New meanings and language evolution
In early September, Dictionary.com made major updates to over 15,000 entries.
In this piece, Letrário will present and discuss these changes, which regard themes such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, drug addiction and suicide. We will also be looking at the need for language evolution within society, according to Michael Halliday’s theory of functional language.
Dictionary.com makes the largest update ever
In general, Dictionary.com’s language regarding LGBTQIA people has been revised, for example, centering definitions on people rather than clinical language, “removing the implication of a medical diagnosis, sickness, or pathology when describing normal human behaviours and ways of being”.
Jennifer Steeves-Kiss, chief executive of Dictionary.com, further said that “2020 has been a year of change like never before, affecting how we live, work, interact – and how we use language. [The update] represents a tireless commitment from our entire team not only to documenting how language evolves, but to ensuring our users always find the meaning they need”.
In Dictionary.com, we find the following definition for “black”:
Relating or belonging to any of the various human populations characterized by dark skin pigmentation, specifically the dark-skinned peoples of Africa, Oceania, and Australia.
This definition is now followed by a usage note, which advocates for the capitalisation of the adjective (when referring to people), as a sign of respect.
This recommendation is justified by the fact that capitalisation is already used when referring to several ethnic groups and nationalities, as is the case with “Hispanic”.
Before any definition for “homosexual” is presented, the webpage shows us a usage note and suggests we look for synonyms of the term.
The note points out that, up until 1973, homosexuality was listed as an illness by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and that, consequently, the term still carries a negative connotation. The note tells us that, in general, with the exception of medical contexts, the word has been replaced by the term “gay”, which does not emphasise the sexual component of the definition as much.
a person who has become physically or psychologically dependent on a chemical substance
Regarding the term “addict”, the page immediately indicates that the word may be derogatory, and suggests we look for synonyms and read the usage note, which explains people are complex beings and that their humanity should not be reduced to a single facet.
The webpage argues that the expression “to commit suicide” is not recommended by major editorial style guides, nor by mental health professionals and specialists in suicide prevention.
The verb “to commit” is often associated with crime (in the judicial system) and sin (in religion), and using moralistic language deepens the emotional pain surrounding suicide. The note reminds us that there is no harm in talking about suicide, but points out that the language that criminalises it is insensitive.
Is this update valid with regard to language standards?
Even those who defend the most constant aspects of language know that language is the one serving us, not the other way around, and that respect for others is above any “grammar”. But let’s see why the evolution of language is so important:
The internal organisation of language is not arbitrary but embodies a positive reflection of the functions that language has evolved to serve in the life of social man.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language. London: Edward Arnold.
The quote above is by Michael Halliday, an internationally renowned British scholar who made important contributions to linguistics from the 1960s onwards, as well as to other areas.
Specifically, Halliday developed the systemic functional linguistics approach (SFL), which is quite relevant nowadays, shifting the focus away from the “syntactic age” (structures) and bringing it closer to the so-called “semiotic age” (meaning). It can be argued that he was the first linguist to view language as a resource for construing meaning (Learning How to Mean, 1974), having coined the expression “language as social semiotic” in the early 1970s.
Believing that structuralist grammars did not study language in context, but rather as an autonomous and homogeneous system, and that they elaborated examples based on unrealistic utterances that led to the decontextualisation of the sign (“what X means”), SFL argues that we, the speakers, express ourselves through texts (semantic units) in specific contexts (“what X means in context Y”).
This theory therefore proposes parole (speech, i.e. what each speaker does with the language) as the object of study of linguistics, as opposed to langue (language, abstract), studying and describing language in context, since this is the only reality speakers know.
If we look at language as a “living organism”, Dictionary.com’s update makes a lot of sense, and is in line with this theory that emphasises the function and meaning of words, as well as the context in which they are used.
It would therefore be logical to conclude that this dictionary does not intend to impose new meaningless definitions; instead, it intends to update them in order to mirror the constantly evolving reality of today. It also aims to meet the linguistic and semiotic needs of speakers impacted by the language that describes them, taking into account variations according to social group, place and time.
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