The art of inclusive language

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2002, 12:00am

When we use language we express the way we see ourselves in relation to others and to the world. Through language, we can exchange ideas, information and express feelings. However, language can also be misused to express prejudice or discrimination and, therefore, offend or hurt others.

Some countries have passed laws to protect people by condemning sex discrimination and sexist language. They also protect the mentally and physically disabled from discrimination, particularly when applying for jobs or having access to public facilities. Some countries protect minority groups from racial discrimination.

There are many ways in which language can be used to express prejudice or discrimination. Some of the ways are easily recognised and people can choose not to use such terms. For example, derogatory labels such as 'gweilo' are readily identified as expressing prejudice or discrimination. Although it may not be a conscious effort to offend, it is nonetheless a form of prejudice.

However, not all forms of prejudice and discrimination are obvious, particularly the stereotyping of minorities or groups and the use of sexist language. When news reports or articles make unnecessary mention of a person's gender, age, ethnic background, religion or the fact that they might have physical limitations because of a disability or their age, then they are being discriminatory.

We should aim to use inclusive language. That is a language which is non-discriminatory and which includes all people. This requires a conscious effort on our part as writers and speakers of a language, but it ensures messages and information are conveyed fairly.

Do the following sentences sound okay? If not, rewrite them using inclusive language:

1. An Indian shop owner was attacked!

2. The elderly have been confused by the new tax law.

3. A single mum has her day in court.

4. A gay tourist escapes injury in club brawl.

5. A maid wins Mark Six.

6. A retarded boy was denied schooling.

In fact, you could say:

1. A shop owner was attacked. (His race is not relevant, unless the attack was aimed specifically at this minority group.)

2. Senior citizens want to clarify the new tax law. (This shows that the senior citizens want the tax law explained as to how it might affect them. The words 'elderly' and 'confused' imply that all old people are confused.)

3. We may refer to her profession or trade. For example: A teacher has her day in court. ('Single mum' is sexist. It is unnecessary.)

4. A tourist escapes injury in club brawl. ('Gay' is discriminatory and one's sexual orientation has nothing to do with the club brawl here.)

5. A domestic helper wins Mark Six. (The words 'maid' and 'servant' are anachronistic, that is, out of place in a modern world.)

6. A mentally disabled boy was denied schooling. ('Retarded' is another anachronistic word.)

Other common sexist terms we don't say (in brackets are the modern expressions people use instead):

Chairlady/Chairman (Chairperson)

Policeman/woman (Police Officer)

Fireman (Fire Officer)

Air Hostess (Flight Attendant)

Political correctness can, however, go too far. Some people would have us say:

- vertically challenged instead of short

- horizontally challenged instead of fat

- other-abled instead of paraplegic

- mentally challenged instead of mentally disabled

- visually challenged instead of blind

We can be sensitive, but too conscious of everything we say can stop us talking altogether. Just remember the main ideas expressed in this article as they refer to language we use every day.