Language and inclusion: a reflective overview
marketing / content
Language is our way of communicating, expressing ourselves and telling stories. It’s what keeps us connected, and as author Edward Bulwer-Lytton said: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
As a marketing agency, we want to make sure we embrace and create an environment that is welcoming for everyone. We also wanted to see where the balance of language fusion and cultural appropriation in our English, spoken, written and read, lies.
English is spoken by approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide, due to a wide and varied history. It’s one of the most commonly taught languages and has a colourful variety of dialects, accents and more. Within Britain itself, there’s each sovereign states version, and then within that, dialects and we haven’t even touched class, race and demographic.
TFG is a company that is based in the South East of England, so we write in Standard or General English, defined by multiple linguists.
MUSIC LINGUISTICS & THE IMPACT OF AFRICAN
Music is a crucial way we communicate and tell our stories, but it also encourages the spread of new words from different cultures. It connects people across borders. Drum and Bass, for example, has a separate lexicon compared to classical music. The words “roller“, “liquid“, “scatty” and similar would not mean anything to someone who doesn’t listen to DnB.
Through people sharing their stories, music connects people through a beat, a tune or by lyrics. It’s the main reason I wanted to include it in this article as people from multiple countries can listen to one song, and perhaps without understanding the lyrics entirely, understand the emotion. Take Kendrick Lamar. He raps in AAVE, and speaks honestly about the lives of black people in America. While people globally may not fully understand his lyrics, his raw emotion in his songs shines through.
In “DNA.”, taken from his 2017 album DAMN, Lamar sampled Fox News reporters. Geraldo Rivera had said in an interview “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.” Referring to Lamar’s performance about police brutality at the BET awards in 2015, Rivera condemned the artist for broadcasting his message on such a public stage. Lamar, however, is simply storytelling in his vernacular and very publicly.
Before we continue, let’s talk about AAVE.
AAVE or African American Vernacular English to give it the full name, is formally recognised as a dialect of English. It became a source of controversy in 1996 when the Oakland School board defined the language of their 28,000 African American students as “Ebonics.” The phrase was coined by combining ‘ebony’ with ‘phonics’ by a linguist named Dr Robert Williams, an African-American social psychologist.
Williams recounted the creation of Ebonics as follows: “We need to define what we speak. We need to give a clear definition to our language. …We know that ebony means black and that phonics refers to speech sounds or the science of sounds. Thus, we are really talking about the science of black speech sounds or language.” (Williams, 1997a)
Ebonics became formally known as AAVE after the Oakland School events, in order to mitigate the fallout.
With AAVE’s roots slightly more understood, it is also important to know that it was created to define the linguistic fusion that happened because of the African Slave Trade. Sadly, generations of whites across America mocked those who spoke AAVE and used in racist ridicule, even after the abolition of the slave trade. It was, and sometimes today it is still considered lesser than Standard English and associated with lower education.
THE HISTORY OF BRITISH
In Great Britain, the language that we speak today comes from many different sources. The oldest known language in the UK is ancient Celtic, modern versions of which are still spoken in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland today. With the arrival of the Germanic tribes on British soil, the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes are said to have brought what we would begin to recognise as modern-day English. After locals moved further north, Englisc, the language spoken by the Angle tribe, started to spread across the south of Britain.
Through the Norman invasion in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings 10,000 French-based words entered our lexicon. At the time, Englisc was spoken by the lower classes, the courts and aristocracy preferring French as their language. In the 1150-1500s was the birth of Middle English, still mainly spoken by the lower classes.
Language as we recognise
In the early 1400s came along the Chancery Standard. Widely adopted from London outwards, we saw the end of French being the preferred language and started to develop our own vernacular. Then with the introduction of the printing press in 1470, Britain entered a new era of language distribution as it was much easier to spread around.
Shakespeare brought in around 1,500 new words, many of which are used today and heralded the Early Modern English beginnings. Then Late Modern English happened through the industrial revolution, the introduction of Latin and Greek words to explain scientific and technological advances. Colonialism brought even more words into the Late Modern English language as language fusion happened as we invaded more and more countries.
RP and languages social status
RP or Received Pronunciation has long been thought of as a “higher class pronunciation” associated with private schools, the BBC and the Queen. With class divides happening more prominently in the period of Late Modern English, RP became associated with upper classes and the rich.
As it is widely used to teach English globally, we wanted to address it as it has been used to long oppress those who haven’t come from social backgrounds that teach it. Through colonialism and the slave trade, it is reminiscent of oppression as those that didn’t learn to speak RP were less likely to be promoted above their own people. It was also another way for slave owners to mock the enslaved.
Considered as a neutral accent, it has been long adopted by national radios and broadcasters. However, younger generations are choosing to avoid using RP, seeing it as socially restrictive and out of touch with the modern world.
It has certainly been used, even subconsciously, to oppress those who do not speak it.
Yet in some situations we uphold it as a route to privilege and higher social status. “If they [we] become conscious of this, they can also ‘play’ with their languages and identities, deliberately shifting from one language/variety to another within the same conversation, thereby signalling a change from one identity to another.” – M.Byram, Durham University
Now, it is more common to see people using their born dialect on the national news, instead of conforming to the outdated standard. We do have work to do to make it more inclusive and to stop considering people who speak RP “better“.
Sadly it is mostly ethnic minorities who are oppressed for not speaking ‘properly’ when in fact they are speaking entirely correctly, and it is us (referring to white people) who are being racially microaggressive.
INSULTS AND SLURS: HOW DID WE DECIDE WHAT WAS NEGATIVE?
“The times they are a-changing”, and for some, it can be hard to keep up with. As I discuss shortly, the introduction of social media has sped up our vernacular changes quickly. Slurs, however, are interesting and often hotly contested as our awareness of certain terms develops. We will be discussing offensive terms, and we apologise if it causes harm, but it is important to educate ourselves and others on the history of this topic.
Take the word “gay”. Etymologically it comes from the Old French word “gai” meaning full of joy and mirth. Until the 1600s it didn’t take any sexual connotations on. A prostitute might have been described as a “gay woman” and a womanizer as a “gay man.” “Gay house” was commonly used to refer to a brothel and, later, “gaiety” was used as a common name for certain places of entertainment.
As far as we know the term “gay” was first used to describe a homosexual relationship in the 1890s, referring to a younger man in a submissive style relationship with an older man. It came from the Scottish “gey cat”, a Scottish variant of the word “gay”. In 1951 it was formally recognised by the Oxford Dictionary as a slang word for a homosexual.
It is now a socially accepted term for a homosexual male and a broader term for members of the LGBTQ+ community. However, it is still used insultingly. In Same Love by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Mary Lambert, Macklemore raps “If I was gay I would think hip-hop hates me, Have you read the Youtube comments lately, “Man that’s gay” gets dropped on the daily, We’ve become so numb to what we’re sayin.’” While this song was written over five years ago, it still rings true.
As a company, we are feminists. And by that, I mean people who believe in the achievement of the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes. We are also a largely female company, with Alex, our web designer, being male. We work with people of all genders and have a right mix of people who we work with, from local company We are Hex for our additional development work to Becky, who we partner with for PR.
However, as a group of largely women, in a company that is founded by two women, we have problems with certain terms.
Let’s start with “girboss, mumboss” etc. Mumpreneur is also on the bad list. Why can’t we just be a boss? Or an entrepreneur? Why do we create extra terms that seem diminishing and take us below our male counterparts?
It’s a changing world where women are no longer actresses, but instead all actors. Comedienne is an archaic term, instead the gender-neutral comedian is preferred. Waiter and waitresses is another perfect example of this. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, what about the negative connotations of the word “witch” over the positive “wizard.” Language has suppressed women with negative connotations for years, designed to reinforce the second class citizen rhetoric.
Yet there is only more. Female promiscuity is another. A man has 5 sexual partners in a year, and he is a “lad”, a “g”, a “stud”. A woman does the same and is branded a “whore”, “slag”, “slut” and more. There are over 100 negative terms for female promiscuity, yet men have less than 10 and they are rare and not widely used. In college, I was presented with a table comparing the negative terms for female promiscuity and the male versions. The womens went on for over a page, yet the male side stopped after five.
Recently, I asked a question on my personal Instagram account of “As a woman, what derogatory terms have you been called?” I promised them anonymity, as to protect them, so *all names mentioned are not their real ones. I will be discussing sexual abuse, so if you feel this may trigger you, please scroll to the next heading about social media.
One woman said “As a 14-year-old, I was called a white bitch for refusing to perform fellatio on a fellow 14-year-old male.”
Another said “Just before I went on my first period of maternity leave, he [a previous employer] commented that I would be “going on your big holiday soon”. Bearing in mind that he already had three children by this point it was rather cheeky of him to think that it was going to be anything like a holiday!”
Jane* said “I was sexually abused by an ex. He and his friends called me “the girl who cried rape” for years.”
Even I personally have been told numerous times, that because of my participation in strongwoman, I will “turn into a man” and that “only bi men will get with me, or one night stands” or a personal favourite “it’s so weird that you don’t like getting your nails and hair done and looking pretty, you’ll never find a spouse, they’ll want someone who looks good when they go out together in public.”
It is rare that a woman cannot remember a time she has been diminished or had a comment said to her because of her gender. And I think that is very sad.
SOCIAL MEDIA’S LANGUAGE FUSIONS:
COOL TO CRINGE
I’ve spoken a lot above about language fusion, from how it spread historically through invasion, colonisation but now in the 21st century, we have a new method. Social media is used by 3.8 billion people globally, and it brings together people from all races, religions and countries. Some use it to share an opinion, others to connect with family and friends that live far away. However, there is no denying that it has had a significant impact on our language.
Take ‘selfie’, first recorded on the internet by a drunk internet user to show his off his post-night out injury. Thousands of words have been shared through social media, the concept of “tweeting”, “DM-ing” and “yeet-ing” to name but a few. To yeet is a verb which is defined as “throwing something with force” and came from a popular vine by user Lil’ Meatball.
Meme culture has also inspired a new generation of comedy and vernacular, where years of memes built up now make younger generations double over to something that would be perhaps confusing to older generations. Take the ‘stonks’ meme, which has evolved into ‘panik’, ‘kalm’ and ‘shef’ to name but a few. (I would recommend Googling it, and if it doesn’t make sense, I don’t know how to explain it.)
FUSING OUR LINGUISTICS
Being connected continuously or the ability to be, means that we are surrounded by multiple lexicons frequently. Therefore, this speeds up the rate of word spread and pushes many words from cool to cringe, a lot of which originated in black communities.
Take ‘swag‘ as a prime example. Once used to describe the way African American hip-hop artists held themselves with pride and style, it is now cringeworthy and discarded as reminiscent of a past time.
Through my research for this article, I found an overwhelming opinion from black people that if white people are going to use their language, we should at least understand and respect where these words come from.
“A case can be made that these words entering the mainstream is ultimately a good thing. It can be viewed as a melding of ideas and worlds, proof that the English language is always changing, and evidence that black people and black culture are becoming more largely accepted. And anyway, don’t black people use “white” slang words, too? Like awesome, and rad, and totes (not really)? But another case could be made that we live in a society that loves black culture — but doesn’t like black people all too much — and what might look like acceptance is just downright thievery.”
WHAT CAN MARKETING AND ADVERTISING AS A WHOLE DO?
In an article on WeWork.com by Iman Stevenson, she talks about how “Black Cool” is capitalised on, used to make sales and to form relevant social media discussions. While I am not the person to judge, to point fingers and say you’re doing it wrong when I don’t know who is making the social media posts, I did want to pose some questions.
If we utilise black created words, concepts and ‘black cool’ to inform and increase our marketing outputs, what does that mean for the black people who created it?
This can be said about any terms created by certain demographics. The LGBTQ+ community have their vernacular, and so we should not be capitalising on that.
However, this isn’t to say you can’t have a strong tone of voice. As you read this article, you probably noticed us nailing our colours to the mast. We are willingly outspoken about what is wrong. We want to use our platform to share projects, people and things that make positive change. As partners with Hampshire Pride, we are proud to support those in our workforce who speak out about their sexuality, and the troubles that come with it.
An open conversation in the office on sexuality once ended with Natalie saying “I do not understand the feelings she has, but that does not mean I cannot support her and be an ally when times are tough.”
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change; I am changing the things I cannot accept” – Angela Y. Davis
As this article draws to a close (I hear whispers of finally coming from you), and I wanted to sum up some of the main points, questions and draw some sort of a conclusion.
Firstly, unless you are part of a community, we cannot decide what is offensive and not. That community itself is the judge of what is offensive.
Understanding the history of where slurs came from is just as important as knowing why they are so offensive. Historical context also plays a massive role in this.
Having a tone of voice is perfectly fine, but make it for good. Encourage positive change, and understand what you are saying before you say it.
There are many conversations to be had, and much learning to be done. It is our job to educate ourselves and others. We must call out what is wrong. Embracing our differences can be done without being offensive, and we should be encouraging authenticity without viewing it as less. There is so much more to say, but not enough lines to write it.
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