On Language

Language is a tool of power

In school, we read the philologist diary of Victor Klemperer about the changes in the German language during the Third Reich, LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii, a book which makes it clear that the use of language is political, creates realities, and has reverse repercussions on concepts of an entire society. Language was one of the tools that supported Nazism in insiduously pervading all parts of society.

Language shapes our concepts of society

Around the same time, a friend of mine proposed to read Egalia's daughters by Gerd Brantenberg, a book in which gendered words were reversed: so that human becomes huwim, for example. This book made me take notice of gendered concepts that often go unnoticed.

Language shapes the way we think and feel

I spent a large part of my adult life in France, which confronted me with the realization that a language provides its speakers with certain concepts. If a concept does not exist in a language, people cannot easily feel or imagine this concept either.

Back then (roughly 20 years ago), even though I was aware of gender inequality, I hated using gender neutral language because in German and French it felt unnatural, and, or so I thought, we were all alike. One day, at a party, we played a game that consisted in guessing people's professions by asking them Yes/No questions. Turns out that we were unable to guess that the woman we were talking with was a doctor, because we could simply not imagine this profession for a young woman. In French, docteur is male and almost nobody would use the word doctoresse, ou femme docteur.

Unimaginable are also the concepts of words in German that have no equivalent in French or vice versa:

  • Sehnsucht composed of longing (sich sehnen) and obsession (Sucht). In English, this word is translated as longing. In French it is translated as nostalgie (nostalgia), but nostalgia is directed towards the past, while Sehnsucht in German can be used to designate a longing for people, places, food, even feelings, and can be used in all temporal directions. There are other approximate translations to French, for example aspiration.
  • Das Unheimliche is a German word and an essay by Sigmund Freud from 1919. The translation of the title had been subject to a lot of debate, before the text was published in French under the name "L'inquiétante étrangeté", something that would translate to English as worrisome unfamiliarity. In English, there is a word for unheimlich, which is uncanny, however canny does not transport the German concept of heimlich which is related to home, familiarity, and secrecy.
  • Dépaysement. This French word is a negation of feeling home like in one's country (pays): it describes the, generally positively connoted, feelings one experiences when changing habits, or environment.

Or, to make all this a bit less serious, Italian has the word gattara (female) or gattaro (male), which one could translate to English roughly as cat person, most often designating old women who feed stray cats.

But really, the way language shapes our concepts and ideas goes much further, as well explained by Lera Boroditsky in a talk in which she explains how language influences concepts of space, time, and blame, among other things.

Building new models

This quote by Buckminster Fuller is pinned on the wall over my desk:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

A change in language is such a new model: it can make oppression and inequalities visible. Words do not only describe our world, they are a vehicle of ideas, and utopias. Analyzing and criticizing our use of language means paving the way for ideas and concepts of inclusion, equality, and unity.

You might be guessing at where am I getting at with this… Right: I am in favor of acknowledging past mistakes, and replacing oppressive metaphors in computing. As noted in the IETF draft about Terminology, Power and Oppressive Language, by Niels Ten Oever and Mallory Knodel, the metaphors "master/slave" and "blacklist/whitelist" associate "white with good and black with evil [which] is known as the 'bad is black effect'", all the while being technically inaccurate.

I acknowledge that this will take time. There is a lot of work to do.