Who owns language?

Everyday my Twitter timeline contains instructions how to speak. This week it was ‘stigma’, ‘discharge’, ‘commit’ (which is a standing item in such discussions), ‘patient’ and probably a few others which I don’t remember.  So, I started wondering who owns language and, more particularly, who has the right to tell me how to speak.

The moment I posed the question, I thought that the answer is way more complex than it appears. For example, teachers tell children how to speak. My favourite example is my son’s teacher who insisted my son was in contravention of an important linguist law because he didn’t speak in ‘full sentences’. When I asked the teacher whether she always spoke in full sentences, she responded with a brief:

“Yes. “

and I despaired. As a little aside, I’d add that in fact very few, if any, people speak in full sentences and the directive to do so has little to do with communication, but most to do with disciplining the children.

Every year, you can learn about the new words which were included in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED authorises such words and they officially enter the English language. And so, it seems, linguists and lexicographers have the right to tell us which words to use or how to spell them. In fact, social elites have a long tradition of telling the rest of us how to speak or write. My favourite anecdote (likely to be untrue, still I think it’s funny) is about an eminent Polish writer, Maria Dąbrowska. She apparently took part in a discussion whether the Polish (vulgar) noun referring to a penis should be spelled as ‘huj’ or as ‘chuj’ (apart from parts of the east of Poland, the pronunciation of both words is the same). Dąbrowska argued for the latter as it would make it longer.

It is within this tradition that instructions how to speak about suicide or mental illness are located. Academics, doctors, advocates all assume to have the right to tell others how to speak. They assume the authority to change language or at least its use. I have a number of problems with it.

1. My first problem is that more often than not the change is insignificant. With some dismay I read that apparently there are people who object to being ‘discharged’ from hospital (I fail to remember why and life is too short to look for it).

Well, I was recently hospitalised and a few days before being discharged, I was told that I could have died. The consultant explained that I literally had days, possibly hours to live and that I was very lucky. Words cannot express how much I didn’t care about being discharged. I do care, however, about being alive.  Please, do let us keep things in perspective.

2. The second reason is that the list of the proscribed words will never be full or even half full. Language is contextual and what’s problematic in one context, it’s not in another. This simple and very obvious fact, however, seemingly cannot penetrate medicine as it obsesses about the words it identifies as undesirable.

Indeed, I am very tired of reading that ‘words hurt’. No, they don’t. People do. People hurt other people. Sometimes they do it with words, often with those which are not on the boo-boo list. For me, for example, it’s the word ‘squint’ (because I have strabismus, not a bloody squint!!) and some other uses of ‘non-medical’ language.  I recently wrote that I would not go as far as say that I would prefer to die rather than suffer the indignity of hearing nurses talking about having access to ‘my bottom’, but it’s not far off. But this is what I heard behind the curtain next to me. Once again, there were no banned words.

And yet, academics, doctors, advocates know so much better. They are always at hand to tell me what words I should really (like – really really) object to. I can’t have my own, unfortunately. The boo-boo words must be authorised.

3. Here is the third reason. I reject the right of a person, even a group of people, to tell me how I should speak, just because they are important, have degrees (including medical degrees!) or have other trappings of authority. And while I don’t want to use the arguments of elitism, I don’t particularly buy the notion that medical or psychological elites have the right to tell oiks like me to ‘speak proper’.

Over the years, I have engaged in many discussions on the right to tell me (and others) how to speak. Every time, I hear that in fact it’s patients/advocates that express such wishes. The elite is simply a caring conduit. Indeed, in a recent Twitter poll, almost 60 per cent of people decided that language was vital and important, while the responses to the tweet included statements that words have power and other things like that.

My response to such arguments is that ‘we’ persuaded people that ‘language matters’. In doing so, we also offered them something to be bitter about. Yes, language matters, but do let’s stop telling people that changing one word for another will transform their lives. It will not. They will still have to see a shrink they hate, a psychologist that will patronise them. They will still be unheard, unlistened to, mistreated, and will not get support they need. But, hey, who cares, right? At least we’ll be using the right words! Yaaay!

Moreover, what’s quite fascinating is that what started as a suggestion, a plea, has become a rule. I have read many times that ‘die by suicide’ is the correct way of speaking. Correct?! Are we really talking about grammar, a linguistic rule that I should follow? Needless to say, this is utter nonsense.

4. The final point I want to make is that when someone in power and authority tells you to change the way you speak, it has non-linguistic consequences, particularly if you don’t comply.

Let me use my own example. I choose to refer to suicide with the verb ‘commit’. I think I can safely say that I am a fairly intelligent and reflective person and still I do make a conscious choice to use the expression. And yet, no one is interested. Because of the kind of people I follow on Twitter, I am bombarded with demands to drop the expression ‘commit suicide’. I’ve been told more times than I care to remember that I pathologise suicide, that I make it a sin, that I shouldn’t speak like that and so on and the like. I’m happy to accept that I am wrong, but I am yet to have my arguments responded to; they are, just as I am, rejected out of hand. The discussions range from polite ‘yes, yes, yes, but’ through ‘but you’re simply wrong’, to straightforward false claims.

The wildest claim I heard was that the Samaritans’ research had found that using the phrase ‘commit suicide’ stops people from seeking help. I contacted the Samaritans, they denied the existence of such research. Needless to say, the response came too late, the ‘world’ heard how I contributed to human misery.

I am in a group of people who are simply wrong, problematic, and ill-informed. We are others, those who do not belong to the positive of group of nice people who use the ‘right language’. We’re outside, as we’re not allowed to have our multiple and diverse reasons for our linguistic choices. These choices are dismissed en masse without batting an eyelid. Linguistics and its not inconsiderable knowledge of how language works? Oh, who cares?! Language matters!

But insisting that language matters and there is a right way of speaking has yet another dimension in my view. There is much research on how psychiatric patients speak and their language patterns are used to identify groups of patients. I’d argue that the continual flagging up of language as a crucial aspect of mental healthcare also serves to stigmatise those people whom it purports to help. So, there is research that patients with certain diagnoses make grammatical mistakes, speak in a less complex way and so and so forth. And, of course, all those linguistic features are associated with mental illness. Simplistic? Yes, it’s so simplistic, it causes a headache, but hey, language matters. Let’s see how exactly our patients speak and let’s find out what’s wrong it.

I despair when I read daily instructions how to speak. They achieve nothing but satisfaction of power, creating out-groups of people who speak differently, and are nowhere near offering solutions for poor psychiatric care people receive. I so wish, we stopped talking about language. I so wish we stopped policing others’ language.  I so wish we started caring about people.

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