paying attention to words and how their meanings are shaded for political ends can serve as a crucial bulwark against the normalization of this appalling political moment. In normal times, selecting the words of the year vividly underscores the dynamism of language; now we’re looking for new punctuational devices to end the sentences in which those words appear. But language itself and the inequities associated with it (follow Language on the Move and Nelson Flores for more) have been so normalized that most people, including journalists, take its existence for granted. The language beat that Gessen called for? It could have already existed, even without Trump.
Michael Erard is writer in residence at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands and is author of Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 2012).