I said / you said / he said / she said.
I admit, I’m biased. English is my natural language, and other than a few programming languages I’m hopelessly inept at any other language. I can introduce myself and ask if someone speaks English in French, and know the word for “welcome” in a bunch of languages (thanks Apple).
Yet there’s some features missing from English that would be really handy. Like, for instance, a gender neutral way of referring to a person. What if it doesn’t matter if the person is “he” or “she” when you reference them? Hell, half of the talk in English about sexism and political correctness comes from the simple fact that “it” is our only gender-neutral reference, and everyone is reluctant to use the reference on people.
I particularly liked Greg Egan’s “ve”, “ver” notion for software entities, but I can’t see that being readily adopted, regardless of how sensible it is.
But I come not to talk to you today about gender neutral speech. Instead, I want to reference the power of the word.
Words are intensely powerful symbolic references. Names, a subset of words, even more so – in ancient times, and sometimes still today, people think there’s literal power in a name. Fantasy is awash with stories about people having a public name, and a private name, and to give someone their private name is to give them power. We see this today online – many people have public pseudonyms on the internet that bear little or no resemblance to their real name. It may be that they want some anonymity, or it may be how they self-identify – or some combination of the two. There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t always go by “Preston de Guise” online – depending on where I am or what I’m doing, I have other nicknames. (Those who know me though, who are really close friends, can follow me regardless of where I am or what I’m called at any given time.)
Words are powerful, powerful things.
Words are why we seek equality in marriage.
He has a boyfriend / she has a husband.
Forget sex in that statement, just read it for what it is: the former implies a transient or non-permanent relationship. The latter implies a permanent relationship. Sure, we know that people can get divorced, but the act of marriage is practically an (social) evolutionary ingrained statement of commitment. It doesn’t mean it’s a statement of religious commitment, or a statement of monogamy – it just simply means it’s a statement of commitment.
The simple fact is: if someone tells you they have a boyfriend/girlfriend, or someone tells you they’re married, you make an automatic assumption about the longevity of the relationship and the potential level of commitment. Or at least, a lot of heterosexuals do. The words influence how we think – sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much.
I have a boyfriend. He’s been my boyfriend for almost 19 years. Not so transient a relationship when said that way, but “I have a boyfriend” sounds nowhere near as complete as “I have a husband”.
I am have a partner / I’m married.
The latter statement is simple – it refers to a lasting commitment that, in the west in particular, we assume to be about love.
The former? Is it a business partner? Is it a cold, loveless relationship? “Partner” is not a warm term at all. It’s about as cold as saying, “There is a person whom I live with and periodically share in activities with.”
Because I can’t say “I’m married”, expressions of my relationship become sterile, spartan statements which belittle the extent of the relationship. There is a richness of emotion and feeling in the words “husband” or “wife” that is not to be found in “partner”.
We’re in a de-facto relationship / we’re married
In the latter half of the 80’s in Australia at least, de-facto relationships slipped out of being polite vernacular for “living in sin” to “OK, so they don’t want to get married”. But there’s still a stigma associated with de-facto relationships. Is it because one partner feels too aloof to take the other partner’s name? (When viewed from a traditionalist/religious background.) Is it because one of the partners is a real ball breaker? Is it because one of them wants to get married but the other one doesn’t, and therefore may leave at any moment?
Society may put up a veneer of acceptance for de-facto relationships, but in the end some people snicker and sneer behind closed curtains about what that de-facto status means. Two people who have been in a de-facto relationship for years or decades are usually accorded less respect than two people who have been married for just a few minutes.
Sure, we don’t let ourselves worry about what some people think, but this isn’t an isolated factor – it’s a cumulatively built segregation. The walls and the fences are built with words.
Come to our Civil Union / Come to our Wedding
Apologists want to reserve “wedding” and “marriage” exclusively for heterosexuals. That’s just a clap trap attempt to avoid the demand for civil rights. You may as well say, “Look, we’re really sorry we’re dirty filthy faggots in your eyes – just let us call our relationships ‘civil unions’ and we can all get along together.”
What’s a civil union? It’s another cold statement of relationship. It’s not about warmth or love or long-term commitment. It’s an acknowledgement of partnership. Do you really want to run around after your civil union and say, “Look, we’re partners now!”? Or will you say “we’re married” to your homosexual and accepting heterosexual friends, and “we’re in a union” to people you don’t know?
“Hi, this is my civil partner!” … that sounds more like an introduction of someone to whom you have a cordial business relationship with.
Words are powerful things
Words are powerful things indeed. They not only express thought, but they help to shape thought. Look at race relations in the United States. 100 or more years ago, the term “nigger” was deemed a perfectly acceptable way of referring to African-Americans. Now, thanks to a change of attitude, it’s at most something that can be used jokingly between African-Americans, but it’s not a word to be used by people of other ethnic backgrounds. We all recognise now the disgraceful and appalling history of that word. Was that responsible for improving the basic rights of such individuals? No, it wasn’t responsible – but when you refuse labels, or counter them, you also counter the thought. If it’s no longer politely acceptable for people to use unpleasant words in public, the majority of them won’t, and therefore they’ll start to think differently – which in turn means they’ll start to think.
If we give in on gay marriage rights, and let our marriages be called “civil unions” or “partnerships” or any other sub description, we remain a sub class. Equality comes through thought, and thought is intrinsically tied to language. I’m not trying to start a debate on whether you can have language without thought or thought without language, but it’s clear the two are closely related, and it’s clear that while thought can influence language, language can also influence thought.
We must not give ground on the language of our relationships if we want our relationships to be recognised as equal.