PEI

How the language we use determines how we view ourselves, each other and the world around us

Words aren't just a string of sounds that escape people's mouths, used to communicate with one another, says Sobia Ali-Faisal, a former lecturer at UPEI and co-founder of BIPOC USHR. Language, she says, is a window into how people view the world around them.

'Words determine how we view the world'

'It's giving visibility to people who previously were not visible. It's recognizing people's experiences as more complex than we had understood them before,' says Sobia Ali-Faisal, former psychology lecturer at UPEI and co-founder of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour United for Strength, Home and Relationships or BIPOC USHR. (YULIYA Shustik/Shutterstock)

For Sobia Ali-Faisal, words aren't just a string of sounds that escape people's mouths, used to communicate with one another. 

"Words determine how we view the world," she said. "Language is very, very powerful."

Ali-Faisal, who spent three years as a lecturer in UPEI's psychology department, said she uses language as a methodology in her area of study, which explores sexual health in the Muslim community and sexual violence prevention.

She's also a co-founding member of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour United for Strength, Home and Relationships or BIPOC USHR.

"I look to see how people are talking about certain constructs and try to understand how they understand their world through the language they use," she said. 

By labelling people who have certain conditions as … abnormal, well we're already marginalizing them.— Sobia Ali-Faisal

For example, Ali-Faisal said, as a professional in the field of psychology she is careful not to use terms like abnormal psychology.

The term can come into play when professionals encounter things like schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, or anti-social personality disorder, she said. 

'Marginalizing them'

"Using the word abnormal makes us think about those people with those particular conditions in a particular way as if they're not normal, as if they're unusual, as if they need to be kept away almost from society. So using those types of terms and using particular terms determine how we see the world around us," Ali-Faisal said. 

"By labelling people who have certain conditions as … abnormal, well we're already marginalizing them. We're already pushing them to the margins of society and taking away their power just by using that one word: abnormal."

The use of language and the power it wields is particularly relevant now, Ali-Faisal said, as people from across the country and the U.S. have re-engaged in a discussion surrounding systemic racism following the death of George Floyd.

Sobia Ali-Faisal was a lecturer at UPEI's psychology department where she also conducted research focusing on sexual health in Muslim communities and sexual violence prevention. She says looking at how people use language helps her to understand how they view the world. (Submitted by Sobia Ali-Faisal)

"What we're seeing right now, especially with more and more words being used, I guess, we can call it labels, in a way. It's giving visibility to people who previously were not visible. It's recognizing people's experiences as more complex than we had understood them before," she said.  

"For example by BIPOC, one of the issues initially was back before BIPOC became a more common term, it was mostly people of colour [that was being used] and anybody who was non-white was lumped into this one big group: people of colour."

The problem with that, she said, was that using a blanket term like people of colour was denying the differences between different people of colour — between Black people, Indigenous people and others.

The new language that we have, the evolving terminology that we see really allows us to recognize those complexities and allows us to recognize people's experiences for what they are.— Sobia Ali-Faisal

"So the term BIPOC then became much more common. And what that term does now, it actually recognizes that, 'Yes, there's a lot of similarities between Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour's experiences but there are still very important differences as well. And we need to recognize those differences," Ali-Faisal said.

"The new language that we have, the evolving terminology that we see really allows us to recognize those complexities and allows us to recognize people's experiences for what they are."

Hannah Gehrels, program co-ordinator with P.E.I. Wild Child, an outdoors program designed to connect children with nature, said the impact of language is felt from a young age.

'Using inclusive language'

For the past couple of years, P.E.I. Wild Child has been running programming for LGBTQ and non-binary children, sometimes called gender creative or gender non-conforming children.

"Using inclusive language when you're working with gender creative kids is of critical importance," Gehrels said. 

"Respecting kids' names and their pronouns, it's important for kids to know that they are seen and accepted and supported."

During activities, Gehrels said instead of using words like boys and girls, they refer to the children as folks or pals or friends instead. 

Hannah Gehrels, program co-ordinator of P.E.I. Wild Child, says people are impacted by language from a young age. (Submitted by Hannah Gehrels)

"When we're talking about teaching kids, the kids already know. It's more about switching our language as adults to not be as closed, to support the things that people already know about their worlds or about themselves," she said. 

"There are a lot of things that we have in our society because it's a colonial, white supremacist society that has shaped our worldview and then we teach the kids. It's about changing our language so it accurately reflects, you know, the realities of the world and the reality of people's identities."

In addition to understanding the power of language, Ali-Faisal said people need to appreciate the value of revising language to better explain and reflect reality as it evolves.

We will need to change words. We will need to introduce new words to understand those experiences and for people to explain those experiences.— Sobia Ali-Faisal

Words like racism, which Merriam-Webster recently agreed to update after Kennedy Mitchum, a St. Louis, Mo., woman, wrote to them requesting the change.

Mitchum told Merriam-Webster that the definition focused on individual beliefs while ignoring the systemic or institutional racism that, among other things, perpetuates police violence and over-incarceration in BIPOC communities.

"The way racism was defined initially didn't reflect reality. And when a word is defined in a particular way that does not reflect what is actually happening in the world, then that word almost becomes a weapon to hold people back and to try to hold progress back," Ali-Faisal said.

"We will need to change words. We will need to introduce new words to understand those experiences and for people to explain those experiences," she said.

"It's really, really important to constantly be going back and revising our language."

In this Sunday, June 7, 2020, photo, Kennedy Mitchum protests outside the Florissant Police Department in Florissant, Mo. Merriam-Webster is revising its definition of racism after Mitchum's emails said it fell short of including the systemic oppression of certain groups of people. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/The Associated Press)

As many people begin to look more deeply at language and its impact on matters of visibility, race, and individual experience, Ali-Faisal urges people to think about the words they use, how they use them and why.

"What is it that they're trying to do with the words that they're using? What are they trying to achieve, not just what message are they trying to get across but what sort of relationships with other people are they trying to achieve and maintain with the words that they use," she said. 

"I would want people to really pay more attention to that."

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About the Author

Sam Juric

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Sam Juric is a digital reporter with CBC Sudbury and can be reached at samantha.juric@cbc.ca.

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