We Are The Other?

Janis Patterson

In these tiresome days of Political Correctness and ‘woke-dom’ there is a small battle raging about using italics for non-English words in book manuscripts. “It is divisive,” shriek the PC crowd. “It fosters other-ness and is not inclusive.”

Well, duh!

When speaking of a book written in English for the use of an English-speaking audience, of course the writer should use italics for foreign words and phrases. The words are foreign words, not English words – they are ‘other.’ Italics show that. It’s not divisiveness, it’s clarity, showing the reader that this is a different language. Some words in other languages are spelled the same but have wildly different meanings. (For example : douche (French) and douche (English) while having the same familial root are totally different things.) Without italics to differentiate what is English and what is another language, the reader can be confused and pulled out of the story to puzzle it through, and no writer wants that. Of course, that homophonic mayhem happens in all-English books, too – if I read one more story that mixes up ‘grizzly’ and ‘grisly’ that book, like a number of others, will end up smashing against the wall. Words are the tools of the writer, and one should learn to use one’s tools properly. To do less is to disrespect both the art of writing and the intelligence of the reader.

To make things even more confusing, the PC crowd applauds the use of a bunch of weird self-chosen pronouns that a small portion of the population uses to describe themselves which, while doubtless emotionally satisfying to them, are linguistically and societally bizarre. How can there be anything else but a deliberate ‘other-ness’ when an individual refers to him/her/itself as ‘they’? Talk about mixed signals!

Of course an individual has the right to call themselves anything they like; that is freedom of speech in its purest form and is guaranteed under the First Amendment. Those who want to use the ‘new’ pronouns are most definitely free to do so, but no one has the right to demand that everyone else use them, most especially in a written format. The result is a linguistic minefield.

The essence of language is communication. Language is nothing but a collection of sounds and syllables to convey ideas, but it only works if everyone understands what those sounds and syllables mean. This is especially true for writers, for they must communicate by written symbols only, without the supporting means of vocal intonation and facial expressions.

Can you imagine the delicious confusion (or might it be deliberate obfuscation?) in a mystery when a single individual obviously speaking in the first person refers to himself as ‘they’ or ‘we’? How does the poor confounded detective/sleuth react, especially if he is not up to speed on this linguistic trend? That could almost be a subplot in itself.

Conversely, the essence of communication – especially for writers and the written word – is language. We need the same reference points, the same starting points for efficient interaction. Standard linguistics offer this universal base. If a non-English word in an English language book is italicized, everyone knows it is not English, even if it is identical in spelling to an English word with a totally different meaning. If a writer uses the ‘new’ pronoun structure, he’d better have a really good reason that forwards the story or risk confusing and perhaps even alienating his readers.

Years ago someone coined the phrase K I S S – Keep It Simple, Stupid (or Silly, depending on to whom you’re talking). It’s still good advice. Good communication is simple, and the foremost tool in the writer’s toolkit.


Personal Note – if you have been a reader of this blog for a while doubtless you have been accustomed to seeing my picture with blonde hair. It’s red now, both in the picture and on my head. I finally decided that it would be a charitable act to give the general populace a warning label.

6 thoughts on “We Are The Other?

  1. Well said. I am so tired of everyone trying to be politically correct and not be divisive. It’s gone beyond reasonable. And I’ve always loved red hair. I married a red-head.


  2. Note: I don’t know how to make italics show up for the Navajo and Apache words in WordPress comments, but I agree they help clarify the reading process.

    This post got me thinking. It must feel strange to realize there’s no word for who you are. A number of the world’s languages, from Malay to Finnish, are gender-less when it comes to pronouns, while others, like English, not only lack naturally-occurring pronouns for various gender identities, they lack naturally-occurring nouns. Most indigenous languages in North America have words for multiple and complex genders. The Cree language has six gender words. The Navajo language has this for male-/female-/intersexed-assigned: Nadleeh or nadle (gender class/category) nadleehi (singular), nadleehe (plural). Meaning: one in a constant state of change, one who changes, or being transformed.

    I’ve been working on a scene with an ongoing secondary character in my series, an Apache youth, age thirteen, who is dealing with gender identity. I’ve always sensed Ezra was different in many ways: intellectually and spiritually gifted, shy, more comfortable around adults than kids his age, and neither masculine nor feminine, but something uniquely Ezra. So far, I’ve written the moment when he first tries to explain this to my protagonist, who is, like me, a cis-gender, heterosexual, Anglo woman. They’re walking together, a good way to have an awkward conversation.

    “The kids in Boys and Girls Club act like I’m weird.” Ezra’s steps slowed down. “We have a word in Apache, nde’isdzan. It doesn’t translate well. Like, man-woman. Some people now say ‘two-spirit.’ It’s not the same as being gay. It’s something else. But some kids call me names, like …” He glanced up at Mae, then back down. “I won’t say it. It’s ugly.”

    As he grows up, I wonder what pronoun he’ll choose and how I’ll write that choice. Will he stay with the male words or not? So far, at least he has a noun.


  3. Nice post, Janis! I agree that if a reader doesn’t know all the terms they can be lost and think the author doesn’t know what they are writing. I also agree with italicizing foriegn words. I’m writing a book now set in Iceland. If I didn’t Italcize the few words in dialog that are other languages people would think they are typos. What really burns my biscuits are people sayign you should be politically correct in historical books. Wouldn’t using the language of that time period make people realize how we have or haven’t changed and to move forward to do better? Thanks for another thought provoking post. I like your new hair color!

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