Student stuff

Language matters

I’ve been interested in how language changes for years, in part because when I was younger I went from having a mailman to a postal carrier, from stewardesses to flight attendants, and actresses to actors. It was also in part to my uncle being one of the founders of sociolinguistics, specifically language planning. As an editor, I’ve tried to guide authors away from jargon only understood by the “in” group due to my deep seated belief that there’s nothing that we librarians do that shouldn’t be understood or shared with everyone.

We’re now asked to use “they” as a singular pronoun and I just learned that “guys” is gender-neutral (to some). However, I’ve read a few articles about not asking people to give their pronouns in a group setting:

Those incidents taught me that questions about pronoun use can be painful to the very people to whom we are trying to signal support. So why do many institutions and their faculty members persist in the wholesale practice of requesting pronouns on the first day of class, especially with young adults who are in the process of figuring out who they are? The result of this practice is that students whose gender presentation may not match their gender identity are forced to lie or to out themselves in a new and possibly unsafe environment, while those who are unsure of their gender identity are made to feel uncomfortable and forced to choose a pronoun.

The Problem With Pronouns

There’s been pushback against the “they” pronoun from grammarians, and I suspect eventually they’ll get over it. However, unlike the stewardess–>flight attendant change, or Afro-American–>African American, there are so many changes being asked of us that I worry that it’s too much. Having to stop and think every time you speak can stifle speech, and I’m not just talking about learning to say n-word instead of the word itself.

The new, now encouraged changes are coming from academia, specifically colleges and universities. Part of the problem is that there is no agreement on what the new terms should be. Years ago I remember an episode of television where the star was told that the guest star wasn’t handicapped, she was “handicapable”. That’s not a term that’s caught on. Can you still say American Indian? Some say yes. Tribe is equally questionable, although I’d argue that the term doesn’t exclusively refer to Native Americans (Africans and Jews use the term).

My worry is that we’re being so prescriptive and careful that the current generation of students won’t be able to easily communicate with the people they meet in the work world. That recent graduates will be so sensitized to these issues that someone older, not having had this drilled into them, will say or write something that was considered taboo in school and thus create a misunderstanding or hostile atmosphere (my father occasionally says things that have gotten him in trouble for just this reason). As college prep institutions, we are doing our job if we are aware of, and help teach, these language changes. However, beyond our ivied walls? Aren’t we also responsible for helping students be resilient, responsible and productive members of society? Is this language planning from the bottom up going to work, or not?

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