Language #2 Is it worth bothering?

Cardiff_station_181112This is following on from the previous post which was a short comment on the fact that “sustainable” had lost its meaning and a resolution to follow Jarrett Walker’s example and use the word “durable” (partly coz it just sounds so damn rugged).

I’ve got a number of “what’s the right word to use” questions to examine, but before I do, I want to ask “just how much this is worth bothering with?” because the exact relationship between language and thought is a tricky question. After a short and inadequate discussion I shall come to a not-very-exiting conclusion, which urges you to do nothing very difficult.

Choice of language does make a difference

Here’s the gist of one of the famous experiments of the psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus. Participants watched some short films of car collisions. They were then asked about the events in the film. The key question which the experimenters were interested in was given to participants in slightly different versions, to see if their memory/perception of the events were affected by different language.

The key question was “About how fast were the cars going when they [ something ] with each other?” The “something” was either “crashed” “collided” “bumped” “hit” or “contacted”. Well blow me down, the people asked about the cars “crashing” gave a significantly higher (almost 10 mph difference) estimate of speed than the people asked about cars “contacting”.

Like most psychological research of this kind it is subject to subtleties of interpretation. Did the differing estimates of speed indicate that participants actually had a different memory of the film or were their “estimates” a purely linguistic phenomenon and “40 mph” just popped out as an appropriate response to the English word “crash” with no reflection? Either way though, it clearly indicates that choice of language makes a difference. It is by no means unique – for example there is a standard experimental technique called priming. In its linguistic form it exploits the retinue of associations which are unique to each word in order to explore how we think. (The commonplace idea of “power of suggestion” might be described as using linguistic “primes”).

So yes, choice of words can do things to people heads. Well duh! No surprise at all, and therefore not pointless, as campaigners and advocates, to take a little bit of care to choose the right words to describe ourselves, what we do, what we want. If nothing else, using slightly non-standard terms might nudge a little bit of thinking in our audience. Maybe. Well it’s a cheap investment, so why not do it?

How much good will this do?

It is possible to go further, to make the claim that choice of words is very powerful indeed – that it is absolutely vital that we get it right. The idea that language in some sense determines thought and perception is popular amongst professional writers – Orwell’s essay Politics and the English language is a well-known example. The academic version is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. What is the academic consensus? Let me quote the sociolinguist Deborah Cameron at you:

Most linguists and psychologist today are sceptical about the strong version of the Whorfian claim that language determines perceptions, but on the weaker claim that it can influence perceptions there is conflicting evidence. My own view is that language is a highly variable and radically context-dependant phenomenon which may have effects on perception, but only in conjunction with other factors. Linguistic conventions help to naturalize and reproduce certain beliefs and assumptions, but these are not necessarily dependant on language or ‘caused’ by it”
from: Verbal Hygiene (the politics of language)

Well quite.

My not-very-exciting conclusion

It’s worth paying some attention to our choice of language. It’s worth paying some attention to other peoples choice of language (for example “traffic” to mean “motor traffic”) because this indicates something about tacit assumptions. Deborah Cameron again:

…drawing attention to someone’s use of language is one way of making previously unremarked assumptions manifest to them; and this can on occasion be the first stage in changing their attitudes […]

Yes indeedy. But don’t get carried away – getting the words right won’t solve anything in itself. Fiddling with one’s use of language and making a fuss about other people choice of words, is, compared to the unpleasant and frustrating business of politics and campaigning, a relatively easy gig and …

…it is not so much that linguistic manipulation does not work at all, as that it cannot work in the totalizing way that both self-help gurus and Orwellians would like up to believe … the relationship between what I say and the effect I obtain is far from straightforward; neither my intentions nor my words can determine it absolutely

So, I am careful with my choice of language around transport because I think it helps. But I remain aware that there are other things I can do which will help more.

Here is an example of the sort of thing I try to do – it’s from Jarrett Walker (again):

if you mean “car,” say “car”

Here’s a simple thing that anyone can do to improve the prospects of sustainable transportation. When you hear a phrase that makes sense only from behind the wheel of a car, notice it, point it out, and don’t get drawn into saying it yourself. …
(full post here)

There. A simple and painless tweak in one’s behaviour that might have a small effect.


2 comments on “Language #2 Is it worth bothering?

  1. disgruntled says:

    This reminds me a bit of the ‘cycle chic’ debate – how important is it to ‘normalise’ cycling by showing people doing it (or doing it ourselves) in normal clothes? As with the language, it’s important but simply dressing up, not wearing a helmet and eschewing hi-viz won’t suddenly miraculously ‘copenhagenize’ Britain either…

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