September 01, 2005

Political Correctness Beyond Thunderdome

One of the most extreme examples of political correctness gone wild that I have encountered came a while back when I was accused of racism for using the word exotic. Here is the passage in which I used it:

With the exception of Cree and Saulteaux, which have rather simple sound systems, the First Nations languages of British Columbia contain quite a few sounds that are exotic, and without instruction and practice, unpronounceable, from the point of view of the English speaker.

This passage appears near the top of page 15 of my paper The Names of the First Nations Languages of British Columbia.

I submit that this is a perfectly correct, innocuous, and appropriate use of the term. The sounds in question (ejectives, lateral fricatives and affricates, uvular stops and fricatives, and pharyngeals, among others) may indeed be considered as:

being or from or characteristic of another place or part of the world
(from the point of view of English-speaking, and indeed Chinese- and Punjabi-speaking, Canadians) and they are also, from the same perspective:
strikingly strange or unusual
which are the two definitions provided by Wordnet. The American Heritage Dictionary gives almost identical definitions, along with a third sense "of or involving striptease",that is not relevant.

The paper in question has, moreover, been read by any number of First Nations people (that's the politically correct term for Indians in Canada), among them at least three lawyers, several prominent politicians, and several close friends, who would not hesitate to point out anything they found objectionable. There hasn't been a peep out of any of them.

So, what is behind this? Does the author of the complaint simply not know the meaning of the word? That's hard to believe. Much as I'd love to, I won't embarrass this twit by naming him, but he is a full professor (not of Linguistics, thank goodness) at a major Canadian university, an editor of a respectable if not particularly illustrious journal, and a native speaker of English. It is very difficult to believe that he managed to read the passage as meaning that I consider these sounds to be associated with striptease and am thereby casting aspersions on them and the speakers of the languages that contain them, or that in his variety of English the term has some radically different meaning and that he is unaware that this differs from that in general use.

It is also worth noting that I did not say that I myself consider these sounds to be exotic. I made a claim, one utterly uncontroversial among linguists and easily confirmed, that most British Columbians find these sounds exotic. To me, with considerable exposure to these sounds, and in fact able, albeit less fluently than I would like, to speak a language containing them, these sounds are not exotic (except perhaps for those damnably difficult pharyngeals, which we haven't got in Carrier). Since when is the one who reports them responsible for the attitudes of others?

I can't say for sure where such a silly idea comes from, but I strongly suspect that it is the result of a mind befuddled by postmodernism, particularly in its "postcolonialist" strain. There is a large literature, of which the most prominent work is probably the late Edward Said's book Orientalism, that condemns virtually all "Western" analysis of "Oriental" and other non-"Western" societies as hopelessly distorted by self-interest, hidden agendas, and fear and inability to understand "the other". In this milieu, the word exotic has a special, negative connotation: it is what the evil and mis-guided "Orientalists" think of "the other". For adherents of the postcolonialist cult it may be impossible to disassociate the normal use and meaning of exotic from the one it has in their bizarre world.

Posted by Bill Poser at September 1, 2005 01:20 AM