We all know Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase, ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’. I think this article is going to test this theory – so hold onto your hats!
The 21st century is like a century on speed. Within two decades, we have moved from lazy letters to instantaneous email; from dozy dial-up internet, to superfast Wi-Fi in jungles (sadly – I witnessed this in a safari camp in the Serengeti in Tanzania). Now we have space tourists that travel at the speed of sound, to artificial intelligence called CHATGPT that can write you an essay on pretty much anything in the space of seconds. We are in such a hurry, that we can now melt glaciers in a few years that took 100,000 to form. Is there any part of human civilisation that is not in a hurry? What about our language?
We all understand language is not a static creature. It too evolves, oftentimes shedding its archaic words like old skin or, like a chameleon changing its meanings over time. For as long as people have mixed, languages have intermarried. English is a particular carnivorous beast, consuming French, Latin, Germanic and expanding its lexicon in line with its colonial expansion. Naturally, new words have to be invented, as new technology emerges and so too the habits that go with them. Likewise, words that were common, like measurements such as perches, poles and rods, are now outdated. We have bent words to become different things, brilliant no longer is commonly used to mean bright, instead we use it to denote how good something is. We have also stopped using words that are now archaic. Collective nouns such as the one found in his much quoted ‘I have a dream’ speech where Martin Luther King oftentimes refers to his audience as the ‘Negro people’ would never be used by Afro Americans today to describe themselves. Closer to home, our travelling community once were collectively called ‘Tinkers’ to reflect one of the crafts that was synonymous with them, but once it became used as a negative and pejorative term (some might even add inaccurate term), it too has been replaced with better fitted terminology to capture the ‘traveller’ culture. This is language. It doesn’t stand still.
So when the Roald Dahl story broke that publishers were changing the language in his children’s books, one could argue if language changes, what is the fuss? Before I go into this delicate subject, let me refresh some readers. Puffin books hired ‘sensitivity writers’ to remove or change what they deem ‘offensive language’ as well as other changes. Some words like fat and ugly have been omitted or replaced. Gender has been targeted too, for example the indelible Oompa Loompas are no longer ‘small men’, but ‘small people’, and a ‘formidable female’ character in Matilda is now a ‘formidable woman’. Some agree, many others do not. Language does evolve, but are we in danger of speeding into this decision in keeping with the hectic nature of the 21st century?
Let’s look at it through both prisms for the sake of balance. As a teacher, our job is not just to shape kids or prepare them for exams, but also to look after them. It seems the one consistent thread throughout times is that children can be cruel, and quick to tease. As adults, we have to bring them on a journey of self-awareness of themselves and others. If all the fictitious bad and nasty characters are always depicted as ‘fat’ and always ‘ugly’, does this subconsciously plant the seed into children that the same goes for kids in real life? That may be so if every character in a children’s book always depicts the bad child using those types of terms. It was probably an overused trope in children’s literature in the past. Some argue that a child would never see it that way, but if the messaging is consistent and reinforced from book to book, then one would have to think it could subconsciously shape the child.
Gender issues have, of course, become the topic of mainstream like never before. A friend of mine insightfully commented that humans always want to categorise things to make life easier, so we narrowed everything into two genders, whereas it was never thus. Modern times have allowed us to debate and tease out these issues and that’s what Puffin must be doing when they are rewriting gender specific definitions.
While I can understand why Puffin my feel they are doing the right thing, I have concerns about how they are going about it. I suppose as a lover of books and history, the first question is where do you stop? Do you take out the antisemitic references in ‘The Merchant of Venice’? Do you censor ‘Ulysses’ because the N word is used in it half a dozen times? Do you ban ‘The Field’ because it used the word Tinker, as an insult? Firstly, one has to ask who and what are sensitivity writers and is it a form of censorship? After all fiction creates good and bad characters who say nice and nasty things. Do they sanitise it because it is offensive to the ‘sensitivity writer’? What if it is meant to be offensive for the sake of the narrative or characterisation? Yes, it’s true that in Nazi Germany, the ‘Merchant of Venice’ was the most popular play. Today it is more popular. As well as it being appreciated as a great piece of literature, it has become a tool to highlight the wrongs of prejudice and antisemitism. Context is everything. It always has been. Who would dare to rewrite ‘Ulysses’ because they take offence to language from 100 years ago? Where do you stop? With some many great new writers and a market awash with children’s literature, the 21st century has brought us a rich tapestry of books for kids and teenagers. We should look forward not back.
Literature written from any particular era, will reflect the mores and social compass of that period. To change words to fit 2023 sensibilities is akin to cultural vandalism. I’m not just taking about fiction. How can we peer into the past if we cleanse it to suit the codes of today? Historians would be blinded from how people thought, wrote, and preached. From children’s school books in communist times to religious literature that captured the spiritual zeitgeist of that era – removing or changing these for example, would rob us of what people experienced in their world from those timeframes. Surely, we have the capacity to differentiate between what terms were used then and what is wrong to say today? That’s what parents, schools, reading groups, historians and many others do every day. As I said, context is everything.
Yes, we need to teach our children about being sensitive and inclusive, but I think do it going forward not back. When you consider the millions of children’s books of today, the ones that will be written tomorrow, it puzzles me more why you would change a Roald Dahl story? If one is offended by it, why would one buy it? Or perhaps if one wants a sentimental peek at older stories, put a warning label on the book, that declares, this may offend. (Like we used to do on CDs if lyrics were deemed too risky or contained bad language.)
Despite my protestations about changing older books and documents, there are always good reasons at times to do so. (It’s never black and white – is it?) With good reason we are looking at changing our Constitution in a referendum. Not for reason of law, but of language. Yes, it is a historical document, but also a legal document and we modify it when society deems we need a change. In this case there is cause and reason to adjust the language, which was written with reference to men only. For example, the clause relating to the president says, ‘The President shall hold office for seven years from the date upon which ‘he’ enters upon his office, unless before the expiration of that period he dies’. We have had two female presidents yet we still maintain the word ‘he’ in the text, In this instance, in my opinion, there is legitimate and practical cause for amendment. Some may even think ‘they’ will be a more encompassing term, and I’m sure it will be debated in due course. Enoch Burke has brought the ‘they’ debate to national attention. We need to protect our vulnerable children, in this case a child who wishes to be referred to as ‘they’. You could go down a worm hole about freedom of speech or religion, something beyond the scope of this month’s article. Again, it will divide people, but doesn’t our proclamation declare ‘we must cherish all of the children equally’?
Language changes as society changes. As long as humankind has been around, it has demonstrated that transformation is sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. Having a rigid position on language, however, is trying to hold back the tide. But we can be sensible about what makes good alterations, harmful ones, and downright idiotic adjustments. What certainly is true, is that you can’t please all of the people, all of the time.