Language and change

In the last post, I wrote about the current Polish debate about gender in language. In particular, the debate is about how speakers of Polish can refer to women. Somewhat surprisingly, the Polish Council for the Polish language decided to speak too. This post is my comment on that intervention.

I decided to comment because for two reasons. One is because I want reinforce the arguments I made in the previous post, the other is because the new  statement of the Polish Council for verbal hygiene makes interesting point about the nature of language.

And so, let me start with a little reminder of what the Council is (here is the link to their resume in English). Its main responsibility is “to provide valuations and assessments on all matters concerning the use of the Polish language in public communication.” And indeed, it frequently tells those who want to listen how Polish should be spoken and written. It is unclear to me with what force they speak, but they do have the power to change, for example, grammatical rules or spelling of words in Polish. That’s quite a lot power.

The Council made two statements about vocabulary referring to women. The first was issued in 2012 (here is the link). The gist of the statement is as follows. The Council members don’t have a problem with feminine forms, the language system allows them. However,  they create so many problems! First, they would create just too many homonyms (words that look or sound the same); some feminine endings could also be perceived as augmentatives, while, is there no end to the destruction of language, some feminine forms might be seen as possessive.

It’s worth saying that the Council is tricking us all with a nifty sleight of hand. What they are proposing as three arguments, in fact is only one: feminine forms will introduce homonyms in three different ways and, obviously, that’s bad (or so they say). Indeed, the Council hides behind the screen of the ‘linguistic system’, suggesting that the feminine form will somehow spoil the Polish language.

Seven years go by and, lo and behold, three days ago, the Council issues a new statement (here is the link). Boy, have they done an about turn! This time they say that most arguments against feminine endings are without foundation. Yes, they introduce homonyms, but they are as cumbersome as homonyms with words referring to men. The difficulty with pronouncing some new nouns like the oft-quoted chirurżka’(female surgeon) is not more significant than that with pronouncing such common words as  zmarszczka (wrinkle) or bezwględny (ruthless). Yes, if you noticed the consonants, you  spotted the issue. The Council goes as far as saying that it acknowledges the need for more symmetry in vocabulary referring to men and women. There difference between the two statements cannot be greater. And in the rest of the post I want to comment on it.

The first question you could ask yourself is something like: has the language changed in one way or another? Has the grammar of Polish changed? And the answer to such questions is in the negative. No, of course not. Polish lives its (fairly) steady life, as it has lived for centuries, slowly evolving to match its users’ communicative needs. There are no new significant events in the use of grammar, no linguistic upheavals.

So, you could ask too, how come we see the difference in the statements? Well, we see it because the change is not really linguistic. Yes, the Council allows (as far as it can allow) new vocabulary but the argument is not linguistic at all. In fact, the new statement quite directly rejects linguistic arguments opposing feminine endings or words.

And here we come back to my previous post. I argued that the ‘linguistic’ opposition to feminine forms in Polish only pretends to be linguistic, being in fact only ideological. And so is the current endorsement of such forms. There is nothing linguistic about the statement about that there should be greater symmetry in vocabulary referring to men and women. This is as ideological as it gets – and I welcome this. Indeed, the colossal change in the two statements is a reflection how much Poland has changed.

The second point I would like to make is how fragile are arguments made on the basis of language itself. As I am a linguist interested in psychiatry, almost daily I see arguments that some words should or should not be used. The arguments are always on the basis of word meaning which is somehow not right. And it is the new word which will set the language right. Only a few days ago, I was told that labels are bad, and psychiatry is all about labels. And we must change those labels.

And I keep saying that this ‘languaging’ of diagnosis is unhelpful. Diagnosis is much more than just a label (and I would sometimes like to give Thomas Scheff a good telling off). It is also about what care people get, how they are treated in hospital, how their families behave toward them and many other things. Would changing the label make all those things go away. I doubt it very much.

But the change in the position of the Council for the Polish Language makes one more thing clear. The change of vocabulary is never simply linguistic. In the case at hand, it took a considerable social change in Poland (well, it’s only just started and has a way to go)  for the Council to understand that they must change their minds (willingly or not). Otherwise, they will become Council for the obsolete Polish language, if they are lucky.

Any such lexical change (i.e. change in how we refer to things or people) is more than likely to be preceded by social change. Of course, the linguistic change can then reinforce the social one, and be in a dialectic relationship with it.  The linguistic change will always be underpinned by the values, beliefs, practices which are outside language. Changing the word is never innocent. It always carries an ideological load, except that this time, it’s the one I (and many others, I’d imagine) like.

And so, time and again, I say to those critical of psychiatry: stop worrying about language. If it’s not underpinned by society, the new vocabulary will fall on deaf ears. Indeed, it’s always worth remembering that words such as ‘moron’, ‘idiot’ or ‘cretin’ used to be medical terms. We changed them, some of you will say, thank goodness. But what exactly have we achieved? So far as I can see we only came up with a new set words which need changing. The stigma, the suffering, the humiliation seems to remain the same.

But, hey, let’s continue worrying about language.


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