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3.2: Types of Language

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    Learning Outcomes

    1. Understand how naming and identity can influence perceptions.
    2. Comprehend how language can impact affiliation with others.
    3. Identify the difference between sexist and racist language.

    By now, you can know some of the rules that govern language and word choice.  In this section, we will understand some of the ways that words can impact us or even reveal aspects of our personal identity.  This section will look at names, how we use language to express affiliation, and ways in which the words we use can express bias.  To be effective communicators, we need to realize the different ways that language can be significant and instrumental.

    Names and Identity

    New parents typically spend a great deal of time trying to pick just the right name for their newborn because they know that names can impact other people’s perceptions. Our names impact how we feel and how we behave. Our names sometimes may even impact how we are treated and possibly even how we view ourselves. For instance, if you heard that someone was named Stacy, you might think that person was female, nice, and friendly, and you would be surprised if that person turned out to be male, mean, and aggressive.

    People with unusual names tend to have more emotional distress than those with common names. Names impact our identity because others will typically have negative perceptions of unusual names or unique spellings of names. Names can change over time and can gain acceptance. For instance, the name Madison was not even considered a female first name until the movie Splash in the 1980s.

    Some names are very distinctive, which also makes them memorable and recognizable. Think about musical artists or celebrities with unique names. It helps you remember them, and it helps you distinguish that person from others.

    Some of the names encompass some cultural or ethnic identity. In the popular book, Freakonomics, the authors showed a relationship between names and socioeconomic status. They discover that a popular name usually starts with high socioeconomic families, and then it becomes popular with lower socioeconomic families. Hence, it is very conceivable to determine the socioeconomic status of people you associate with based on their birth date and name. Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) shows some of the more popular baby names for girls and boys, along with names that are non-binary.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Popular Baby Names


    When we want others to associate with us or have an affiliation with us, we might change the way we speak and the words we use. All of those things can impact how other people relate to us. Researchers found that when potential romantic partners employed the same word choices regarding pronouns and prepositions, then interest also increased. At the same time, couples that used similar word choices when texting each other significantly increased their relationship duration. This study implies that we often inadvertently mimic other people’s use of language when we focus on what they say.

    If you have been in a romantic relationship for a long period, you might create special expressions or jargon for the other person, and that specialized vocabulary can create greater closeness and understanding. The same line of thinking occurs for groups in a gang or persons in the military. If we adapt to the other person’s communication style or converge, then we can also impact perceptions of affiliation. Research has shown that people who have similar speech also have more positive feelings for each other. However, speech can also work in the opposite direction when we diverge, or when we communicate in a very different fashion. For instance, a group from another culture might speak the same dialect, even though they can speak English, in order to create distance and privacy from others. 

    Language to Avoid

    Most of the language we have discussed so far can be used as long as it suits the audience and communication context.  However, biased language is always inappropriate.  Biased language refers to words that are offensive because they demean others.  This type of language usually expresses an unfair or stereotypical attitude toward a person’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability, or illness. Sometimes biased language goes beyond being demeaning or hurtful; it may even lead to violence.

    Sexist language can be defined as “words, phrases, and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between females and males or exclude, trivialize, or diminish either sex.” Think about how language has changed over the years. We used to have occupations that were highly male-dominated, and the words we used to describe them indicated this. For instance, policemen, firemen, and chairmen are now police officers, firefighters, and chairpersons. The same can also be said for some formerly female-dominated occupations. For instance, stewardess, secretary, and waitress have been changed to flight attendant, office assistant, and server.

    Racist language conveys a bias toward a racial group, often implying that one racial group is superior to another race.

    In "Unbiased Language: Quick Guide to Bias-Free Writing,” Michelle Meleen explains that “using unbiased language is challenging because it requires an understanding of what constitutes biased language in the first place."  To remove biased language from your vocabulary, she advises the following steps:

    • know your own biases - self-reflect to see what exclusive language is part of your everyday speech; understand what prejudices you might have against certain groups
    • focus on what’s relevant - in writing or speaking, only include information and details about things like race or age when necessary
    • recognize and acknowledge differences - the purpose of bias-free language is not to imply differences don’t exist, but to treat them professionally and respectfully
    • think small - be as specific as possible rather than lumping people into broad categories
    • avoid labels - some common labels are offensive while others are preferred by the individuals or group you’re describing; be aware of modern terminology accepted by those individuals or that group
    • when in doubt, ask - check organization websites or consult with a representative from the population you are describing; get a second opinion before publishing or turning in work that may read as biased 

    Communicators who use unbiased language speak or write in ways that are free from gender or group stereotypes. Meleen provides many examples of how you can change biased terminology into unbiased terminology at ( 

    You may remember when there was a debate in the United States about whether former President Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese Virus” when referring to the coronavirus was racially insensitive. The argument for its racial insensitivity was that the President used the term as an “other” technique to allow his followers to place blame on Chinese people for the coronavirus.  Partly as a result of the use of the phrase “Chinese Virus,” there were numerous violent attacks against individuals of Asian descent within the United States. The people that are generally inflamed by this type of rhetoric generally don’t take the time to distinguish among people they label as “other.”  This is just one example of the power of language and the need to choose words carefully.  For guidance on replacing sexist or biased language with inclusive terms, examine the table below.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Replacing Sexist or Biased Language with Inclusive Terms
    Sexist or Biased Language Inclusive Term
    Businessman business owner, business executive, or business person
    cancer victim; AIDS victim cancer patient; a person living with AIDS
    chairman chairperson or chair
    confined to a wheelchair uses a wheelchair
    congressman congressperson
    Eskimo Inuit or Aleut
    fireman firefighters
    freshman first-year student
    Indian (when referring to U.S. indigenous peoples) Native American or specific tribe
    policeman police officer
    man or mankind people, humanity, or the human race
    man-hours working hours
    man-made manufactured, machine-made, or synthetic
    manpower personnel or workforce
    illegal alien immigrant
    old people or elderly  older adults
    Oriental Asian, Asian American, or the specific country of origin
    postman or mailman postal worker or mail carrier
    steward or stewardess flight attendant
    suffers from diabetes has diabetes; a person living with diabetes

    Key Takeaways

    • Our name can affect how we feel about ourselves and even how we are treated. 
    • We can increase affiliation with others through converging our language to others. We can decrease affiliation with others through diverging our language with others.
    • Sexism and racism can be displayed through our language choices. It is important to be aware of the words we use so that we do not come across as sexist or racist.

    Learning Activities

    • If you are not certain of the origin of your own name, research it.  Why did your parents choose your given name? Do you like your name?  Why or why not?  What is the meaning or derivation of your surname? Does your surname come from your father, mother, or another relative?  If you are from a country other than the United States, do your naming traditions vary from those in the United States?  Explain. Would you pass any part of your name on to your child? Why or why not?
    • Engage in a normal conversation with a friend or family member. Without having them know what you are doing, slowly and subtly converge your communication style to theirs. Record your observations. Then, with the same person, try to diverge your communication style. Re-record your observations. Ask if the person noticed any communication changes. How did it make them feel? How did you feel? Why?

    3.2: Types of Language is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.