Political correctness becomes a problem

Language and politics

Iris Forster

To person

Dr. Iris Forster is a research assistant at the Institute for German Studies (Department of German Linguistics) at the Technical University of Braunschweig. After studying German and history, she worked on the 10th edition of the "German Dictionary" by Hermann Paul. In her dissertation, she analyzes the forms and functions of euphemisms in political language, especially in dictatorships. Her main research interests are historical linguistics, semantics, language and politics as well as written linguistics.

Again and again new language regulations are demanded and justified. But it is not uncommon for the supposed "political correctness" of the language to lead to ambiguity, contradictions and new communication problems.

Please click on the graphic to enlarge it

In an old English children's verse it says comfortingly: "Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words can never harm me." [1] The advocates of a "politically correct" language would not subscribe to such a view. They argue that "words" - that is, language - could be a far more powerful tool than physical violence in certain situations. Language not only reflects the worldview of the respective speaker, but also a certain worldview can even be constructed using "words". This in turn determines concrete political action in everyday life. A use of language in which the speakers critically question a current use of language on the basis of certain norms is referred to as "politically correct" and thus desirable. With a view to social conditions and historical contexts of use, individual words, idioms or figures of thought can then be rejected as inappropriate and, if necessary, replaced by alternatives.

Metalinguistic reflection and language criticism, that is, thinking about language and the use of language, are as old as language itself. However, the systematic movement towards "political correctness" did not emerge until the 1980s as part of anti-discrimination efforts on the part of the New left in the US. The movement has its roots in the universities and became known to the broader US public through the media in the late 1980s. Also linguistically People should not be insulted or relegated because of their gender, their sexual orientation, their ethnic, national or religious affiliation, their social position, their age or because of a disability.

Demands of the PC advocates

Assuming a close connection between language, thinking and thus acting, language regulations arose which on the one hand outlaw the use of certain expressions and on the other (since things have to be named) propose or prescribe a new, "more sensitive" terminology . The change in language is intended to achieve a change in awareness and ideally also a cultural change away from the criticized discrimination. The political catchphrase, which originally came from the Anglo-Saxon region, but is now widely used Political Correctness (as an acronym Pc) is also used as an adjective politically correct and is also used for the German language Political correctness or. politically correct translated. The term was introduced in Germany in the early 1990s through newspaper articles that reported on the American PC debate and its impact on art, politics and society: In 1993, for example, the weekly newspaper "ZEIT" discussed in two successive issues whether there were similar phenomena in Germany how to observe the USA.

But how are the requirements outlined above actually implemented? For German, for example, PC supporters criticize the use of the generic masculine - the masculine form, when people of both sexes are meant. This criticism comes from feminist linguistics. As an alternative to making women visible in language, so the argument goes, naming women and male form (Doctors), the inner I-spelling (Teachers) or neutral formulations (Employees) stimulated. Certain ethnic groups are named in the mass media with their own names - quite different from the traditional usage: Inuit instead of Eskimos, Sinti and Roma instead of gypsies. Foreigners become to People with a migration background or with immigration history. It is part of good form that cleaning woman as Housekeeper, the Toilet man as facility manager to call. Professions with poor social prestige are thus at least linguistically upgraded. In principle, linguistic units with negative connotations are replaced by those that hide the objectionable aspects, emphasize positive aspects or, for example, as a rather unknown foreign word, have so far not caused any secondary meaning.

Public discussion

The deliberations in the public discussion very soon concentrated on the question of how useful such language regulations are. In the course of a heap of critical reporting, the originally positive self-description "politically correct" - even if it was used ironically at an early stage - has since the beginning of the 1990s changed into a disparaging battle term used by political opponents. PC is increasingly associated with ridiculous euphemization and dogmatic, intolerant politics. The opponents argue at various levels: Conservative groups are naturally fundamentally opposed to anti-discrimination efforts on the part of the left or liberal. There are also voices who recognize the motivation behind such a language policy, but deny the desired effect: One main argument is that the creation of new terms does not involve any change in social reality and the actual causes of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination through language policy could not be overcome. On the contrary, under the guise of mitigating designations, social grievances, social injustices and prejudices could even be played down.

Euphemism chains

It is undisputed that the new, "politically correct" replacement expressions can wear out if the negative connotation is carried over to the new formation after a while. This can lead to a continual re-creation: an American example here is the chain Negros - black people - colored people - African-Americans for people with a dark skin color (similar for the German-speaking area Negroes - Blacks - Colored - Afro-Americans). From a linguistic point of view, the following happens: Negros / negroesthat is different from the Latin word Niger = black derives, is (probably because of its echoes of the swear word nigger) replaced by the direct translation into English or German and is actually quite neutrally descriptive at the beginning. At colored people Although the feature "skin color" is still in the foreground, the formulation is much broader and thus at least theoretically also includes people of other skin color. African-Americans / Afro-Americans goes completely away from the skin color and determines the named group about the origin.

Please click on the graphic to enlarge it
A German example of "chains of euphemisms" are those difficult to educate childrenthat in official contexts too behavioral children, then behavioral children and finally behaviorally original children become. The behavior of the children initially appears to be clearly classified as negative, then it is only "conspicuous" (here it remains unsaid in which direction), and finally "behaviorally original" even has positive connotations.