Worded Silence: The Paradox of Linguistic Exclusiveness

Hannah Prentice

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
― Rudyard Kipling

One of the most powerful and important properties of language is that it is productive. That is, languages are not fixed, but fluid and infinite. In our eternally evolving society, it is crucial to be able to express hitherto unseen events and experiences. Consequently, new linguistic forms are given meaning, or old words are recycled to have new semantic meaning. In some cases, the word becomes so intrinsically linked with the concept it describes that one need only hear the word and be flooded with the historical or social connotations that accompany it. It is also often the case that words which are so linked become linguistically exclusive. It belongs to that group, whether the assignment of that label be self-designated or decided upon by others outside of that group. This begs the question: if words can constantly be created or reused, how is it that the we can be “wordless”? In this Age of the Internet, coupled with the omnipresence of the media, it seems unlikely. There are words for everything nowadays. And yet, there is a stark dichotomy between having words and having a voice to express them.

To begin on a definition from the OED is ordinarily a cliché. However, it can be used to glean insight into this dichotomy. The key difference lies in what is purely linguistic and what is social.

Wordless, adj.
1) A) Inexpressible in words; unspeakable, unutterable.
B) Not expressed in words; unspoken, unuttered.

Between the two subsections of the definition, there is a subtle difference. The former describes something which is physically incapable of being spoken about, there are no words for it. With the latter, the words exist, but they go unstated, voiceless. The reasons for this transcend the purely linguistic into the complexities of social context.

To extend Rudyard’s metaphor, if words are a drug, then they can be used to help us: to buoy us, to give us strength, to shrink tumorous growths of ignorance. Then again, they can be abused, used to attack our immune systems of self-confidence and identity. They can make us sedate and confused, left limp under linguistic labels which parasitically feed social oppression. Therefore, it is all too easy to have words and be made wordless, even when those words are supposedly yours.

Perhaps the most obvious example of linguistic exclusiveness is this: “The Holocaust”. The capitalisation of ‘Holocaust’ is not stylistic, but grammatical. According to Garber and Zuckerman, “usually the word is preceded by an adjective describing who the holocaust happened to… However, when talking about the Jewish holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, it is unnecessary, and almost redundant, to use the adjective Jewish before the word holocaust. Simply saying "the Holocaust" is enough for people to know that you are talking about the holocaust of Jews during World War II.”

The word ‘holocaust’ originally meant ‘destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire.’ The meaning has not changed, though after WWII, terms such as ‘nuclear holocaust’ are so powerful due to the understood comparison to the Holocaust; seventy years later, this is still one of the most harrowing events in human history, one which is unique in how it is still remembered by the famously fickle mind of society. The word, then, essentially belongs to the Jewish community, given this sense to attempt to make it possible to talk about an event the world had never before seen. Yes, there were genocides which took place before it, but “the fact that all Jewish babies and children were to be murdered along with all adults discloses at once, and for all time, the unique uniqueness of the Holocaust.” If there was perhaps some way of talking about it and keeping the horrible memory alive, then perhaps “Never again.” could be made a reality. So the word ‘Holocaust’ arguably gave a voice to the survivors and a way to remember those who did not survive.

But is this really the case? There are members of the Jewish community who do not like the phrase ‘the Holocaust’ to refer to the event. This is due to the word being a translation of the Greek holókauston, referring to the Pagan ritual of an animal sacrifice being offered to a god in which the whole (olos) animal is completely burnt (kaustos).[3] This religious interpretation has been considered by many Jews to imply a sense of divine justification of the Nazis’ actions. Instead, the Hebrew word ‘shoah’ is used, meaning ‘catastrophe’.

Similarly, it has been said that the term ‘Holocaust’ belonging solely to the Jewish community denies the suffering and persecution of other groups by the Third Reich, such as the Roma community, the disabled and those who were not heterosexual. In this way, the word ‘Holocaust’ left these groups mute.

To take a wider view, the prevalence given to the Holocaust as an act of genocide drowns out the voices of other genocide survivors. There have, unfortunately, been countless examples of genocide on either side of the Holocaust, but none are so remembered by the global community. An illuminating example of this is how survivors of Stalin’s purge of the Ukrainian population in the 1930s refer to the event as the ‘Holodomor’ This is a purposefully transparent attempt to draw attention to the fact that their suffering was no less than those in the Holocaust, but they are denied the same reparations and remembrance.

It could be said, then, that the word ‘Holocaust’ belonging exclusively to the Jewish community gave, and continues, to give them a voice, though arguably at the cost of hearing the voices of other survivors of genocide. It is interesting that this word is unwanted and dismissed by many members of the Jewish community, who prefer to use the Hebrew word to express their suffering.

While it is the most obvious example of linguistic exclusiveness, the Holocaust is far from being the only example. In recent years, a large number of words have become increasingly prolific when describing individuals who are not members of mainstream sexuality. It is no longer the case these days that ‘straight’, ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ covers the bill. What about those who are asexual, pansexual, demisexual, transgender or gender fluid? The list goes on and surely to have so many niche, self-chosen words to describe sexuality gives us all a voice, no matter where we fall on the spectrum? Certainly general awareness has increased, both inside and outside of the community. For instance, Pride celebrations were once only for the “Gay community”, with the majority of those in attendance being male. As time has passed, there is now more visibility for those who are transsexual, pansexual etc. LGBT has expanded to LGBT+. But this is not where it should end. These words should be a tool to express ourselves, yet there are those who argue that these words should be done away with and we should all just be labelled “people”.

Ashley Mardell, a YouTube blogger who identifies as a pansexual woman, proposes a counterpoint to this argument. Firstly, while the argument to all be “people” comes from a place of good intentions, where being outside of the gender-and-sexual mainstream is so socially accepted that it is not worth noting. However, this is not how our society currently works, and to ignore the labels people associate themselves with is to deny them what could be an enormous part of their personality.[4] Differences should be celebrated, so to homogenise us all, while seeming like a forward-step, is actually a backwards leap for human progress and social acceptance.

To be blind to sexuality and gender differences is the same as being ‘colour-blind’. This is a dangerous way to proceed: we are all different, we undergo different experiences and, often-times, these experiences are not positive when it comes to race and sexuality. If words are drugs, they can be used to hurt us. Slurs cut deep and, over time, these words begin to carry a lot of baggage, where the social context far outstrips the semantics. These words are the inverse of words used to identify and group individuals together with a positive sense of belonging. Instead, slurs and insults are used to marginalise groups, to condemn them for being who they are.

More recently, however, these groups have begun to reclaim these slurs, to bring them into the fold and alter the exclusiveness to being solely used against them to being solely used by them. The black community have reclaimed the N-word, which was once used derogatively against them, resulting in those within the community being able to use it with others in that community. If those outside use it, however, it is highly uncomfortable due to it then reverting back to those slur connotations.

In a similar way, the word ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by the LGBT+ community. It has a dual meaning:


1) An umbrella term sometimes used by LGBTQA people to refer to the entire LGBT community.
2) An alternative that some people use to "queer" the idea of the labels and categories such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc. It is an in-group term, and a word that can be considered offensive to some people, depending on their generation, geographic location, and relationship with the word. For some in the LGBT+ community, it is seen as a positive example of semantic reversal. It encompasses all and any who is not straight and not cisgender. However, others in that same community are uncomfortable using the word ‘queer’ to describe themselves as it still feels like a slur. Therefore, even when the linguistic meaning is altered, the social connotations still linger. Words may be decay into disuse when the word is tainted by social subjugation.
Words are ultimately tools for expression. They can be a linguistic banner for a group to unite under. They can be written in permanent marker, to be a constant reminder of a near-indescribable act of murderous hatred against a group. They can be reclaimed and recycled, shifting from words of oppression to words of self-identity.

It must be noted, however, that a group may have words, but may not have a voice if society refuses to hear it. It is not a lack of words that leaves us in silence, but the inability to be heard. Words come and go, meanings swap and change, but if words are ignored, if society is deaf, then the speaker is left mute. Pacified.