The Big Question: Abusing Language


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From the Spring 2012 Speaking in Tongues issue 

When should language be restricted?

As often as language is used with great facility to promote beauty, express deeply felt emotions, and convey vital information, it is all too often used malevolently to pit nations or communities against one another. Rather than promoting peace and understanding, it can undermine these aspirations. We have asked our panel of global experts to weigh in on this critical question about the use and abuse of language.   



Mahmoud Salem: Egyptian Evolution

People who argue for language restriction often attack the evolution of both language and the society that uses it. Seven years ago in Egypt, bloggers broke a taboo by mixing standard Arabic with the colloquial Egyptian dialect, attracting millions of readers to their blogs. This in turn led newspapers, and then publishing houses, to start mixing the old and the new. This new “Egyptian Arabic” language permeated the archaic rules and vocabulary of “classical Arabic” and resuscitated the flagging Egyptian literary scene. Loyalists and censors were up in arms, but that never stopped people from writing or reading literature published in the new “language.”

Instead, a sense of dangerous freedom filled those who expressed their thoughts and pushed the limit of language and social discourse. The same phenomenon took place in Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria. And here we are now, Arab Spring and all, led by bloggers. Regardless of how grating a writer’s words, grammar, or syntax may appear, the use of language should be at the writer’s discretion.

So, the answer is “never.” Language should never be restricted. It should be allowed to breathe and evolve as it wishes.

Mahmoud Salem is an Egyptian blogger known as Sandmonkey who was a leading voice of the uprisings in his country.


Anatoly Liberman: Word Snobs

Of course, I object to the freedom of bullying, spreading verbal venom, and the use of the grossest words. All my life, I have been trying to instill in those prepared to listen that language is not only a means of communication but also a garden that has to be cultivated as long as we live. So my response to the question—should language (or rather speech) be restricted, and if so, when?—concerns form, not content. Speech should not be trivial.

My fight is not merely against buzzwords. It is against all clichés that jump to our lips automatically, replacing the work of the mind and lending fake glamor to the statement. It is nice to belong to the vociferous majority. I wither when I hear that someone has been “empowered” (or conversely, “marginalized”), that a certain method is not “sustainable,” or that the lecture was “fascinating” (“fantastic”). In my quixotic battles, I attack empty adverbs (actually, really, and their ilk) and despise those who cannot say a sentence without adding “you know” every time they take a breath. Should speech be censored? Yes, “the garden” should be watered and weeded. Am I an elitist and a highbrow? In my speech habits I certainly am.

Anatoly Liberman is a poet, blogger for Oxford University Press, and professor in the department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch at the University of Minnesota.


Thomas Hylland Eriksen: Anarchist Redux

In the 1980s, I was a member of the unpaid staff of the Oslo anarchist monthly Gateavisa (The Street Paper). Giving voice to diverse subcultures, we often pushed the boundaries of the written and unwritten rules governing freedom of expression. We published articles advocating the legalization of various intoxicating substances and encouraged widespread squatting. One of our regular writers even sent us an article where he defended incest, claiming, “Fathers have always fucked their daughters.” I cannot recall whether we printed it, but it led to heated debate in our smoke-filled editing room. Occasionally, we would also spread malicious rumors about politicians. In retrospect, I cannot defend everything we did at Gateavisa.

Despite my own background as part of an environment that questioned the boundaries of free speech, we had our limits. We never published hateful articles of a racist or homophobic nature, nor did we encourage violence or discriminate against minorities. There is a natural limit here, which has been transgressed by the new Islamophobic right when it speaks of civil war, Muslim invaders, and treasonous governments. Banning such statements would be difficult and counterproductive. Still, those promoting such views should be reminded that when you play with matches, sooner or later something may catch fire.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen, an anthropology professor at the University of Oslo, wrote Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (2010).


Saksith Saiyasombut: Blogging Free in Thailand

End unity, embrace co-existence! Most societies have a sort of self-regulation that prevents people from offending others. But when someone does cross the line, a diverse, free, and open society is resilient enough to take care of itself.

Unfortunately, Thailand is not yet one of those societies. An ongoing political crisis—caused by weak democratic institutions, a military coup, and the increased meddling of non-democratic forces—has shattered the national myth of a peaceful, unified country. Dissent has become increasingly marginalized to preserve one valid sovereign narrative that defines “Thai-ness.” Those who speak up against this are left vulnerable to the blind vigilance of the state.

Thai society cannot regulate itself, since interpretation is placed in the hands of a few powerful individuals. Yes, free speech would be messy, but in the end, we (may) have a society that is capable of taking care of itself. Simply put, the state needs to stay out of regulating what we should think. If I don’t know what I can say or if I live in constant fear of being branded a pariah for pointing out a flaw in society, then I cannot consider myself free.

Saksith Saiyasombut, a journalist based in Hamburg and Bangkok, blogs on Thai politics at


Lee Bollinger: Moderation & Free Speech

Our experience has been that society’s capacity for tolerance grows stronger through exercise. At this moment, the notion of restricting speech runs counter to events we are witnessing around the globe. Citizens and journalists in one country after another are being intimidated, assaulted, even murdered simply because of their work. Others are being fined or jailed because their articles were deemed, by an anxious or repressive government, to be defamatory of public officials or in some other way seditious toward the state or offensive to religious sensibilities.

Protections afforded speech and the press are not only a means of safeguarding something of great and unique value (that is, open discussion), but also a means of developing the habit of moderating the dangerous tendencies so much on display in too many societies today.

Lee Bollinger is president of Columbia University and a First Amendment scholar.


Adewale Maja-Pearce: Genuine Dialogue

In this awkward entity called Nigeria, people experience injustice and discrimination at the hands of self-serving cabals. While I don’t condone their bullying, I defend their right to spew it. Although these  thugs try to regulate what can and can’t be said, their language in almost every context is hate speech. Labeling women as inferior and ethnic minorities as stupid gives them excuses to deny education to the former and exploit the latter. Death threats await the unlucky few who challenge their authority. But despite their hypocrisy, restricting their language would not erase their thoughts.

Those in power use their monopoly on free speech to manipulate language and demonize certain groups. For instance, the only unifying tongue across the country is English. The homophobic government frequently suggests that since the word “homosexual” doesn’t exist in any native languages, homosexuality is a disease spread by the West. The designation of scapegoats through language thus gave the National Assembly a justification for outlawing same-sex marriage and criminalizing homosexuality.

In Nigeria, free speech remains a privilege of the few, which is why we are unable to debate the very question of when and why we should restrict language.

Adewale Maja-Pearce, author of A Peculiar Tragedy (2010), lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where he runs Yemaja Editorial Services.


Nazifullah Salarzai: Afghanistan diversions

In certain circumstances, language should be restricted, like when it is used to incite discrimination, humiliation, or disputes. Issues arise not only over defamation but also because of policies that promote the existing variety of languages. In linguistically diverse Afghanistan, our constitution envisages the right to study in one’s own language. In this case, the policy should be restricted, albeit not in a discriminatory way. In a country as geographically diverse and mountainous as Afghanistan, which faces major problems due to low literacy rates, inaccessibility of broad areas of the country, and security issues triggered by more than 30 years of war, a single official, national language has not evolved in recent decades.

While language policies are in place to encourage diversity, the government is also trying to keep the country united. Allowing everyone to study in their own tongues restrains people’s ability to keep abreast of the wider national efforts to unify the country. Though freedom of speech is a basic human right that should not be violated, there are certain instances where language policies must reflect national development goals.

Nazifullah Salarzai is the National Spokesman of the Strategic Communication and Spokespersons Unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).


Compiled by Julia Hanne and Leah Greenbaum

[Illustration by Nick Ditmore ]

(PDFs of World Policy Journal articles can be purchased through SAGESubscribe to WPJ here)


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