Linguist links language to social change in ‘Words Matter’

In today’s world, where social media and protest signs speak volumes, we hardly need a linguist to tell us that words matter. But a language scholar can help us understand how and why words unite and align people, well as exclude and exploit.

“Words in and of themselves are impotent,” said Sally McConnell-Ginet, professor emerita of linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It is the socially structured practices and historically situated circumstances constituting our social lives that pour content into words, endow them with meaning and power.”

In her new book, “Words Matter: Meaning and Power,” McConnell-Ginet challenges readers in a general audience to think critically about the words in their world and about the ever-changing linguistic practices in which they participate.

“Linguistic and social change go hand in hand because linguistic practices are fundamental to social practices more generally,” McConnell-Ginet wrote. “Words are woven into the social fabric.”

Words matter for our social relationships, she wrote, and this book explores how and why. It draws not only from linguistics and philosophy of language but also from social theory, psychology, history and other areas, in order to show “how deeply embedded language is in our lives,” she wrote.

Social movements based on identity, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s, second-wave feminism and more recent pushes for LGBTQ rights have all included language reforms, McConnell-Ginet said. Her own teaching experiences beginning in the early 1970s led her to think more about “linguistic politics.”

“Students in college classrooms were suggesting that what we older folks thought of as ‘just semantic conventions’ worked to the disadvantage of particular oppressed groups,” she said. “The young women we were teaching, for example, did not always feel their experiences were being considered in courses with titles like ‘Man and His Place in Nature.’”

She pointed out that in Cornell’s motto, “where any person can find instruction in any study,” the sex-neutral “person” was a “considered choice” by founders Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White in 1865.

“Although the actual experience of women and of people of color at Cornell has often been profoundly problematic,” she wrote, “That aspirational inclusivity expressed in the founding statement has proved useful in reform projects over the years,” she wrote. 

Organized around three broad kinds of social and linguistic actions and practices, and illustrated with contemporary and historical examples, the book is about linguistic practices, not static linguistic structures, McConnell-Ginet wrote.

“Linguistic practices are socially recognized ways of acting or doing in which words figure centrally: wearing name tags at a social event, engaging in rap battles, standing and singing ‘God Save the Queen,’ quoting a dictionary definition or a passage from a grammar book to ‘win’ an argument, and so on,” she wrote.

Linguistic practices are tied to particular communities, McConnell-Ginet wrote: “These communities can be small face-to-face ones like church choirs or book clubs, or they can be very large ‘imagined’ ones like nations.”

She gave a detailed account of the 2016 name change that created the Cornell Botanic Gardens out of the Cornell Plantations and of some of the controversy around that change. Language-centered debates continue on campus, she said.

In the chapter “Putting Down,” she notes that the N-word can be searingly painful for black people to hear, even if it is only quoted. When used in all-white groups, it reinforces racism.

“The N-word matters,” she said.  Yet “just how it matters has changed over time and depends on who is using or mentioning it in which contexts.” 

The book opens up many uncomfortable questions, McConnell-Ginet said, but it does not just catalogue linguistic harms. It also shows how political activists and reformers, she wrote, “can launch new ways of understanding words and … create new words and … eventually new worlds.”

Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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