Language is powerful. The terms and structures you use to talk about a particular subject can alter the effects, repercussions and opinions of people reading about a topic, particularly if these people are caught off guard.

Erasure at schools
Image: Alex Morfin

Preaching about the power of language has become second nature to me. However, there are many who are still surprised at the thought of language influencing opinions and even actions. A couple of days ago, a friend of mine shared this article with me entitled “How Texas Teaches History”, and I have got to say that my friends know me too well, because I found it fascinating.

Language Complaints in Houston

In this article, publisher of the book, McGraw-Hill Education, was forced to change the electronic edition and offer stickers with rewritten sections for the printed copies.

What Roni Dean-Burren was complaining about was erasure and cultural misrepresentation, and language is an excellent way to achieve this. Language is a very complex social construct, and it has developed in ways which allow us to say things that feel like something else. This can be achieved by the choice of terms (like using “workers” rather than “slaves”), as well as by the choice of grammatical structures.

The Use of Scientific Language

The creation of science as a discipline resulted in the development of a specialised language, usually called “scientific language”. Because of the characteristics that science tries to enforce objectivity and impersonality, for example scientific language relies heavily on resources such as the following:

  • The use of passive voice: “Mistakes were made”; “the tube was placed in cold water”.
  • The anticipatory “it”: “It has been shown to be true”.
  • Nominalisations: Turning verbs such as “create”, which requires a subject, into nouns such as “creation”, which can be the subject of the sentence itself.

These resources try to erase the subject or doer of the action, placing emphasis on other parts of the sentence, such as the verb/action itself.

Extending the Use of “Objective” Language

These same resources are used whenever speakers are trying to convey an objective perspective of a topic. However, there are certain areas, unlike science, where the emphasis shouldn’t be placed on the action while trying to erase the doers, as this is generally to the detriment of understanding.

When using this type of language to talk about a topic such as slavery, the result is clear: the erasure of those responsible for the actions achieved while trying to convey an objective and detached perspective on a very emotional subject whose scars haven’t quite healed yet.

If a writer chooses to word the consequences of slavery as “all kinds of torture were implemented”, the sentence conveniently looks over those responsible for torturing other human beings, as well as the people who were the target of the torturing practices.

Are There Any Consequences?

It is important to remember that this all started with a textbook aimed at 15 year-olds within a learning environment. Basically, what they are being taught is that slavery was something that happened, that no one was really affected by it and that no one was responsible for it.

I know, the book didn’t take it quite that far. However, the subtleties of language do affect the way in which we construct our past, our present and even our future. And I say future because these children will be decision-making adults in the future, living within a country (and a world, if we are being honest) which has a long way to go before it can get over discrimination and make equality its reality.


Lenguaje científico y lenguaje común – Luis Estrada:

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