Why Words Matter

Considering the debates around renaming streets in Berlin or the Black statues in Potsdam’s Park Sanssouci, it is relevant to ask why renaming is necessary. Why should particular terms not be used anymore? In how far does it make a difference to use another term?

In the following, I will explain how (verbal) social interaction and naming reflect social hierarchies and power relations, particular world views and ideologies which make it necessary to use language consciously and carefully.

Firstly, the act of naming needs to be clarified. Antje Hornscheidt points out that people have terms for objects, people, actions, qualities, processes and feelings and therefore any utterance is always an expression of verbal naming (cf. 477). Thus, when people speak they define the objects, people, actions, feelings, etc. they are referring to. Julie Peteet makes clear that it is therefore very important to carefully decide which expressions or words we use because by defining something words also imply judgment:

Words to refer to people, places, events, actions and things are critical building blocks in the linguistic repertoire. Names, and their meanings, form part of the cultural systems that structure and nuance the way we see, understand and imagine the world. As such, they are always more than simple reflections of reality, referencing a moral grammar that underwrites and reproduces power. (Peteet 2005: 153/154)

Obviously, our everyday language categorizes what we see, think and talk about. It can be used strategically to create differences between constructed groups. This was already very common during colonial times: by naming the ‚others‘ the European colonizers effectively established a particular picture of the self as different from and superior to the colonized subjects to legitimize their subjugation, exploitation and appropriation. With the beginnings of the colonial endeavors of the European nations, language became an instrument of control and command but at the same time it also became a form of anticolonial resistance (Britton 1999: 1). A choice of words is thus a matter of perspective; words are not only objective descriptions of reality, they actually create and define identities and realities.

Language is clearly charged with meaning beyond its literal sense. Even if used unconsciously, language and representations of socially constructed groups serve to create social justice or injustice because they seem to imply truths and, besides, it is not that apparent that words are always ideologically charged. Hornscheidt explains that because language is not innocent – neither in colonial nor in postcolonial times – we need to ask how are things named? (cf. 447) This suggests that not only the name/term itself is in question but also its context: who chose the name? For what reasons? When?

In the case of Potsdam’s Park Sanssouci, the German word “Mohrenrondell” (rotary of Moors) is still the official name for the four Black statues. “Mohr/Moor” is a term which was introduced by white German speakers in medieval times to describe Black people. Today, its use is still legitimized by some white Germans because “it has always been used” (by ‚them‘, the whites) and because not every white German uses this term with discriminatory intentions – the term is intended to only describe another person’s skin color. However, this is one of the major problems: calling a Black person this name is racist discrimination whether intended or not. It is not an objective description of reality but an ideologically charged word to differentiate Blacks from whites, to keep Blacks in an inferior position. White people had the power to define Black people in the past and, unfortunately, many people defend their so-perceived ‚right‘ to continue defining others. Too often Black people are denied the self-naming right and are compelled to endure continuous imposition.

Another problem is the normality and constant use of racist terms even in the public sphere. Many people just use them out of habit and because they are all around us (in street names, media coverage, …). A person in a privileged position does not necessarily have to question these terms because they do not affect them. Of course, nobody will ever know every connotation of every word consequently, as Deborah Cameron points out, nobody has complete control over the meaning of his or her own discourses. However, Cameron continues, there is always a variety of expressions from which to choose making language fundamentally political: choosing one’s words is a political decisions (Cameron 1995: 120). It is difficult to change habits, but once we know that a word hurts someone we can make an effort and start using different expressions.

The subtlety of language as a mechanism of oppression calls for more intensive discussions in public discourse – urgently. Not only those who are victimized and talked about should start these discussions. More privileged people can and should act in solidarity to pursue change. There is a need to acknowledge that naming involves society as a whole and, at the same time, that it is of paramount importance to leave enough space for everybody to claim one’s own identity and speak for oneself. The renaming of streets or of statues is an act to create awareness for Germany’s colonial history as well as an act of resistance to prevailing racism. The many initiatives working against the public use of racist terms will need every helping hand and patience and resilience for success in their fight.

Works Cited
Britton, Celia M. 1999. Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory: Strategies of Language and Resistance. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virgina.
Cameron, Deborah. 1995. Verbal Hygiene: The Politics of Language. New York: Routledge.
Hornscheidt, Antje. 2009. “(Nicht-)Bennenung: Critical Whiteness Studies und Linguistik”. In: Maureen Maisha Eggers, Grada Kilomba, Peggy Piesche and Susan Arndt (Ed.). Mythen, Masken, Subjekte: Kritische Weißseinsforschung in Deutschland. Münster: Unrast, 476-
Peteet, Julie. 2005. “Words as Interventions: Naming in the Palestine – Israel Conflict”. In: Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1. pp 135 – 172.
Credits// Author: Anna von Rath.
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