Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
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Today I want to sketch another topic I notice—how words reflect our culture and, perhaps, shape us in return.
Later in this post, I’ll get to the news article that prompted my response today, on road safety officials avoiding calling traffic wrecks “accidents”
Words reflect our culture and, perhaps, shape us in return
This topic connects to my interest in genres, too. I keep noting that we shape genres and genres shape us. Ditto words. The words we use come from who we are, as individuals, a society, and a culture. Words reflect our values and beliefs, our ways of viewing the world. And they reflect our history, who we have been. And words may then shape our views of the world, too, influencing what we see and how we see.
Think of the words homosexual gay queer trans LGBTQ+ and slurs I won’t name
Or whether we label someone a shooter, murderer, or terrorist
Or whether someone is pro-life or anti-choice, pro-choice or pro-abortion
You might have noticed that I hedge with “perhaps” and “may” on my claims that words shape us in return. That’s because there’s a lot of scholarship on the relationship between thinking and language. Beginning with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—a hypothesis developed by anthropologist Edward Sapir and later by linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf that language influences our thinking—researchers of cognition and the brain and of language and culture have debated whether language actually limits our thinking or merely reflects it. For example, it’s clear that language changes, so we must be able to think beyond or outside of our words. The strong version of the hypothesis, that language determines thinking, doesn’t hold up well.
But a weaker version, that language influences thoughts, makes sense. I can’t resist the notion that the words we use shape our perceptions and attitudes.
Scholars in cognitive metaphor theory, originating in the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, reveal how filled with metaphors our language is and how those metaphors come from our bodies and influence our brains. And more recent research has demonstrated that the words of body metaphors have some basis in physical reality. We connect temperatures to feelings, for example. Affection is warm, distance is cold, as in the temperature words describing people: hot-headed, cold, warm, cool and collected. It turns out that when we hold something warm, we perceive others as warmer emotionally and we’re more generous than when we hold something cold. You can hear more in this NPR All Things Considered report.
It’s a rich field of research, and I’m just barely mentioning it here. I hope to pick up on conceptual metaphors in a later post. You might want to check out George Lakoff’s video of discovering the many ways we talk about love as a journey.
Or this animated depiction of the ways our bodies lead us to see life as a journey moving forward, by Charles Forceville
One use of language that has been discussed vigorously is the use of the word “survivor” for people who have had cancer. The whole “cancer is war” metaphor pokes its head through when obituaries note that someone “battled” cancer, or “fought hard” or “lost the battle.” Not just words but whole genres shape our actions in dealing with cancer. Judy Segal has written great stuff about the “breast cancer narrative” genre and what it leads us to expect of cancer patients (I can link only to an abstract).
In the past week, the Kansas City Star published a report by Miranda Davis headlined in the print version, “Don’t call it an accident, road safety officials say."
Instead of “accident,” highway patrols and safety agencies are using the words “crash” and “wreck.” According to Mark Rosekind, director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like God made it happen.”
Instead, humans cause most wrecks through their risky behavior—drunk driving, speeding, distracted driving, or not wearing a seat belt. But if you say it was an accident, it makes it seem unavoidable. The Kansas Department of Transportation is trying to change the mindset by changing the words they use. The Missouri Highway Patrol now files “crash reports” instead of “accident reports.” As Rosekind says,
In our society, language can be everything.”
Everything? Maybe not, in the more complex scholarly research society. As academics say about every subject, it’s complicated. (Or maybe that’s just me) But words, at the very least, give us a way of noticing or pointing out our attitudes and limited perceptions. Distinguishing between genuine accidents in the world and things people cause can help us change behavior, the safety officials hope. New models of cancer treatment will need to shift patients from “survivors” of a war to cohabiters or roommates, people “living with” cancer long-term. For rhetoricians and writing teachers, it helps to have a model of argument not just as war (winning an argument, defending a point) but instead as finding common ground, as Carl Rogers and others would have it.
I’ll keep noticing words that are shaping our attention one way or another and hope to write more about particular sets of words in future posts. What words have you noticed that might shape our view of our worlds?