Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Grammar Part 2: More thoughts on words

I’ve had to somewhat rethink my last post in light of some of the comments people made. I still hold to my position that grammatically/semantically, there is no difference between the noun phrase “asexual people” and the noun “asexuals” (which is also a noun phrase.) In terms of connotation, I also think they are the same—I don’t sense any real difference in how I feel about either term, nor do I have any sense that I would think it strange/insensitive/offensive if people use one rather than the other.

This doesn’t apply universally to other cases where there is a noun/adjectival choice. In doing research for this blog (by which I mean using google and and then Control+f on some Wikipedia articles), I found that both the terms “blacks” and “black people” are common, and they are used interchangeably in the Wikipedia article on black people. However, in the article on white people, the terms are not interchangeable. In that article as well as a google search of the term ‘whites,’ the only contexts in which I found ‘whites’ used was when viewed negatively as an outgroup—I found it in contexts discussing stereotypes and in a page discussing working class whites and the construction of “white trash” as a scapegoat. To me, the term “whites” simply sounds weird and this is probably because I almost never hear it used.

However, this possible alternation doesn’t apply to all ethnic groups. “Native Americans” and “American Indians” are used, but “Native American people” and “American Indian people” just sound odd to me (probably because I never hear them used and because they’re long and awkward.) When I googled the terms, I found that “Native American people” is used,” but “Native Americans” is used about 50 times as often. A similar discrepancy is found between “Asian people” (in quotes, I got 1.1 million results,) and “Asians” (20.1 million) Unfortunately, this isn’t a reliable way of doing things, since, if I type “Asians,” google will also give me results for “Asian.” (It may not be accurate, but it’s fast and easy.)

When discussing any kind of minority group, we often feel that we can’t simply use words interchangeably. There is history of serious racism (or other forms of prejudice, depending on what group we are talking about), and racists continue to exist. In addition to more overt racism (whether lynching, hate crimes, discrimination, or negative stereotypes), there are others who are utterly insensitive (I don’t get what you’re problem is. Why do you have to make such a big deal out of this?) In discussing sensitive issues on which so many are insensitive people (often including ourselves, unintentionally), we want to communicate to others that we aren’t racist and that we aren’t insensitive. We are self-conscious, afraid that if we use the wrong term, people will look down on us, judge us.

Groups often debate extensively about what terms should be used. There are debates about what words demean people, what words more highly value people, what words are pejoratives, and what pejoratives should be reclaimed. People argue that if certain words are used, people will think better or worse of members of some group. Do not words, after all, form our very thoughts?

To some extent, this makes sense to me. Words have histories. We make associations with words beyond mere semantic content. Words evoke feelings. The reason we feel some words are derogatory is that we have heard them used as insults and have heard that they are insulting. At another level, however, I am skeptical. There is a dominant idea that the language we use shapes how we think. Depending on what is meant by this, it can be a highly controversial claim. To the extent that language is a part of our thinking process, obviously language is part of thought. Language is the primary means of communicating ideas to others. In that our ideas are largely shaped by the people we’ve heard and the things we’ve read, language effects our thoughts. However the claim that speaking one language rather than another determines how we think is not a live option among linguists. (We have concepts for things we don’t know a word for, such as the plastic thing on the end of a shoelace. We often have the feeling that we have a thought but it is difficult to put into words.) There may be some slight evidence that speaking one language rather than another has some effect on how people think or perceive the world, but it is inconclusive at best and generally only shows very weak links. It is possible that culture, not the grammar or vocabulary of a language, is responsible for differences in how people think. And it is quite possible that how we think about the word shapes the language we use much more than languages shapes perception.

There are claims that using one term rather than another will affect how people think about some concept. This may be true to some extent, but I have my doubts. How a question is worded can affect how people will answer it, and there is evidence that how you order information affects how people interpret it. (If you describe a person with good attributes and then add some negative traits at the end and ask someone to describe that person, they tend to give much more positive descriptions than if the same information is given in reverse order—negative information is first and then positive traits.) However, I am skeptical that using one term rather than another will make a big difference (if any at all) about how someone will think about something (unless there is some obvious reason for doing so, such as one word being clearly insulting). The content of the message seems much more likely to be important in shaping how people think.

This fits with the way that we remember things we’ve heard or read. We typically don’t remember the exact words someone told us—maybe a few words stood out or we recall a phrase here or a sentence there—but generally we remember the gist of what was said. We remember the main point, not the specific words. Unless one term has negative connotations that another doesn’t or suggests something that is misleading or untrue, I doubt that using one term rather than another will make much of a difference. On the other hand, it can be useful to have multiple terms to use. For asexuals, words like asexual, ace/ase, A, amoeba, asexual person, and so on can all be useful in different contexts. Among people unfamiliar with asexuality,'asexual' and 'asexual person' are probably the best ways to go. Amongst ourselves and others who know our language, we can more freely alternate between them.

Often, the meaning isn’t the important thing. A good example is the word ‘asexy.’ Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what this word means. It certainly isn’t the opposite of sexy, as though asexuals are all a bunch of funky lookin’ people. The AVEN Wiki’s lexicon defines it as “an informal word for asexual; someone or something that is made more attractive by her/his/its lack of sexuality.” This is about as good a definition as possible, but I don’t feel it really captures the word (and I don’t think any other definition could do this.) It’s obvious that ‘asexy’ is an asexual parallel to ‘sexy.’ There is enormous cultural value placed on being sexy, and for us aces, sexy doesn’t tend to be that important. So instead of being sexy, we can be asexy. The meaning isn’t as important as the feeling. Personally, I think it’s kinda cute. But I don’t expect “I’m too asexy for my shirt, too asexy for my shirt, so asexy it hurts” to be in any chart-topping songs in the near future.

For one thing, the rhythm is totally wrong.

In dealing with words for asexuals, I don’t sense any strong difference between ‘asexual’ and ‘asexual people.’ I’m not a huge fan of either, but I use them because it enables communication on the subject and there aren’t any alternatives that I really like any better. In the end, our choice of words will be based on individual preference—some people like the term ‘asexy,’ and some people don’t. Some like ‘ace’ or ‘ase,’ and others don’t. ‘Asexual,’ both as noun and as adjective, is the most widespread term, and all signs indicate that it will continue to be so for some time.


Ily said...

Urban Dictionary has another definition of "asexy": http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=asexy

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed these two posts; I like words too - finding the right word to express something, understanding what a word may evoke beyond what it means, and so on.

I use the word "asexy" sometimes, but in a very specific context. I read Wired magazine and some articles refer to objects (say, a new cell phone, a new laptop, and so on) as "sexy". I really love technology and, for some reason I don't really understand, I feel that the word "sexy" can be very well applied to a cell phone or an ultra-thin laptop - in fact, these are about the only things that I would call "sexy" (I have no idea what "sexy" means when it refers to a person and I have never used it that way). But sometimes, I feel that it is weird to use the word "sexy" when I am asexual and when it refers to objects rather than people (I mean, can a non-asexual person feel anything sexual for an object?). So I use the word "asexy" instead. But it does not sound really good (especially in French) so I usually write it but not say it.

pretzelboy said...

"I usually write it but not say it."

That's what I do for most of the asexual lexicon. I use the words 'asexual' and 'asexuality,' but that's about it. Sometimes, if I'm having a more in-depth conversation about the subject with someone, I'll define some other the other words. But they're only useful if the people I'm communicating with know the words. And just about all of my in-depth conversation about asexuality is done in writing.

Anonymous said...

It's an aglet. :)


But yes, I see what you mean. I like using 'ase' as much as possible because it sounds less clinical, and I want people to think of it as a sexuality established enough to have its own slang. But there's probably a bit of laziness in there.

pretzelboy said...

I would probably use 'ase' more often except that I don't like its plural form 'ases.' There is, of course, 'ase people' but I feel like if I'm having to use two words, I haven't done anything to shorten it (even though 'ase people' is one syllable shorter than 'asexuals.')