Mind your language: animals may suffer if you don’t

By Monalisa Bhattacherjee on September 1, 2020

In the 1950s a theory championed by two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, became popular. The kind of language we use, they argued, influences our worldview and the way we conceptualize reality around us.

Adopting this hypothesis, cognitive linguist George Lakoff has presented groundbreaking work, arguing that we live in a metaphorical reality. “[M]etaphor pervades our normal conceptual system,” Lakoff says.

If we pay attention to our everyday speech patterns, we can notice the frequent use of animal metaphors, including phrases, idioms, proverbs and similes. Yet that is not necessarily a good thing. Such usage can serve to dehumanize animals, which can then make them more vulnerable to abuse.

Some experts have explained that we use animal imagery metaphorically in order to talk about various aspects of life, which is a habit that can create a false impression of the animal world. Worse: instead of real encounters with them, we often approach nonhuman animals through folktales, fables, and legends.

Through common usage certain tropes can influence people’s attitudes towards certain animal species. Our conceptual frameworks are composed of discourses and ideologies, which influence how nonhuman animals are viewed by people in general.

Yet “animals do not consent to their treatment because of ‘false consciousness’ generated through ideological assumptions contained in discourse,” explains Arran Stibbe, a distinguished professor of ecolinguistics at the University of Gloucestershire in the United Kingdom.

We pepper our everyday speech with prejudicial views of animals: “greedy pig,” “ugly bitch,” “sick as a dog,” “cunning as a fox,” to name a few. The expressions are derogatory in nature and establish images of animals as morally flawed beings, which further dehumanizes them in many people’s eyes.

study has found that such negative usage determines our everyday thinking to a great extent. This ideological positioning of animals in mainstream discourse bolsters injustice towards animals and fosters speciesism.

Some recent incidents of animal cruelty, including the killing of a pregnant elephant in India with a pineapple stuffed with explosives and the killing of a pregnant cow in a similar way, underline how cruelty to animals can be legitimized verbally. In fact, the very word “animal” is derogatory if used about people as we seek to differentiate ourselves from nonhuman animals.

That is why we need to mind our language. The animal rights movement has long recognized this, having been galvanized by Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer’s celebrated book Animal Liberation.

More and more animal rights activists identify the power of linguistic devices in shaping our perceptions of animals. As a result, they have introduced terms such as “nonhuman animal” and “other-than-human animal” instead of simply animal; “companions” instead  of “pets”; and “caregivers” instead of animal “owners.”

The aim is to reform language in a way that will create a kinder and more inclusive linguistic environment for nonhuman animals so that they will be seen as sentient beings capable of suffering.

We are facing an ecological crisis across the planet as we have reshaped global ecological structures to an alarming extent. The consequences will be felt for generations to come.

That is why it is high time we all started expressing genuine concern for animals in all the planet’s ecosystems. One way to do that is to speak more respectfully of all living beings.

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