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Bias: Mark My Words

CareerWomanWe want our language to be free of bias, don’t we? Surely anyone of good will would want to be polite to others rather than unintentionally insulting them.

At first glance it seems simple enough. As the editor Malinda McCain writes on the ShareWords website, “bias-free language means using terms that treat people with respect.” And, she adds, this means also avoiding words that disrespect, “such as not describing someone’s physical characteristics when doing so serves no purpose.” In essence, as simple as that.

But if it’s so simple to avoid bias, why is it so hard? Why do we need so many authorities to instruct us about it? Why does showing respect stir up such attention and controversy? Why, for example, did the president of the University of New Hampshire last month condemn his own university’s guide to bias-free language and have it removed from the web?

It’s not that so many people are biased. No, it’s a basic problem with language itself. Linguists call it “markedness.”

In clusters of words, one is usually “unmarked” — a normal or neutral term that people routinely use when discussing a topic. We use it unthinkingly. We don’t pause to consider its meaning or etymology because it doesn’t stand out. We’ll say breakfast many a time without ever pausing to think that it’s the time when you break the fast of the night before.

“Marked” words, on the other hand, call attention to themselves and make us think about them in the way that the unmarked words do not. If a restaurant labeled its breakfast menu eye-opening fare, that would be noticeable and marked. We’d be inclined to think about the effect this breakfast might have — waking us up.

Marked words are called that because they often are “marked” by something added, in comparison to their unmarked counterparts. Take the pair happy-unhappy, for example. The unmarked word is happy, as we know because the normal question is “How happy are you?” and not “How unhappy are you?” The latter would be an eye-opening way to ask. And notice that unhappy is plain happy marked by the prefix un-.

So, for  example, translating Tolstoy we begin Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The unhappy families are marked — in this case, for treatment in the novel.

So much for Tolstoy. What does markedness have to do with freeing language from bias?

It reveals the inherent resistance of language to any attempt to change language for the better (or worse). It means advocating something marked, something that is not the customary unmarked term. The very act of advocating, of calling attention to the word, gives it a marked character. And makes it awkward for us to use, unless we’re the ones advocating the change.

This, for example, has been a difficulty for a long time with gender bias. Both man and woman are unmarked when referring to their respective genders, but when you want to encompass both in a single unmarked word, the word can only be man, not woman.  So ”no man’s land” is quite different from “no woman’s land,” the former unmarked term excluding everybody, the latter marked term excluding only women. And woman is marked by the prefix wo-, etymologically originally wife-man. 

Thus also unmarked male vs. marked female, with the added prefix fe-, even though etymologically female is not simply male with a prefix. But it has been interpreted as such and thus qualifies for the marked-unmarked problem.

Gender bias is obvious in the traditional and thus unmarked  fireman, policeman, mailman. Nowadays we make an effort to replace them with the nonbiased but marked firefighter, police officer, mail carrier — marked, you’ll notice, with one or two extra syllables each, compared with their unmarked counterparts. That’s why we may find it a little awkward to say the unbiased versions, though widespread official use of the marked versions may eventually flip them to “normal, unmarked.”

Sometimes we are tempted just to laugh when we see a new term proposed for a familiar unmarked word that has newly been perceived as biased. That’s one of the situations in the University of New Hampshire’s withdrawn guide to unbiased language. The unmarked ordinary term American can offend people in North and South America who live in countries outside of the United States, we’re told, because our use of American implies that our country is the whole New World (which might also be an offensive term) and the other countries don’t matter. We might well laugh at this reading of a hitherto unmarked word, but then we might find ourselves thinking it over.

To avoid bias, we somehow have to reverse the marked and unmarked. In many cases, that means using a marked term as if it were unmarked, contrary to the inclination of language. The unmarked terms handicapped or disabled are now seen as biased because they are negative, but it’s a struggle to replace them with the longer marked term person with disabilities.

There are exceptions. Two that come to mind are deaf and black.

The word deaf is unmarked, and has the support of the World Federation of the Deaf and the National Association of the Deaf as the preferred term for someone who is — deaf. Not hearing impaired or even worse, deaf and dumb or deaf mute.

Likewise, black for persons formerly called colored or Negro also has the advantage of being unmarked in comparison with those terms, or even with African-American.

It gets complicated, but both Deaf and Black have been adopted by those who have positive feelings about their respective cultures. And when referring to their cultures, they often use capital letters with those words, which marks them a little.

So markedness matters. As we aim to treat others with respect, we must recognize that we will encounter marked terms — like persons with disabilities — that by their markedness can make us uncomfortable. But the effort will generally be appreciated.

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