MoMA R&D

Salon 25 Why Words Matter

In December 2017, the news came out that officials at the nation’s top public health agency were being prohibited from using a list of seven words in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget. The forbidden words were “vulnerable,“ "entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” This Orwellian piece of news reveals that words are not only important conveyers of ideas and concepts, but also a powerful mirror of the society that uses them. We use words to navigate expectations, to engage in interpersonal interaction, and to go along with or to speak out against social structures and systems. Therefore, the particular choice of words which we use (and do not use) reflects changes in cultural perspective, social composition, and political circumstances. Moreover, in a 2016 book titled “Words on the Move”, Columbia scholar John Hamilton McWhorter wrote that “changes in meaning are as natural to words as changes of pitch are to music”. In this salon, we will delve into the symphony of words that makes up our dictionary in order to better understand how we, as speakers, use words to inhabit and negotiate our many personal, cultural, and social identities and roles.

Some of the questions we strived to answer: Can words ever be neutral? In which ways do the words that we use to communicate reflect, affect and infect our reality? What about the words that we choose to omit? How does our personal patois – our vocabulary, syntax and linguistic quirks – function as a tool to legitimise, perpetuate and reinforce the status quo? And how can it be used to undermine it? If history is written by the winners, which words could compile a more thorough and comprehensive narration of history? If “to define is to limit”, as Oscar Wilde famously said, can we do without definitions? Where should we draw the line between political correctness and self-censorship? If we are striving for accuracy, how can we balance the ambition to be as precise as possible, without drowning in a sea of qualifications? At which point does an assemblage of words become a language? Is the extinction of languages an inevitable phenomenon? Should we treat certain words as endangered species? Are emojis comparable to words? Do we really know what we are saying when we use them? Are they impoverishing our vocabulary; or are they expanding the potential of our communication outreach?

This salon took place on May, 16th, 2018.

Speakers

Reading Resources

THE POLITICS OF WORDS

Andersen, Kurt, How to Talk Like Trump: A short guide to speaking the president’s dialect, The Atlantic (March 2018)

Bowdler, Michelle, Why Donald Trump’s Words Matter, The New York Times (10.11.2016)

Chaika, Elaine, Language: the Social Mirror, Heinle & Heinle (1982)

Morgan, T. Clifton, The Concept Of War and Its Impact on Research and Policy, Peace & Chance, vol.14, issue 4, pp.413-441 (October 1990)

Murphy, David, Léopold Sédar Senghor: Race, Language, Empire, in Postcolonial Thought in the French-speaking World , Liverpool Scholarship (2009)

Orwell, George, Politics and the English Language, Horizon (April 1946)

Orwell, George, 1984, Secker & Warburg (1949)

Rancière, Jacques, The Flesh of Words - The Politics of Writing, Stanford University Press (2004)

Szántó, András, What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics, Open Society Institute (2007)

Sun, Lena & Eilperin, Juliet, CDC gets list of forbidden words: Fetus, transgender, diversity, The Washington Post (12.15.2017)

ESKIMO, ESPERANTO AND LINGUISTIC IMPERIALISM

Last Whispers

Burns, Anne, Is English a form of linguistic imperialism?, British Council (04.10.2013)

Harbeck, James, The language the government tried to suppress, BBC (09.16.2016)

Phillipson, Robert, Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford University Press (1992)

Piron, Claude, Brief notes on Esperanto, University of California - San Diego

Robson, David, Are there really 50 Eskimo words for snow?, New Scientist (12.12.12)

Quenqua, Douglas, Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills, Study Finds, The New York Times (10.16.2014)

Tse, Keith, Cantonese vs Mandarin: it need not be a political battle, AsiaTime (02.22.2018)

Woodbury, Anthony C., Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen’s guide, Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska (July 1991)

WORDS ON THE MOVE

Bodle, Andy, How new words are born, The Guardian (02.04.2016)

McWhorter, John, Words on the Move: Why English Won’t - and Can’t - Sit Still (Like, Literally), Henry Holt & Co (2016)

Truss, Lynne, Why English Keeps On, Like, Totally Changing, The New York Times (11.03.2016)

QUEERING THE LANGUAGE

Adler, Melissa, Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge, Fordham University Press (2017)

​Berman, Sanford, The Fucking Truth About Library Catalogs, Progressive Librarian, pp. 19-25 (Summer 1992)

Cherry, Alyssa & Mukunda, Keshav, A Case Study in Indigenous Classification: Revisiting and Reviving the Brian Deer Scheme, Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, pp. 548-567 (July 2015)

Elkin, Lauren, Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan, BookForum (07.10.2015)

Fox, Violet, Creating Change in the Cataloging Lab, Library Journal (03.01.2018)

Nicholson, Rebecca, Women swear as much as men – so here’s to equal-opportunity cursing, The Guardian (11.07.2016)

Noble, Safiya Umoja, Google Search: Hyper-visiblilty as a Means of Rendering Black Women Invisible, InVisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture (10.29.2013)

Perec, Georges, Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books, in L’Humidité (1978)

Tett, Gillian, Bad language: the curse of gender equality, Financial Times (12.08.2016)

Valentine, David, *Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category, Duke University Press (2007)

LANGUAGE AND MIND

Chomsky, Noam, Language and Mind, Cambridge University Press (2006)

Chomsky, Noam & McGilvray, James, The Science of Language: Noam Chomsky interviews with James McGilvray, Cambridge University Press (2012)

Codrescu, Andrei, The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess, Princeton University Press (2009)

Fenollosa, Ernest & Pound, Ezra, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, Instigations (1920)

Pinker, Steven, The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language, William Morrow and Company (1994)

Pound, Ezra, ABC of Reading, A New Direction Paperbooks (1934)

CODICES

Mesoamerican Codices, University of Arizona Library (1999)

Crofts, Daniel, Communication Breakdown, The New York Times (05.21.2011)

Day, Michael, Camorra code is cracked: Letter reveals how jailed boss still ran the mafia, Independent (04.27.2012)

Girolami, Andrea, Look Inside The Codex Seraphinianus, Wired (10.25.2013)

Gschwandtner, Sabrina, kNOT a QUIPU - An Interview with Cecilia Vicuña (09.22.2005)

Kamrin, Janice, Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide, AUC Press (2004)

CODE-SWITCHING

Boyd, Martin, Two Opposing Views of Literary Translation: Nabokov vs. Borges, Dialogos (06.28.2013)

Lahiri, Jhumpa, Teach Yourself Italian, The New Yorker (12.07.2015)

Miller, Wesley, Beryl Korot: Babel: the 7 minute scroll, Art21 (12.03.2010)

Willis, Judy, Bilingual Brains, Psychology Today (11.22.2012)

WE <3 EMOJIS

Google Updates Gun Emoji, blog.emojipedia.org (04.28.2018)

Abbott, Brianna, Climate change emojis could help save the planethttp://scienceline.org/2018/03/climate-change-emojis-help-save-planet/, ScienceLine (03.26.2018)

Alshenqeeti, Hamza, Are Emojis Creating a New or Old Visual Language for New Generations? A Socio-semiotic Study, Advances in Language and Literary Studies, vol.7, issue 6, pp. 56-69 (2016)

Benenson, Fred, Emoji Dick (2010)

Coren, Michael J., A new study confirms it: We really don’t know what we’re saying when we use emoji, Quartz (04.14.2016)

Evans, Vyvyan, Emojis actually make our language way better, New York Post (08.12.2017)

McCurry, James, The inventor of emoji on his famous creations – and his all-time favorite, The Guardian (10.27.2019)

Ohlheiser, Abby, What the world needs now is a dinosaur emoji, The Washington Post (06.09.2016)

Tutt, Paige, How Apple’s new multicultural emojis are more racist than before, The Washington Post (04.10.2015)

Stark, Luke & Crawford, Kate, The Conservatism of Emoji: Work, Affect, and Communication, Social Media + Society, vol.1, issue 2 (October 2015)

Varn, Kathryn, Letting Our Emojis Get in the Way, The New York Times (07.17.2015)

ONLINE COMMUNICATION

Baron, Naomi, See you online: Gender issues in college student use of instant messaging,Journal of Language and Social Psychology, vol.23, pp. 397-423 (2004)

Gajadhar, Joan & Green, John, An Analysis of Nonverbal Communication in an Online Chat Group, The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, Working Paper (March 2003)

Law, Sally, The Revolution Will Be Crowdsourced (and Cute), The New Yorker (09.22.2009)

WAYS OF WORDING

Douglas, Sarah, The Great Wall Label Shortage of 2017! Critic Chaos! Artists Take Matters into Their Own Hands, Art News (06.08.18)

Roffino, Sara, Why MoMA’s Exhibition of Towering Brazilian Modernist Tarsila do Amaral Misses the Mark, artnet news (03.01.2018)