Our blog posts are almost always devoted to usage guides, their respective authors, usage problems, and our readers’ attitudes towards usage. Sometimes, however, these topics touch on more general social debates. In popular and scholarly publications on English usage from the 1970s onwards it has become quite common to discuss how we talk about people and how our way of referring to a particular group reflects their place in society. Are we referring to air hostesses or cabin crew, actresses or (female) actors, the handicapped or the disabled, immigrants|migrants|refugees|boat people|expats? Anne Curzan devotes an entire chapter of Fixing English to the nonsexist language reform. The Guardian’s David Marsh takes on sexist and racist language in the ninth chapter of For Who the Bell Tolls with the title ‘Political Incorrectness Gone Mad’. (There are many more possible references, these two are lying on my desk.) Another battle is currently being fought against the language of intolerance. Although the migrant crisis is much more tangible than the language migrant crisis, words used surrounding social and political issues are essential when they contribute to people’s actions or lack thereof.
Language used with the purpose of objectifying people is not a new phenomenon and neither is the commentary on it. A research group at Lancaster University conducted a study that focused on the construction of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press over the period 1996—2006. Their findings might have as well been derived from the current news reports and the ongoing discussions. Just as Costas Gabrielatos reports in 2008, people’s migration is still referred to in terms of natural disasters. Tidal waves are threatening Europe, people are ‘swamping’ the UK according to Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence, and a ‘swarm of people’ are jeopardizing the British economy and the country’s high living standards according to the Prime Minister.
Charlotte Taylor, a linguist from the University of Sussex, gives an interesting insight into the usage of different terms for describing human migration from the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Whereas the word ‘expat(riate)’ commonly co-occurs with ‘American’ and ‘British’ – ‘immigrants’ are ‘illegal’, ‘undocumented’, ‘Mexican’ and ‘Chinese’. Although chosen over the problematic word ‘(illegal) immigrant’, the word ‘migrant’ is hardly neutral, and its negative semantic prosody seems to be on the rise judging from the current debates.
Some media houses have, however, recognised the linguistic problem and the fact that using particular words might foster social inaction. The Guardian has expressed its concern over the use of the word ‘migrant’, which denies people their humanity and identity, and is also highly unspecific. Al-Jazeera has refused to use the word ‘migrant’ altogether.
Whereas some might view such actions as ‘political correctness gone too far’, it is worth recalling that the same kinds of arguments were voiced when sexism, ageism, and racism were first challenged on a linguistic level.
Francois Gemenne of the Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies (University of Liege) summed it up appropriately in the Al-Jazeera discussion: “The language that we are using is really shaping the public perception of the situation.”