Marianne Thamm

The Freedom of Language

2007-08-09 09:00

Marianne Thamm

"What's this word?" the subeditor barked from the other end of the newsroom.


"What's a chairperson? There is no such thing. The word is chairman, " he continued dismissively.

"Well chairperson is non-gender specific and a much more appropriate and inclusive way of describing the woman who chaired the event".

"Non-gender specific? Inclusive? What the hell are you talking about?" The scene was a newsroom in South Africa mid 1980s. News reports then were littered with language like "self-confessed homosexual", "terrorist", "attractive blonde housewife", "mankind", "girl", "lady", "illegitimate son/daughter" and "prostitute" to name only a few that have lodged themselves in some pre-democratic residual memory.

These descriptions, turns of phrase or manners of speaking were commonplace and mostly went unchallenged and unquestioned.

Just a few years ago, words like "patriarchy", "gender", "feminism", "misogynist", "femicide" or "equality" were entirely absent from public discourse and might as well have belonged to a foreign language.

Language as metaphor

The thing about language is that it is a metaphor - an often inadequate but hugely powerful tool to describe, interpret, influence and understand real life.

Someone who studied the impact of language on culture and behaviour was Victor Klemperer, a Professor of French Literature at Dresden University who was removed from his post by the Nazis in 1935 because he was Jewish.

Klemperer survived the holocaust because of his marriage to a German and went on in 1947 to write The Language of the Third Reich - essentially a study of language and its engagement with history.

In the introduction Klemperer, who died in 1960, wrote: "Language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it."

Later he explains that "words can be like tiny doses or arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all".

National Women's Day

Today, on National Women's Day, I'd like to celebrate some of the smaller and seemingly insignificant things that have impacted on a much deeper level on the well being of South African women.

Language is one of these. Today, language that includes, acknowledges and respects more than 50% of the population is more or less commonplace when it comes to speeches or statements made by officials.

South African politicians are aware of the power of language, of how the casual use of words like "boy" or "girl" to describe grown men and women once demeaned and disempowered those men and women.

So, if you listen carefully to the language that surrounds, engages and explains issues of women and gender in South Africa today, you will hear the inclusive tone.

There will be many of you who will rave that inclusive language will do nothing to alter the horrendous levels of violence that women and children in this country are exposed to.

Perhaps not, but language is only one issue in a confluence of history, culture and religion that contribute to the unique, disturbing local landscape when it comes to violence and abuse.

A few months ago historian and former politician, Jeff Peires, (author of The Dead Will Arise and The House of Phalo) took part in a panel discussion at the Book Fair in Cape Town.

Peires lives in the Eastern Cape and frequently visits remote villages and towns. He remarked one of the most revolutionary things that had happened in the region was the fact that women were aware of their rights and were no longer prepared to be ill-treaded in the name of culture and tradition.

The appointment of a woman as Deputy President as well as the ongoing work by women within NGOS and various political party structures have restored to women, sometimes with great difficulty and against considerable odds, a sense of worth.

If we can try and find something to celebrate today, let it be this. Let it be that the Constitution and language have restored us to society not as peripheral, secondary members but respected partners and equals.

Send your comments to Marianne.

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