Thursday 26 January 2012

Are we putting ‘People First’?

disabled person or person with disability?

Back in the early 1990s, there was a movement towards the modification of language used to describe socially sensitive issues.  This Politically Correct (PC) language was designed to reflect changing attitudes within and across societies and generate neutral terms free of negative associations.
Helena Halmari looked at a particular manifestation of this known as ‘People First’ language.  This is when pre-modified nouns are replaced in favour of post-modified nouns.  This is the difference between, for example:
1)       The disabled people: pre-modified noun.  The adjective disabled comes before the noun people (non-PC)
2)      The people with disabilities: post-modified noun.  The noun comes before the modifying prepositional phrase with disabilities (PC)
Example (1) is considered the non-PC form as the description is placed before the noun, giving it priority over what it’s describing.  On the other hand, example (2) is considered the appropriate PC form as the noun comes before description, giving the noun more status.  It is this structure of noun first which leads to the term ‘people first’.
Conducting her research in the US, Halmari looked at the use of PC and non-PC structures in the Houston Chronicle (the 7th largest paper in the US) and internet-based Google News reports between 2002 and 2007.  She wanted to see how widely the new PC form had been adopted in the written media a decade or so after it was first introduced.
To do this, she selected two highly sensitive terms, ‘mental’ and ‘retard’ and searched both new sources to see how they were used.  To Halmari’s surprise, out of the 545 relevant phrases in the Houston Chronicle, 74% used the discouraged, non-PC structure (e.g. Mentally ill inmate’s execution date nears).  However, the use of these forms was not random.  The non-PC forms were heavily favoured when the descriptions were of fictional characters and ‘undesirable societal elements’, such as criminals.  There was also a significant link between the use of a non-PC form and the words execute and executions (once again, providing a link between this structure and criminality).
On the other hand, the data showed that the use of the PC structure (26% of the data) was higher when those being described were children and non-criminal adults.  The amount of PC forms was also boosted by their use in the names of organisations which provide a social service (such as a day program for adults with disabilities). These can be said to give the data a false interpretation as they appear frequently.
Similarly, the data from Google News showed a higher percentage of non-PC forms (only 100 out of 373 examples could be classified as PC), which were mostly found in similar circumstances to those in the Houston Chronicle.
Possible reasons for news writers favouring non-PC forms may include the fact that headlines need to be direct and eye catching to snag readers’ attention, and these forms tend to use fewer words and take up less space. However, the data analysed by Halmari suggest that the new ‘people first’ language isn’t being applied to forms across the board.  Instead, there seems to be a split in its application (i.e. depending upon who is being described) which is likely to prevent it being fully adopted by the written media. 
Halmari, Helena (2011) Political correctness, euphemism, and language change: The case of ‘people first’. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 828–840.
doi: 10.1016/jpragma2010.09.016
This summary was written by Jenny Amos

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