Language Awareness

People like their own words.

This is meant as a context essay, but might easily be a craft essay on this too: language is power, and one way for the oppressors to oppress is through the imposition of their own terms. There’s some good storytelling potential there.

But I am already digressing and I haven’t even started yet.

Let me begin in earnest by mentioning that I am British1, and I am sensitive about the (usually thoughtless) imposition of American spelling: I will always try to initialise my favourite conversations.

One of the things that first made me frustrated with Microsoft was that they produced a web browser with a “Favorites” menu, but then never localised it for British English. There were lots of reasons I probably wouldn’t have used Internet Explorer anyway, but the reason I chose not to was that ridiculous act of linguistic churlishness.

My point is that using words with others they don’t like or don’t recognise will give you problems.

The empathetic reason to do this is just to recognise the individuals you are addressing: tailor your speech to the audience in order to engage them more. This might include using audience-appropriate terms, but it probably doesn’t extend to mimicking their accent2 or “correcting” their speech. This isn’t political correctness, gone mad or otherwise: it’s acknowledging the personhood of your audience.

But the inverse is also true, in that minorities need to learn how to navigate the world they live in and adjust their language accordingly, not because their minority identity has no value but because there has to be some common vocabulary or there is no basis for conversation at all.

To use another example from my own experience, I am writing a lot of code in Ruby at the moment. Ruby is a dynamic object-oriented (OO) language (for the initiated, it’s a bit like Perl but with only one object model). OO languages need to set up new objects, what is often termed the constructor. Ruby’s constructor is called “initialize”.

So every now and then I will call it “initialise” and then spend ages trying to figure out why Ruby can’t find the class definition3.

Pick your words wisely, and be aware of the context.

[1] I hope this is not a surprise.

[2] unless you are Christian Bale doing your Batman Begins press tour.

[3] there is an irony here in that I used to really like the ‘z’ spelling of words like “initialise”

Leave a Reply