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on language

August 5, 2014

Thank you, CBC, for sharing 2 great ideas for decentring dominant cultural ways of communicating. These inspire me to wonder about ways for Inuit and non-Inuit to look together about how language helps and hinders our efforts to understand each other and work well together.

The first inspiration is an effort by journalists on both sides of the current conflict in Gaza to identify language that is neutral and accurate for informing people about events and dynamics there. Listen here as editor Naomi Hunt describes the process of making The International Press Institute’s “Use with Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” and alternatives to some of the contentious terms.

Hunt’s goal with the report is for journalists and audiences alike to recognize the impact certain “loaded” words can have on how a conflict is perceived.
Words like “murder” or “caught in the crossfire” have been given the alternative “kill” as to not imply any guilt or innocence about those being killed or those committing the act. Yet there are 21 words in the glossary for which the team of journalists could not agree on a substitution.
“I think what’s important in those cases, is not that their use necessarily be avoided completely, but that when those words are used that the context be explained,” she says.
“They should explain the sourcing of some of the language that they use so that audiences are aware of what those meanings may be loaded with.”

“If we can have journalists and other people who speak about the conflict, understand that the words they use impact the way that people view the conflict and understand the conflict, and in fact that some of that language may cause people to turn away and just stop listening, then that would already be a great success.”

I loved imagining journalists with different perspectives on the conflict working together on this project, although in fact, groups of Israeli and Palestinian journalists worked separately to come up with these lists.

The second inspiration is a restaurant which requires diners to order in sign language. (Also on the theme of relating to other realities, is this restaurant staffed by people who are blind.) So often people with less comfort in the dominant cultural group work harder to promote comfort for those they are communicating with, (as when at my local building supply store today, English with a sprinkling of Inuktitut was used by folks whose primary languages were French, Inuktitut or English) while those with more ease make less effort. But by sticking to one language, we lose ways to understand and express ourselves.

I’m reminded of two experiences I’ve had as a hearing person among deaf people. On a Vancouver bus, I was struck by the beauty of a group conversation with hands like dancing birds – the lively expressions of speakers and listeners giving each other their fully engaged attention. As a child, I remember being a little intimidated by being whacked often by non-hearing schoolmates. Other hearing kids and I spoke of deaf kids as violent. Thinking back to the attentiveness and lively expressions of the signing people on that bus, I think how that touch was used to get our attention when we were looking somewhere else – which was most of the time.

So how could we play together with language in Inuit lands? We have language classes available during the daytime for people whose work and finances permit, and many social opportunities to speak simply together. I’d love to see more small groups gathering just to share words together – or radio programmes like Word of the Week on CBC’s C’est La Vie. These could also help to share understandings between speakers of the various dialects of Inuit language, or speakers from different generations and places. So many possibilities for communicating differently together, and for understanding each other with more nuance and accuracy.

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