Political Correctness. Language Change from Above

Term Paper, 2016
22 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents:

1). Introduction
1.1) Political Correctness - Definition and History of Political Correctness in the USA

2). Process of Political Correctness - Language Change from „above“

3). Critique on Political Correctness - Is PC going too far?
3.1). Euphemisms - Origins and Use
3.2). Political Correctness causes Equivocalness in Language
3.3). The Euphemism Treadmill

4). Survey on Non-Sexist Language at The University of Cologne
4.1). Results

5). Conclusion

6). Bibliography

Political Correctness - Definition and History of Political Correctness in the “Radfahrende bitte absteigen!”, reads a sign at the Students Service Center at the University of Cologne, requesting the cyclists to get off their bikes. Just until a few months ago, there was a similar sign at the very same place saying “Radfahrer bitte absteigen!”, which prima facie may appear to be the very same statement, the only difference being that it uses a generic masculine form. This real-life example serves to present the effect of politically correct language on society and language, especially at the university campuses.

The term 'political correctness' itself is difficult to define. Noam Chomsky at some time defined it as a 'healthy expansion of moral concern' (Allan and Burridge 90). The phrase 'politically correct', as the broader public assumes, has not emerged until approximately 50 years ago, however, it once appears in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1793, within the context of the case ' Chrisholm v. Georgia' wherein Justice James Wilson points out that it is not politically correct to say the 'People of the United States' as this should be replaced with 'The United States' (ibid.) instead. Even though the term 'political correctness' does indeed show some early appearances in language use, in fact, it was rarely used until the 1960s.

The literary historian Ruth Perry claims that during that time period it may have been adapted by the American New Left from former Soviet and Chinese ideological speak in which the term indicated whether the members followed the ideologies of the party (Bad Language : 90). Thus, in the 1960s and 1970s, the term “political correctness” obtained a rather negative connotation; it was used to refer to the fellow members of one's party “who toed the party line very strictly and whose behaviour was therefore seen as 'ultra-correct'”

(Goddard and Patterson 69). Compared to the current definition of the term, it becomes sufficiently clear that it does not possess the same meaning any longer. As Deborah Cameron explains, “the phrase has undergone 'discursive drift'” (ibid. 69). By the 1980s, being politically correct could be equated with abiding to certain speech-codes that were established in the professional societies guidelines for bias-free language and on plenty university campuses. Thus, affirmative action programs were developed; language taboos were established to reduce sexist and racist speech to encourage minorities to enroll (Talbot 754). Practices and expressions that seemed neutral before, were criticized and gained a negative connotation “by making people (that used it) aware of discriminatory practices (ibid). Supported by new legislation, the 'political correctness'-movement not only provided a language reform but social change that promoted diversity, bias-free language and thinking, the equality of women and homosexuals in society as well as the recognition of ethnic, sexual, religious and cultural diversity.

Nowadays, political correctness generally describes behavior, especially verbal behavior, rather than a political attitude (Allan and Burridge 94).

“Political correctness gets us to focus on the claims of different groups, it prescribes and proscribes public language for ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference, appearance, religion, (dis) ability and so on. (ibid.105).

Scholars claim that “the “'politically correct' terminology is largely concerned with the lexical- semantic level” (Hellinger 566-567). Speech-codes were set up and proscribed the use of potentially offensive words. Dictionaries provided recommendations and suggestions of less demeaning alternatives. In 1989 the Multicultural Management Program (MMA) released the Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases in which more than 230 different words and idiomatic expressions were characterized as being offensive and biased. Each of the 'undesirable' words was followed by a short comment explaining the reason of its banishment. Additionally, “Avoid use” or adjectives like “unacceptable” (ibid.) provide a concrete evaluation to what extent that particular word should be avoided. So, what exactly does PC prescribe? Especially in America advocates of politically correct language criticize the usage of the masculine generics in the English language, meaning the use of the male form even though people of either sex are meant. Example: Everyone wants to be happy in his life. Even though the sentence is making a general statement about basic human nature, ' his' is the generic masculine form. This form of critique is believed to have originated in Feminist Linguistics. As an alternative, supporters advise, the generic she or the singular? they should be used instead. Several years later, a decrease in the use of the generic he could be observed and as studies claim, the preferred singular they can now be found in the majority of spoken language.

Moreover, terms for specific ethnic groups were replaced by new, politically correct terms: African-American for Black, Native American for Indian, Inuit for Eskimo for example. These new words “have since found wide acceptance” (ibid.).

Further linguistic innovations were the renaming of social groups which previously had a predominantly negative connotation, such as senior citizen for old age pensioner, or disabled for handicapped. Later on, disabled again was replaced by a new word, namely physically challenged (ibid.)

Additionally, linguistic terms to refer to historically male-dominated professions were likewise renamed as to be gender-neutral and less biased. For example, all occupations that ended with the suffix - man, such as policeman, fireman or chairman were changed to more neutral terms, such as police officer, fire fighter and chairperson. Today it is considered good manners to refer to someone as a facility manager instead of cleaner, to say administrative assistant instead of secretary, or to use the term stylist instead of hairdresser and so on. Thus, jobs with lower social prestige are at least linguistically raised in their value.

As a matter of principle, politically correct language aims to replace terms with negative connotation with alternative terms that either suppress the rejected aspects of the old term, increasingly emphasize the positive aspects or do not evoke any form of negative association at all.

The thesis of my paper is that prescriptions of politically correct language cause language change and may lead to an increasing equivocalness of language by incorporating euphemisms. To back up this argument, I will introduce the model of the so called euphemism treadmill created by linguist Steven Pinker. At first, a definition of the term political correctness will be given in the introduction. Furthermore, I will examine how language is changed through PC and through which mechanisms prescriptive speech codes emerge and can spread nationwide. Additionally, due to the fact that the very first speech restrictions were set up on US high school campuses, I will also provide a survey in which I analyze the Self-attitude of students of the Philosophical Faculty (University of Cologne) towards politically correct language, with a special focus on nonsexist/gender- neutral language. The results will be then compared to the current situation in the U.S.

2). Process of Political Correctness - Language Change from „above“

How can it be possible that phenomena such as the political correctness, that, as can be argued, are not taken quite serious by certain strata of society, still have such a great impact on the language use in everyday life? How can a concept which no one really admits to actually prescribing achieve such a self-efficacy? In this chapter, I will provide answers to these questions and furthermore examine to what extent political correctness may cause language change.

In her book, Curzan explains how a politically correct phenomenon such as the nonsexist language reform has emerged in the 1970s and effectively banned the use of generic he from standard using. With the 'second wave feminism' advocates of nonsexist language protested against the use of generic he claiming “ that the pronoun he, just like the pronoun she, is not gender neutral” (117). Sentences like 'a bicyclist can bet that he is not safe from dogs' were claimed to be sexist and to be replaced by gender-neutral pronouns, such as they. To back up this claim with scientific arguments, female linguists provided several empirical studies. In these studies,it was found that when reading sentences with generic he, the majority of the participants perceived these sentences as referring to males only (MacKay and Fulkerson 661-673).

Thus, many articles were written and published prescribing the further usage of generic he. These proscriptions gained much attention from several public institutions and were met with positive response. By and by, this prescription was accepted by almost all academic institutions. To demonstrate the great extent of rapid change in sexist language, Curzan analyzed revisions of the style manuals of two major academic associations: the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA). The former did not impose any prescriptions in the first two editions in 1967 and 1974. It is in its third edition of 1983 only, that for the first time the feminists' attempt to reduce bias in language is being recognized (Curzan 121). The APA Board set up policies and guidelines as to avoid sexist language. Consequently students and lecturers had to abide by these requirements. From this moment on, more and more academic publications were written in unbiased and equitable language which again influenced the people reading those publications suggesting certain standards in formal and spoken usage (ibid. 120).

At most colleges, it is the administration that set up the code. Because there have been racist or sexist or homophobic taunts, anonymous notes graffiti, the administration feels it must do something. The cheapest, quickest way to demonstrate that it cares it to appear to suppress racist, sexist, homophobic speech (Hentoff 216).

In 1991, Hentoff reports that students at New York University Law School censor themselves in class which creates a very oppressive atmosphere. (218) Some months later, president David Gardner carried out reforms regarding the use of speech at the University of California. A strict speech code on most high school campuses was created. Punishments were set out to both students who violated the speech code by using so- called “fighting words” - “derogatory references to “race, sex, sexual orientation, or disability” (ibid. 221), amendments were imposed calling out for harsher codes at some campuses. Many students did not agree with those speech restrictions because it was limited by college administrators in rather subjective ways. Often, those speech codes changed every time the old administrators were replaced by new ones (ibid. 222). As I already stated earlier, the nonsexist language reform started with the second wave feminist social movement; after that numerous applications reached academic institutions striving for unbiased, gender-neutral language. Of course, if it had remained limited solely to the domain of the academia, the debate on political correctness would have never been able to achieve such prominent, and ambiguous response nationwide and later internationally.

Through the publication of bestseller books with attention grabbing names such as, 'Retaking America: Crushing Political Correctness' and 'The Language Police' and numerous TV programs, newspaper articles and documentaries criticizing the language reform, the term 'political correctness' soon reached the general public (Cameron 128).

3). Critique on Political Correctness - Is PC going too far?

3.1) Euphemisms - Origins and Use

In our constantly changing world the main source of mass information is television alongside with print media. The subject of most print media affects the domestic political relations inside a country as well as the external relations of the leading countries in the world. When reporting about current events, numerous authors of sociopolitical articles resort to various methods to obfuscate truth and reality by replacing offensive lexis with a neutral one, using euphemisms. Thus, according to O'Neill, language makes a progression from honesty and clarity to dishonesty and obscurity (285).

In the history of the human language, euphemisms have been present since the beginning of time. It can be argued that language taboos contributed to a great word formation process, namely the emergence of euphemisms. Researchers of this phenomenon claim that the process of its formation either maintained in a state of rise or decline depending on the varying moral principles and beliefs that existed throughout different time periods. In the second half of the 20th century, one of such rises occurred when the theory of 'political correctness' achieved a wider distribution in the USA. The human pursuit of civility, tactfulness and humanity forms the basic principle of the 'political correctness' theory. Hughes considers euphemisms to be partially a linguistic aspect of 'political correctness' (18). According to scholars, the term 'euphemism' descends from the Greek euphemismos (eu - good, phemi - I speak) (Merriam Webster). The notion of euphemism is tightly connected to the notion of taboo. Taboo usually can be defined as a prohibition on certain activities, words that emerged in the ancient world and were connected to mythological imaginations of the human being.

Euphemisms are usual when there is a constraint on being explicit for fear of causing offense or distress. This is often related to areas which can be considered taboo, such as death and bodily functions. Thus euphemisms seek to background negative aspects of something and highlight positive aspects (Henriksen 52).

As Henriksen points out, euphemisms usually have positive connotations - they strive to reduce offensive meaning and “avoid too many negative connotations” (Allan, Burridge 97). Moreover, advocates of politically correct language point out that, as opposed to critical views, euphemisms are not supposed to “conceal unpleasant reality, but to help remove the stigma of negative stereotypes” (ibid.).

Despite above explanation, the term 'euphemism' obtains a prevailing pejorative reputation due to large criticism in popular culture. It is assumed by many that the “deliberately obfuscatory jargon (of euphemisms is) intended to befuddle the hearer”. (98) Because of that, the term 'euphemism' can hardly be used without implying a certain amount of criticism - to some extent it becomes a label which is then used to back the arguments of both advocates and critics of politically correct language (ibid. 98).

3.2) Political Correctness causes Equivocalness in Language

As a matter of fact, political correctness is concerned with changing and replacing norms and values in language and society. Words with negative semantics, are replaced by euphemisms. As noted in the previous chapter, most US universities have set a good example and passed laws about appropriate use of language. Battistella reports that after imposing these strict speech codes at the University of Michigan, George W. Bush condemned the ongoing situation and commented as follows:


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Political Correctness. Language Change from Above
University of Cologne
How Language Change(s)
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ISBN (eBook)
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political, correctness, language, change, above
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Valera Tokarev (Author), 2016, Political Correctness. Language Change from Above, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/382469


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