Language and Power: Oppressions within the Word

Let us begin with a simple premise, which we will expand upon later: no word is neutral, no language (as a systematized, codified and ordered structure) is either ethically impartial, free from values or purely instrumental. All human relations are linguistically mediated, with language the most conventional element within which this relationship is structured and determined. Therefore, because no word or language is free from values, it is also through language that prejudice exists or, alternatively, is overcome.

Kara Walker, Auntie Walker's Wall Sampler for Civilians (detail), 2013. Kara Walker, Auntie Walker's Wall Sampler for Civilians (detail), 2013.

The affirmation is correct, therefore, that when we think about language we are forced to consider something that we do not completely dominate, which, although defining and identifying us, is a space in which out power is limited. Language is an abode, something that cannot be dominated completely, especially when we accept that language is an inheritance. We are born into a language that both precedes us and, in a way, forces us to grow up within it – that is, as a part of its ideological, historical and identity configurations – and not simply with it. Language is not born out of spontaneous creation. It is constituted by a complex and dynamic network of rules and conventions that not only transcend the individual and their era but also define them. Language is, in most cases, the first boundary which, as with all boundaries, either marks the point at which we co-exist in our differences or, on the other hand, serves to separate universes in a hostile and decisive way. Therefore, language and racism acquire an obvious connection when depreciating conceptions of the Other, in addition to one’s own erroneous concept of race, are established as means of defining differences.

Differences can also be valorized, either making one’s notion of these relationships possible, or being confined and regulated within the most restrictive power logic. Everything is in play in the complex relationship between language and power, which we will briefly examine here.

The Illusion of Neutrality
Language is one of the means through which power is maintained. Understanding this premise is fundamental, especially when we consider that language is one of the elements that makes racism and other forms of discrimination possible.

The asymmetry between people manifests itself and is sustained through language, given that it is specifically through language that symbolic, social and cultural differences are established and normalized, which then nurture various forms of discrimination. Old and new forms of racism are born out of or recreated through language, with the appearance of language’s instrumental impartiality being one of the ways of concealing and perpetuating a wide range of discriminatory discourses. A frequently denounced example (although still to be overcome) is the masculine universal where the classification “Man” is used to refer to everyone, whether they are a man, woman or child. In reality, what is really at stake here is a power structure in which the only agent is male. This is due to the hegemony of his place in history, in the language of history and the implicit forms of this hegemony, given that this “universal man” is, essentially, white, European, autochthon and Judeo-Christian. The criteria of the universal becomes that which designates the universal, thus the masculinizing structure of the majority of Western languages is revealed, along with the groups that this universal automatically excludes i.e. women, non-whites, non-Westerners. As a result, language shows how racism, sexism and xenophobia go hand in hand as forms of exclusion while also acting as a dominating and normalizing universal.

Language (supposedly crystalline and impartial), while attempting to rid itself of particularisms in the name of a sort of ambition towards universality, tends to classify, establish hierarchies and pre-define. Racism and general discriminatory discourses such as ethnocentrism, sexism, homophobia or xenophobia, depend upon a global and distorted vision of the Other, despite being disguised behind the veil of neutral classification. Such a vision anticipates specific individuals and situations in a kind of labelling process designed to nullify and silence the Other within their own language.

The Power of the Spoken Word
One thing that cannot be disputed is that for whoever controls the word, language is a power. If the power to define something or somebody is a linguistic attribute, then it is evident that this very power to determine is not equally distributed. Not everyone has the same right to define and be defined, the result of social and symbolic inequalities that punctuate living in society. And the power to define somebody – without allowing that “somebody” any choice whatsoever in the process – clearly translates as an asymmetry: the teacher defines the “good” or “bad” student; the powerful classifies the subordinate; the legislator determines the acceptable. In each of these cases there is unequal power. It is always the dominant element – the hegemonic subject – that which controls the word and is able to define and objectify the Other. The result is that within the sphere of racism, this asymmetry is not only excessive but also particularly oppressive when a power discourse produces pre-established notions of a person based upon a belittling of that person’s differences. In the context of Western societies and within the framework of uniform globalization, this linguistic power is held by white, inactive, educated, heterosexual males who retain numerous privileges in keeping with their social class, country of origin and geographic location. Discrimination is born out of a will to power and the desire to live within such a formation.

It is also through languagea that identities are created. As a result, it is important to be aware of the danger of such identities being excluding, oppressive or potentially racist due to illusions of “linguistic superiority” and “idiomatic purity”. A prime example of this is accent. Once a particular origin has been identified, it can be used to devalue the speaker and is rarely considered a sign of idiomatic richness or diversity. Once again, a power has been imposed, which determines a phonetic standard and centralized, monolithic criteria regarding linguistic correctness. Even within the same language we see this kind of incursion of power into the daily exercise of a language, stratifying its speakers according to their pronunciation.a

Language as an Imposition
One of the most frequently recurring tools of racist oppression arises from a negation of the cultural and symbolic legitimacy of the Other. Centuries after the colonializing activities associated with maritime expansion, primarily originating from the Iberian Peninsula (concerning the imposition of language and religion in accordance with a “civilizing” mission, culminating in plunder and slavery), today we find power being imposed in much subtler ways within the framework of mercantile and homo-hegemonic globalization. More precisely, part of the homo-hegemonic strategy involves the Babelian objective of a single, universal language, with the English language - reduced to its most instrumental dimensions - being imposed globally as the lingua franca.

In addition to impoverishing the idiomatic complexity of the English language, this process also proceeds in the direction of a mono-lingualism that creates a uniquely shaped culture that excludes everything that cannot be reduced to its pragmatic immediatism.

The implications are huge and wide-reaching, however, it is important to emphasis in this text the symbolic annulment of linguistic and cultural diversity in the reinvention of a certain monolithic ethnocentrism which, across a range of contexts (from social media and academia to the ways in which we relate to each other), consistently empowers and makes possible new forms of ethnocentric, xenophobic and/or racist discrimination.

Conclusion: Inheriting a Plural Language
To conclude, let us reassess one of the two points of departure of this text: all language is preexisting and inherited. In a different sense to the power that it creates (which we have denounced here), this inherited language multiplies and pluralizes itself within the diversity of whoever is involved in the process of speaking and consistently reinventing it. If we accept that racism, sexism and other forms of oppression exist within language, then we must also recognize that it is through language – or languages – that oppression can be unmasked and combated. How? By allowing its structural, inclusive and persistent appeal to flow within the language towards creation and domesticated plurality. Linguistically created identities are not necessarily impenetrable frontiers or oppressive walls raised against the Other, but rather celebrations of every person’s multicolored singularity. Therefore, even within a single language, the challenge is to promote not one but many languages with multiple pronunciations, capable of reasserting, from this side of the continent, the non-hegemonic register of a plurilingual and diverse Europe.  


Culture and Racism is the theme of SOS Racismo 2015. BUALA is participating by publishing texts from this event.

Translation:  Tiago Miller

by Hugo Monteiro
A ler | 17 August 2015 | Language, Oppressions, Power, Word