Language matters

O Canada in three languages, all of which matter.

O Canada in three languages, all of which matter.

When it comes to language, this much seems clear: words and language are both subject to interpretation. And language does change, for all sorts of reasons.

By chance, I’ve been running into a fair number of language-related issues recently. Case in point: in Canada, there’s a well-organized push to tweek the lyrics to the national anthem, O Canada to be more gender inclusive.

Is tweek a sufficiently neutral term? Because the pro-change camp says the original lyrics were gender neutral so theirs is but a push to restore the correct wording.

Here’s the offending line: True patriot love, in all thy sons command. Critics say it would be no trouble at all to go back to In all  of us command.

There are a couple of problems with the pro-change argument. Firstly, there seem to have been lots of versions of that song, so historical authenticity may be a weak justification. Secondly, if non-offensive, inclusive wording is the over-riding goal, there’s more “fixing” ahead, as the French lyrics use decidedly Christian imagery:

As in thy arm ready to wield the sword,
So also is it ready to carry the cross

As you can imagine, positions on this range from: never heard of it/don’t care, to it’s-fine-leave-well-enough-alone, to this-is-really-important-and-must-be-accomplished! (I will spare you the dozens of articles and editorials that tackle the subject and the arguments rage back and forth.)

The pro-change group Restore Our Anthem presents their case and tries to head off critical FAQs on this website.

Although female, my own view one some of these questions is a bit stodgy and conservative. It might sound a bit like this: since there is no pleasing everyone, don’t even try. Decide each case on merit.

Indeed, this op-ed by Jackson Doughart suggests stripping all the words to O Canada might be the only way to silence critics. He dashes off an attempt at a ‘politically correct’ version as well:

O Canada! So tolerant and grand
True liberal love, where all people can land
With growing hearts, we see thee live
The Good North quiet with glee
From far and wide
O Canada, we keep two tongues and creeds
We keep our land lovely and treed
O Canada! We give our best to thee
O Canada! We give our best to thee

Doughart says the power of O Canada is actually found in the music, as opposed to what he called the lyrical power of the U.S.’s Star Spangled Banner. (Often criticized in the U.S. for being overly militaristic.)

But I began the post by saying several examples of this type of battle had caught my eye. Here are some others: Canada’s Snowbirds are allowed to keep that name despite a complaint to the language commissioner over an English-only nickname. (The Snowbirds are Canada’s equivalent to the USAF’s Thunderbirds, a crack squad of planes that fly in tight formation.)

Uh-oh. I just saw the squadron badge emblem for the Snowbirds when I went to link a URL for this post. It appears to have an Indian wearing a feather as the central image. Which brings me to examples of language and image that become more hurtful and heated.

Here in Ottawa, a youth football team recently announced they would stop using the name “Redskins” as a somewhat reluctant nod to outside pressure.

The same back-and-forth exists for the Washington Redskins football team, with an owner who vows to defend that name against opponents who have heartfelt reasons to ask for change.

Honestly, I don’t know where to go with that. I’m white. In general, my feelings toward native people run along the lines of sympathy and respect. So if native people say certain terms are racist and disrespectful, maybe their views have to be what counts. I mean, they would know best, right?

The trouble is, where does it end? Is it enough if one person stands and says “I’m offended”? No? OK, how about one hundred people? One million? Ten percent of the nation at large? 51% of everyone? 100% of a small minority who are but 5% of the larger group? You know, is this a vote, a sensitivity contest or a matter of marketing and public relations?

To continue that line of questioning: is sexism something only women can adjudge? Are minorities the only ones who can define racism?

I recently read an exploration on the origin and meaning of the classic phrase “to call a spade a spade”, which also asked if the term was derogatory. Seemingly not, according to the history presented.

I’ve also read a similar exploration of the term “rule of thumb” and guess what? Contrary to common wisdom of today, it did not arise from some standard on the size of the rod with which one may beat one’s wife. Yet current better-safe-than-sorry advice suggests dropping phrases that have become tainted through sloppy rumor.

I can remember how some of my elders struggled to keep up with shifts in racial terms. How once upon a time “Negro” was the most polite word one could use, an advance over “colored.” To call someone “Black” when “Negro” was more refined was insulting. Some from that generation were afraid to switch to Black or African American until it became clearer which word would win out.

Meanwhile, upon moving to Canada, I ran into the term “visible minority.” Here’s an official definition: “…persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.” Someone probably meant well with that construct, but it fails to settle all objections, as expressed in this commentary by Francis Woolley:

Indeed, there is something almost racist about the assumption that whites are the standard against which anyone else is noticeably, visibly different. That may be why the United Nations Council on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has asked Canada to reflect upon its use of the term visible minority

Even if “visible minority” goes the way of Negro, good luck finding new terms that satisfy all!

Perhaps everything is happening just as it should? Words don’t go on some electoral ballot to be voted up or down. But we all vote – everyday – with our own choices for use and meaning.

When it comes to language, how do you gauge what’s offensive or not?

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One Response to “Language matters”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    I’ll let the Canadians fight this one out.
    South of the border, down USA way, I always do the before Eisenhower version of the Pledge of Allegiance. In other words, I drop the words “under God” when I recite the pledge.
    Those words were stuck in to appease McCarthy and I’ve never been one who wanted to appease that jerk.