Change Your Language

Today, I bought two books in French (Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, and Terre des hommes, by Antoine de Saint-Expéry, if you’re curious), took care of the children for ages, and also ran across this quote:

Change the way you look at these neighbors by changing the language you use to describe them. Think about the motivations for their actions. Instead of “that prostitute was out all night selling her body”, think: “My neighbor (insert name here) was forced by her pimp to stand out in the cold all night and have sex with multiple men she didn’t know.” See if that doesn’t change your opinion of her.

This article, “Oakland: 20 ways not to be a gentrifier,” is an excellent primer for… a lot of things, not just how not to be a gentrifier. The above quote, from #3 on the list, particularly struck me. Learning French, while living with a British family, while being a native speaker of American English, I’m increasingly finding myself with three words for things.

Example A: THIS OBJECT

La poussette, the stroller, or the pushchair–choose your poison. Personally, I think of ‘poussette’ first and almost always use it, even though I sometimes commit the verbally awkward Anglicization of saying “the poussette” instead of using the French article la. In the grand scheme of things, which word I use doesn’t matter. No matter who I’m talking to, be it the French nanny or the British mom, I’m going to be understood. Partly because I’m usually pointing at the object or making some wild gesticulation or something.

But even this teeny, tiny, totally trivial selection made me think. I wondered why I was suddenly using the French word for this thing I push around everyday, when I realized that the French word fits best: “-ette” is frequently a diminutive ending, in French and English, and “pousser” is the verb “to push.” The word feels like the cutesy version of ‘something you push,’ which is exactly right for what I’ve referred to all my life as a stroller. Frankly, I do not stroll with this contraption, I push it, frequently up steep hills with a 4 year old hanging on for dear life off the side. But, inside, there’s something cute and tiny. So, la poussette it is.

While this language choice was unconscious (I just overanalyzed it later, as I have a tendency to do), we can also make conscious choices about language usage. “Climate change” and “global warming” refer to the same phenomena, yet they have different flavors. Climate change, on a literal level, doesn’t specify what kind of change that might be. Global warming seems fairly straightforward, though, and this straightforwardness is misleading.

Global warming also has been used extensively for the past few decades, but recent research suggests less predictable outcomes to this phenomena than the term “global warming” suggests, so many environmental writers (myself included) tend to prefer the term “climate change.” While flooding, drought, and even increased extreme weather events (i.e. hurricanes, tornadoes) may all be related to warming, it takes a few steps to get from warming to flooding. “Climate change,” by remaining more ambiguous, is more accurate for what we now know about this stuff that is happening to our planet.

But notice. In the last paragraph, I concluded with the phrase, this stuff that is happening to our planet. By making “our planet” the indirect object of this phrase, isolating it from the verb (“is happening”), I’m also isolating the phenomenon from any sense of human responsibility. I’ve taken culpability out of the sentence, despite the fact that I’m talking about something that is very likely anthropogenic.

In other words, we are doing this. We humans are happening to our planet.

But keep reading. We humans. We’re in this together. We are all humans. This is our planet. We can change our language, and we can change our actions. We have to believe that.

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