A recent opinion article by Daniel Duque titled “We are Latinos, not Latinx,” in the Poly Post got me thinking about how we approach social change through linguistics, how those means of change clash with our personal identities and how we come to internalize outdated language rules that work to prevent us from making social progress. Really, I want to look at some of the arguments lodged by the original author and apply them to an understanding of social change through language.
The original article centers around a negative judgment of Latinx as a neutral, nonbinary, term that attempts to unwind the power imbalance and persistent emphasis on the “man” in gendered language; albeit through the lens, and by the influence of, the English language.
I understand and appreciate the uneasiness some Spanish speakers have with that kind of shift in language; its pronunciation is a bit awkward, and it does not fit the historically established rules of the language — though, we should acknowledge both languages have colonial and imperialist roots, so calling this instance linguistic imperialism doesn’t seem quite right. All that said, it is important we appreciate the social work that is underlying this language shift, that is, inspiring change at the linguistic level.
I’m not defending or offering my opinion on the actual words Latinx or Latine, but suggesting we strip away the words from their more abstract mission so we may fully appreciate it. Moreover, we can acknowledge simply changing a word in its common use isn’t going to dismantle any power imbalance that exists. In fact, replacing a word may very well just shift the power imbalance in the opposite direction, which does little for any substantive social change.
Social change requires action. The philosopher Beth Singer, in her journal article “On Language and Social Change,” argues that linguistics is a socio-cultural reflection. Which is to say that change often occurs in social life prior to its reflection in language. This relationship is paradoxical for Singer because while language in isolation does not bring about social change, language can also be a deliberate action that induces social change.
For us to use language in a way that would induce social change, we need to operate under the assumption that we want to be free from oppression. It is not controversial to say we do want that change. We want real progress that works against oppressive structures, like language, and we want to be inclusive of other people even if we don’t understand them. We can only accomplish that goal through genuine reflection on the words we use and the purpose they serve. If we come to the considered opinion that those words no longer serve what we need from them, they need to evolve or be replaced. This constant progression of language is overlooked in the original article, because words like Latinx or Latine directly reflect that commitment.
Some may think accepting this view requires us to say there in fact exists an oppressive power imbalance in every country or community with gendered language, but that is not the case. The discourse around these words, more simply, empowers us to reflect on and discuss how widespread some of this inequity is; it helps us find areas of exclusion. That is how language both is the social change and induces other social changes.
That change might clash with someone’s sense of self identity, in fact I got into an argument with someone very close to me while writing this article. They felt changing the language is wrong, and we should limit the ways we approach calls for social action. That kind of thinking is dangerous, and we need to make that clear. If we took that advice maybe we should also limit the way we protest in the streets, or even limit how and when we criticize the government. Following the rules of a system oppressing the people that give it power just continues the oppression. Having a meaningful shift in language requires individuals reflect on the issue, inspires critical thought, encourages people to talk to one another about the issue and forces people to exercise caution when broadly categorizing people. These are all social actions through linguistics and not merely swapping words.
To say we cannot change language because tradition does not support it as a way to bring about social change is mistaken and destructive. It is encouraging complicity with oppression. We create and manipulate language every day. Language is given rules by people, and it fits the needs of those who use it.
To quote Ashleigh Shackelford, a nonbinary cultural essayist who empowers us to take back the power from language, “Acknowledging the vastness of gender is the act of breaking chains from the violence of boxes, cages, limitations, and rigid definitions … your being will always be the lexicon.”
There is power in language. We would be wise not to fall victim to it, and we should take care to never let it define us.