Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Language and the Abortion Controversy

Language plays a very important role in the abortion controversy with the key battle being how the tiny cellular mass inside a pregnant woman is to be described. Pro-Life advocates (who typically are Pro-Death when it comes to the Death Penalty and often when it comes to doctors who perform abortions) want this tiny cellular mass to be called a "living human being." In the state of South Dakota, legislators want to require doctors to refer to this tiny cellular mass this way. I wonder if a legislature somewhere might want to force astrophysicists to cease to refer to "black holes" using that term since it, along with a lot of other terms employing this word "black" ("black sheep" or "blackball" or "black cloud" (that has a silver lining), etc.) evoke negative associations that attach to Black Americans. Why not?

Years ago, I read a book by a doctor who opposed abortion that took the position that if one could get people to use the term "baby" instead of "foetus" for the tiny cellular mass I earlier mentioned, their battle would be largely won. Of course, calling this tiny cellular mass a "living human being" would surely be believed to have an even greater effect. But, if you asked people in an abortion-neutral way to characterize some of the properties of a living human being they would quickly come up with properties that were inconsistent with calling this tiny cellular mass "a living human being" or even a "baby." It ain't gonna work, baby.

Implicit in the linguistic effort to force upon doctors the language "living human being" or even a less outrageous term like "baby" is a belief in the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, according to which language determines thought. There is no question that what something is called can influence thought (how could it not?) but it is a huge, easily falsifiable step to move to the strong form of this hypothesis that what something is called will determine thought about this thing.

It is quite clear that thinking goes on in tiny humans (i. e., those former small cellular masses that are not inside women that we raise to be grown men and women) well before they begin to acquire language (i.e., begin to associate words with things and comprehend phrases and sentences) and perforce this thought cannot be determined by language. In fact, I have long believed we do not remember much of our first few years because we have no real language though lots of learning is going on. Moreover there are hosts of concepts we have for which we have no words or as an old friend and colleague (at M.I.T. as a graduate student and at Illinois and Ohio State as faculty colleagues) Arnold Zwicky once termed them "fixed expressions." Notice that there is no single term that uniquely refers to fish, pork, chicken, and beef (i. e., there is no fixed expression) but typically these are the things many of us think of as what to serve as the main course of a dinner. We must then have concept of them. Vegetarions certainly do since they class them together as things not to eat. We wouldn't want to say that "edible flesh" is our language for them for there have been and may still be humans who have seen human flesh as quite edible. The same is true of what we could call "leafy greens." They occur in a row in grocery stores. Modern stores sometimes jumble things up a bit but normally romaine lettuce, Boston or bibb lettuce, red and green leafy lettuce, radicchio, fresh spinach, etc. are organized together and that argues for the existence of a concept in the heads of grocers for which there is no fixed expression.

Perhaps the most decisive refutation of the strong form of the S-W Hypothesis comes in the area of perception where it is clear that we distinguish vastly more colors than we have words for and that though different languages have more or fewer basic color terms and the terms they have often slice up the spectrum differently we perceive color in much the same way. There is a language which I have forgotten the name of that has a single term for the talons of a hawk, the claws of a lion, and human finger nails but before you read this, assuming you are biologically untrained (like me) it would never have occurred to you spontaneously to organize them together cognitively. But the speakers of my forgotten language clearly organized them together. Just for fun I Googled "word for talons, claws, and finger nails" and discovered that hooves are part of the same class. I can easily accept talons, claws, and nails as a concept even though I have no fixed expression for them. Now that I have learned that hooves count too, I can revise my concept but it will have no linguistic consequences." (I don't plan to revise it however.) Google "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" and you will find discussions and references supporting the thesis that the strong form of this hypothesis is false.

The Diocese of Fort Worth seems either to believe the strong form of the S-W Hypothesis or some very strong version of the weak form (if that makes any sense at all, which I doubt). The web site cited argues that simple passage of the Civil Rights Law of 1964 was sufficient to change people's attitude toward persons of other races with respect to such notions as seeing one's daughter having a person of another race as a college room mate or whether persons of different races should be able to rent rooms in the same building or stay in the same hotel. (I think the bombing of Black churches (sometimes with children inside) and watching Bull Connor's thugs whacking heads on TV might have had a greater effect.) The Diocese claims in connection with conservative columnist George Will's view that overturning Roe v. Wade would not change people's morality in regard to abortion, saying

It always surprises me when sophisticated political commentators appear to be ignorant of the relationship of morals, morés, and laws.
This incredibly naive religious person seems not to have understood how unsuccessful prohibition was and prohibition was not a mere law -- it was put into being by the 18th Amendment to our U.S. Constitution. Nor does this person seem to know that minors everywhere in the country smoke and drink alcohol even though it is illegal. Our morés in connection to smoking and drinking are unaffected by laws it seems.

In my opinion, overturning Roe v. Wade will cause a vastly greater disruption of American society than did making it a part of American Law. Calling a foetus a "baby" or "living human being" is not going to cause persons determined to abort their foetuses to cease having abortions because language does not determine thought.

I don't pretend to know what exactly will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned but I can assure you it will not be pretty. Women will die because of botched abortions , just as they did before Roe v. Wade. Middle class and wealthier women will get their abortions even if they have to travel outside the country to do them. And they will be pissed off and start voting for Democrats. It will be the poor who suffer either by getting dangerous abortions or having to raise kids they don't want. As I said, I don't know what will happen but I suspect that there will be an underground market for miscarriage pills. That way the Christian Mullahs will be happy and those who want abortions will be happy.

Perhaps I am naive, but IMO the mainstream of the Republican Party and even George Bush do not want Roe v. Wade overturned because they know that they will begin to lose elections as a result. IMO, Judge Roberts was a stealth judge, conservative to be sure but, unlike Chief Justice Rehnquist whom he will replace, he is unlikely to vote to overthrow Roe v. Wade every time it comes up. And as Chief Justice he may work to make sure that that Roe v. Wade isn't overturned (though he might want to see some limitations on it). The Republican Party is scamming the Religious Right (who richly deserve such treatment). They benefit from worked up Christians. They will not benefit if the middle class gets worked up because they have to fly out of the country to get an abortion.

I have no idea what I think about abortion. I don't feel good about it. I feel very ungood about partial birth abortions -- the name scares hell out of me. I also feel ungood about telling women that they must carry foetuses to term whether they want to or not. This is a moral controversy that will never go away since both positions are quite reasonable.

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Blogger Gia-Gina said...

Your thoughts and writing about the use of words is very intresting and something that not many people ponder. Being one that majored in the Sciences, I am still torn about abortion too. However I did take a class in philosophy from a Jesuit priest at a major university and his view was this: the mass of cells, fetus, baby, living thing that a woman carries inside her womb is a human being, not a cat or a tadpole etc... It is not fully developed and in the early stages cannot live outside of her womb but there is no doubt in his mind it is the beginning of human life. Not any other species. I agree with this and so like you are torn between what "it" is and who can decide if a woman has to carry "it" to full term. I say "it" because I am not up to date on medical and scientific terminology not because I do not have respect for "it".

1:52 PM

Blogger Dial-Up Princess said...

The way you present the information is very interesting. I'll definitely be back to read more.

3:16 PM

Blogger JoanneMarie Faust said...

Great post! I have long been angered by the Pro-life moniker. I consider myself pro life (who wouldn't?), but, as far as abortion is concerned, I am definitely pro choice (and against the death penalty). Pro life is less about the people who call themselves that than it is about the people who are placed in a position to defend their, obviously, "anti-life" viewpoints.

3:24 PM

Blogger Donna Barr said...

This whole mammalian reproduction thing is a -- pardon the pun -- bloody mess. Sometimes these little clusters of cells make it through to birth. A lot of the time they simply get flushed down the toilet (do we count the siblings you lost when your mother didn't know she'd lost them as Sacred Sewage Children?). The religious right should really take their complaint to (if you believe in the concept of a deity) the greatest abortionist of all: God.

3:39 PM

Blogger Stephan Clark said...

I think your thoughts about the S-W hypothesis are quite valid. But as a person trained in both sociology and theology I can see that it does have some pointers of which we can take note.
Language, maybe not all language, does influence thought. The correlation may not be even across the spectrum but it would seem from your own example (Pro-Life)that in some key areas this is exactly what has happened.
This is becuasae words are not neutral. They have "value" in a sociological sense. And value operates both passively and actively. In this active sense it surely moves people in certain directions.
Another dimension of this is that in order to dismiss the hypothesis you ahve to assume that simple folk are going to critically analyse language. Now we know that we just don't do this, otherwise no one would have believed Hitler, Stalin or Bush!
I am not wanting to patronise the "simple" merely to point out that our normal modus operandi is to accept what people in authority tell us and to react to the prejudices we have accumulated.
On another point, with regard to the pro-choice movement: it could also be argued that getting people to call the "mass of cells" ...foetus... instead of "baby" is the success story of this debate. As a person who lived through this in the 60-s and 70s and who has moved from the Pro-Life position to a more central one, I see this as how the pro-choice lobby enabled the community to tolerate the intolerable.
Your blog...very interesting...I shall put a link on my own

3:51 PM

Blogger Mary Bell said...

you say in your post "...language does not determine thought." Then why do you care if it is referred to tiny mass or baby? A particular label does not change what it is..a human being.

4:09 PM

Blogger Videos by Professor Howdy said...

Dear Mike,

After all is said & done - abortion
takes an innocent life...

You have a riveting web log
and undoubtedly must have
atypical & quiescent potential
for your intended readership.
May I suggest that you do
everything in your power to
honor your Designer/Architect
as well as your audience.

Please remember to never
restrict anyone's opportunities
for ascertaining uninterrupted
existence for their quintessence.

Best wishes for continued ascendancy,
Dr. Howdy

'Thought & Humor'

4:11 PM

Blogger Isabella di Pesto said...

I just discovered your blog and was very impressed with your discussion on the importance of language and its meaning.

I think we live in a era where politicians seek to achieve their political goals through the manipulation of language.

"No Child Left Behind" left behind children.

"Compassionate Conservatism" favors the rich while ignoring the health care of the poor.

I'll be back to read more of what you have to say.

This post sparked a lively discussion today.


PS I'm linking to you on my blog.

4:13 PM

Blogger city dweller said...

whoa. you sound really, really smart.

4:45 PM

Blogger Policy Analyst said...

I think you have some interesting thoughts here--I too am fascinated with the political use of language and am intrigued by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and as you claim, the falsifiablility of it in its strongest form.
Thanks. Betsy

5:35 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK The Language guy, pero en español para cuando?

5:44 PM

Blogger FreedomGirl said...

Using the logic of calling a mass of cells a "living human being", I commit ten murders every time I trim my toenails...PU-LEEZ.

5:48 PM

Blogger Tommy DisCool said...

Sorry to be off-topic, but I thought you should know...if this is old news to you...then forget about it.

"I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid.
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt..!!"

Tommy D

6:09 PM

Blogger ksanlkasf said...

You've written an interesting post and I was lucky to slip away to your blog.

You thoughts in writing is impressive..

6:18 PM

Blogger lloydmilligan said...

interesting read. Perhaps you are proving a point, but calling a fetus a tiny mass of cells is just as slanted as calling it a baby. You use your label to convey the meaning that you are going for.

As far as what would happen if roe v wade was overturned - in the mind of the pro-lifer, this does not matter. They would say that one cannot kill innocents to simply make life more convenient.
Bottom line - too much gray area. Who knows when a tiny mass of cells becomes a life.

I do agree with you that language does not change thought.

6:55 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think that women need to realize that they have a choice... the choice to turn from God and lose their purity, or the choice to remain holy and without blemish in God's eyes. The choice should end there. If God wants the baby made, the baby will be made, regardless of how careful the human is to avoid it. Why distance yourself further from God by killing your child?

7:07 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Your blog is double-plus good!

What is it about you MIT linguists that makes you so astute?

7:51 PM

Blogger john.koziar said...

"If God wants the baby made, the baby will be made, regardless of how careful the human is to avoid it," says anonymous. Uhh... are you really stupid? What does this say about every successful abortion? That they have God's permission?

8:33 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing! I have one comment about a side issue you mentioned- the death penalty. As a member of the right-wing group who belive in the death penalty I would just like to say that I support it because I put such a huge value on human life. I would rather nobody kill anybody else, but if people insist on doing it (which they do), then there needs to be some ultimate and drastic measure for taking human life. I belive that keeping the death penalty, and enforcing it goes a long way towards preventing others from doing the same thing.

And thanks for the discussion about the importance or unimportance of language. I have never really stopped to think this through in my mind- hopefully I will take the time now!

8:58 PM

Blogger Hepzibah The Watchman said...

Hello Language Guy

Without judgement, I would like to comment on your description of the "tiny mass". Most abortions are performed sometime after the fourth week of pregancy - after the woman has missed her first menustration. Usually an abortion is performed sometime during the first three months or 12 weeks of pregnancy.

I had a grown daughter when I found out I was pregnant with my second child. I was not married and had been told by doctors that I would never have any more children because of scar tissue. At seven weeks of pregnancy, I had an ultra sound because there was the possibility that this was a tubal pregancy. When the nurse did the ultra sound, she told me that my baby was a boy. There is no possibly - even at just seven weeks - that this was just a "tiny mass" or even a fetus - it was a baby - a human being. I opted not to have an abortion - even though I was not married. My son is now 14 years old and a blessing to my life. By the way - I did it all alone.

10:43 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, no kudos from me. You–a philosopher–contradict yourself in your second sentence. Your aim is to resist linguistic evil: Lo and behold, you commit linguistic evil by reducing a zygote/embryo/fetus to a "tiny cellular mass." No wonder you can decimate the "pro-life" position with such facility. You've created a straw man. AND, you are trying to influence the thoughts of your readers; how conclusions are drawn in their minds.

What? Too complex for you? I hope not. After all, you're nothing but a larger cellular mass (as you suggest). What, pray tell, makes you more fully human than a 38-week-old fetus? And why should we care about, for example, rapists, since, after all, they are only cellular masses penetrating other cellular masses? (See how your reductionistic language is an insult to knowledge?)

Seriously. This essay (at least the first few graphs) on strictly a philological level, or even a philosophical one, really falls short.

Since there are millions of abortions performed (or do I mean committed?) every year in the United States alone, it seems to me that all those trivial cellular masses must be good for something. Let me ask you: Should we eat aborted fetuses? Should we support the utilization of aborted fetuses as a food source for the poor and needy? Should we cultivate and harvest fetuses to distribute to soup kitchens? After all, fetuses, abounding in nutrients, are only "tiny cellular masses."

Or have my questions offended you? I can't imagine that they would. It's all about the language, right? Language is what–sounds and symbols to which we attribute dynamic, elastic meanings? Hence, one cannot be offended at mere symbols and sounds, can he? I mean, language itself is just a mass of phonemes and morphemes, just so many vowels and consonants and conjunctions, verbs and nouns and predicates. Who cares about all that? Language is not FULLY reality, is it? It's just, well, a mass of nonsense, embedded in cellular activity, to which we GIVE meaning if we so choose. (Or is it more than that, influencing and yes, even determining thought? If I teach a child that 2+2=4 and that it is always so in all possible worlds, do I not profoundly influence his thought? And if I say to you that you must NOT think of a pink polka-dotted elephant, have I not determined your thoughts? Surely, then, you concede that what a thing is called influences thought– profoundly–or you would use "baby" instead of "cellular mass.")

You see, you attempt to speak apolitically against the abuse of language, and then you abuse the language to defend a political point (which you might do accidently, I admit).

BUT, now that I've pointed out your slovenliness, I must share that I appreciate that you've kept an open mind on the abortion issue. There is no easy answer; you are right that both sides present reasoned defenses. But please, be more careful. You have every right to shout from the rooftops whatever opinion you wish. But if you're going to be a watchdog hunting down language abuses, then man, you need to be sniffing around your own backyard.

11:00 PM

Blogger Bill Gnade said...

In response to DW, I am the longwinded Anonymous that posted at 8:00 PM. It was difficult for me to decide on anonymity or revelation. I chose the former because I generally find it offensive when comments are posted on my blog as a sort of advertisement or self-promotion. Anonymity, in this case, allows the Language Guy to be at the forefront. No one needs to know who I am.

After all, it's all about the language.

(PS. I am not placing any sort of value on your observation. I've no idea whether you think anonymity is good or bad.)

11:05 PM

Blogger Bill Gnade said...

Now THAT's funny. You see. I intended to stay anonymous, and then I blew it by not checking the appropriate box. Seriously. Apologies all! It was not meant to be, I guess.

Perhaps I should change my screen name to "The Idiot." Not that Dostoevski would appreciate that, but I can't worry about him.


11:08 PM

Blogger Eat2Live - Michele said...

So let me get this straight- you think it's wrong to end the life of a person who had the chance and blew it, becoming a brutal murderer; but i's ok to kill an innocent baby who hasn't had the chance to live yet?

And you want people to listen to this argumant?

11:23 PM

Blogger allison WONDERland said...

No matter what I or anyone else thinks, when it comes down to the decision of the woman who bares a child to keep him/her or discard him/her the only thing that matters is that she is well informed of the consequences. Abortion is not always safe for the mother whether the procedure be done in a nice proper place or not. There are serious physical and emotional side affects and the mother should be told about them when she makes her decision. Please, if you or anyone you know is thinking of getting an abortion, go to a crisis pregnancy resource center near you for information on the concequenses. They are there to help you through whatever decision you make because they want women to be smart and safe.

12:17 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


was referred to your blog from the blogger front page.

I've always been interested in language and how she (*grin!*) is used/misused. Don't havve time (or bandwidth) to do more than glance at your aticles, but will be back for more later.

Take care!

12:26 AM

Blogger Max Inclined said...

Interesting point you raise about the SW Hypothesis. I think you're mostly right, but at the same time I feel like the slide from "influence" to "determination" is about as unclear as the slide from "fetus" to "baby." When does one change into the other? To a child developing his thoughts in an environment where black=evil is *assumed*, is that not a determination of thought, or at least until the child grows out of this assumption?

I don't like the term "partial birth abortion" either, nor do I particularly like the concept either. However, I think if a fetus is going to have a miserable, short life (by which I mean severe mental and physical disability, permanently bedridden and/or hooked up to machinery), I think the parents have a right to choose to abort.

12:46 AM

Blogger Justin Warner said...

Language Guy - Interesting post! I've always been intrigued by the difference that use of language makes to the way people think. I'll have to read some more of your blog... Not that this at all indicates agreement with you on this topic - I agree with some others who've pointed out that your use of language (eg: "small cellular mass") is just as pointed as those who oppose that p.o.v. by insisting that 8 cells should be termed a "human being". I really don't think that you will find "objective" terminology for this issue - it just doesn't lend itself to objectivity.

I got a bit carried away and found I'd written an enourmous rant on the whole abortion issue and the response of the "religious-right" - far too big for these comments. I've moved it onto my blog (not self promotion! Just not wanting to clutter things up here, and it was a little off the language topic)
So if you're interested, you can go here.

If not, no worries. Enjoy your day. :)

1:38 AM

Blogger Booksville Bookclub said...

Hi Mike. Whew! That's a lot to digest. I tried to find an e-mail address so I could offer to trade links (I also have a blog on language: wordsmarts.blogspot.com), but I don't see an address, so I'll have to use this method. Sorry. Come have a visit some time.

1:39 AM

Blogger Beach Bum said...

Yes, you are right about the significance of language in the abortion debate. I believe that language affects and at the same time reflects our perspectives or values. That is why pro-choice and "pro-life" groups have long been engaged in word fights.

In fact, there have been a lot of heated arguments in UN conferences over particular words to put in official UN documents particulalry pertaining to the concepts of sexual health, sexual rights, reproductive health and reproductive rights. People from all over the world have fought about this for days. Indeed, a rose called by any other name may not exactly be the same rose.

I do not use the term "pro-life" to refer to people who are anti-choice because this evokes an image of pro-choice people as being "pro-death," which is totally untrue. See, how the religious right has coopted the term pro-life? Its the same with referring to the fetus as a "baby". This is very value-laden and evokes an image of a cute, cuddly little boy or girl. Hence, using this term to refer to a fetus would surely be in favor of the anti-choice people's campaign to demonize women who undergo abortions and the doctors who perform these procedures (remember thier Silent Scream images?).

In the rural areas of the Philippines, many women refer to the contents of their uterus in the early stages of pregnancy (first few weeks) as just blood. Women whose pregnancies are unwanted (e.g., as a result of rape or incest) do not usually refer to the fetus as a "baby."

The term "partial birth abortion" is another concept that they are trying to imbed into people's consciousness. Honestly, what the hell is that? Can women actually partially give birth? Can a fetus really be partially born? In the same vein, can we actually be partially dead?

The fetus is part of the woman's body. Therefore, the decision to terminate the pregnancy is hers and hers alone.

1:44 AM

Blogger Marsha Mellows said...

In response to freedom girl, I never heard of toenail clippings ever devoloping into a human.

In response to this article, yes what we name things can change some peoples perceptions. If a Rose was named stinkweed, how many people would give a stinkweed to a friend or loved one?

2:20 AM

Blogger The Pierson Family said...

A very intelectual-sounding post...

About 6 months ago I would have been all over the discussion about words and labels and how you phrase something makes people think of the subject differently...

But 5 months ago, after 6 years of happy marriage and no desire for children, my wife and I decided it was time to start a family...

Four weeks after conception we heard the heartbeat with the first ultrasound. Four weeks later we saw our little baby moving her arms and legs, and this weekend I felt her move inside my wife's belly.

I guess it might be different when a baby is planned, chosen and looked forward to. But the sad thing is that we have 2 couple friends that would love to have babies and just can't... It seems so sad that someone who is willing to take on the responsability of their sexuality (at whatever age) is not willing to take on the responsability have giving birth to the baby and then finding a loving couple that will raise that child with love and affection.

Again, like I said, several months ago I would have been really into this conversation, but things really change when you experience your own little baby growing right before your eyes.

Just my thoughts.

4:11 AM

Blogger Mockingbird said...

Abortion is wrong and should be stopped. But as you said, politically correct terms have been used to mask and sugar-coat the evil of abortion.

4:31 AM

Blogger ... said...

Hi there Language Guy,

Great post. These "pro-life" fools (I'm referring to the leaders of the movement) are the same ones glorying in the mass deaths in New Orleans, claiming it's God punishing people, & giving shoot-to-kill orders on people who simply take food & water for distribute to their fellow humans...

But just one criticism, IMO Bush & crew really do want to overturn Roe v Wade. While some of them may be simply "politicking" or whatever, this regime as a whole is truly going for a new kind of fascism, a fundamentalist christian theocracy. You are absolutely correct to evoke Taliban imagery by calling them "Christian Mullahs". It sounds crazy & far-fetched, but all you have to do is listen to what they themselves say & do. People in early 30s Germany thought it was crazy & far-fetched what Hitler talked of in "My Struggle" ("Mein Kampf"), yet he & his crew implemented it in reality nonetheless.

"They will begin to lose elections as a result" you say, but wait a minute, 2 big problems with that. ONE, they already lost elections & that didn't matter. TWO, their so-called "opponents" in the Democratic Party are just pushing Fascism Lite (TM). Whether it's Kerry calling for more troops in Iraq, or Hillary Clinton saying abortion is shameful, there's no good -- or even slightly tolerable -- choices for people through the normal channels.

The World Can't Wait! Drive Out The Bush Regime! Click on that link & let's all get done what needs to get done, now not later.

PS. Here is a good article on some scientific basics of abortion, foetuses, etc.

4:44 AM

Blogger Tui said...

I enjoyed this thoughtful post.

You said: "I have long believed we do not remember much of our first few years because we have no real language though lots of learning is going on."

There's lots of interesting results coming from psychology now about the kinds of memories that get laid down without language - early memories, and also memories of events laid down when people are under extreme stress. If you're interested, I've just read a good book that talks a lot about this - "The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy" by Louis Cozolino.

I really enjoyed your post on George Bush's malapropisms too. I fear that some combination of options 1 & 2 is the most credible alternative!

I'll stop by again.

New Zealand

5:19 AM

Blogger Bahu Virupaksha said...

There is some truth to what you say, depending on the definitions one adopts for the argument. Pro-lifers say that life must begin at conception and anti pro life argues that the definition should be that of a human person after birth. Obviously the feotus is much more than just amass of cells.I think that we have to respect the dignity of life no matter how dofficult our conceptual armature is.

6:33 AM

Blogger hh said...

I didn't read all of the comments in this section. Perhaps, I will when there is more time in my daily life. I am fascinated and deeply involved with language and its uses and misuses. I like the heading of your blog.

But on abortion, I think it might be wrong at this point to forbid people from having them. But in the long run, it is probably something we should strive towards, eliminating the need to have them.

I have difficulty blaming people for having unwanted pregnancies. For one, sex is basically free, it been promoted as being pleasurable and it appears as though it is our only human right left though it isn't. But with so much pain in the world, it is easy at our stage of revolution to indulge in pleasure.

I think that abortions have biological effects that we are generally unaware about. I think that abortions may contribute to why some people are unable to have babies and not necessarily those who have the abortions either. We are all members of the same species...

I think sometimes just having a word that becomes commonplace such as abortion may make that thing more acceptable, um, probably not, come to think of it.

Instead of starting on a micro-level, I think that until we can recognize the need to "follow" laws that are in everyone's interest, natural laws, then abortions should continue. After all, how can you force me to keep a child I do not want, when the world is no sweet place to live in.

8:37 AM

Blogger Lauren said...

Fascinating blog...you mentioned partial birth abortions, and I wrote my final paper for a "Linguistics and Law" class on the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003. (Duke University, Class of 2005). If you're interested please take a look at my paper, which I will post on my blog: http://laureninjapan.blogspot.com.

8:38 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9:06 AM

Blogger xtremely_insane said...

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11:42 AM

Blogger Joe & Sophie said...

I'm fascinated by the fact that you're a philosopher and a linguist. I've had many conversations with my boyfriend to help him understand his philophy course and I think language is half the battle. You have a great blog going here, keep it up. I will be sure to check back on the latest.

11:43 AM

Blogger Alan said...

Dictionary.com defines 'MEAT' as: "The edible flesh of animals." It goes on to suggest that some disclude fish and poultry. But clearly, the muscle-tissue of any animal could be termed MEAT.

Hey, I'd like to take you to task on the abortion issue on my blog, The California Conservative. C'mon, a PhD against a guy who barely graduated high school should be no match, right?

You've made your position clear with the spin you've given your essay, and with a name like The California Conservative, I bet that you can guess where I stand. I think it'd be fun.

Anyway, reach me at my site if you wanna give it a shot.

[BTW: i know that subtle things like tone of voice cannot be related in the blogosphere. please take care to interpret this communication as a friendly chalange, and only confrontational in a fun way.]

11:57 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Words mean something and when definitions are changed qoutes can be lies. - Evanelist


12:04 PM

Blogger Bryan said...

You have written quite an intelligent piece. I have marvled in recent years how the simple-minded American masses fall for such obvious abuse of language to change ideas and frame arguments.

Keep up the good work.

12:12 PM

Blogger Alan said...

Christian Mullahs? What are Christian Mullahs?

I am a pro-choice Christian. I believe that the choice should be made before conception. This issue is simple... sex = pregnancy = child. If you don't want a child, don't have sex. THERE, NOW YOU HAVE CHOICE!

Since scientists, theologians, socialologists, philosophers, and the like are still unclear on what constitutes "human life," why walk the thin line between murder and mabie-it's-not-murder just for recreational sex? This is a hallmark of a heartless and self-centered person.

12:35 PM

Blogger Anita said...

Excellent blog. As a linguistics undergraduate, I am happy to have found you. I love the articles that I've read so far. Keep on writing these thought-provoking posts. You may be preaching to the choir but at least it sparks some interesting debate! Then again, we can't really debate the issues if we are still debating what it is that we are debating.

2:45 PM

Blogger Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

I am a lover of words, and so I love your interesting and educational blog. But to say that pro-life are often pro death when it comes to the docs...hey...be careful with your words! OFTEN? Hardly!

Just so you know there are a few of us out here, I am strongly pro life, and I also oppose the death penalty. I don't understand, frankly, why more pro life folks don't see the strange split in thinking that happens in order to be both pro life and pro death.

You might want to check out my post on "The Feminization of the Church" on my blog. I didn't set out to write about the power of language, but...well, it relates, IMO.

Anyway, great blog.

4:48 PM

Blogger Aloysius said...

Ooh! Bloggy goodness to be had here; glad you ended up on Daypop. Gonna have to poke around here more when I have time.

Consider yerself... bookmarked!

Consider yerself... part o' my blogosphere

Oh, and is this guy:
This issue is simple... sex = pregnancy = child. If you don't want a child, don't have sex. THERE, NOW YOU HAVE CHOICE!

(a) serious, or (b) about 14 years old??? Sex is part of a healthy relationship. It's also right up there with eating, as primal drives go. Sheesh.

5:46 PM

Blogger Marsha Mellows said...

Most of the abortions that take place in the United States are committed by people who simply don't want to be responsible for their actions.

8:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate to post my opinion here but I will anyway.. I am not for or against abortion but its a touchy subject for most. Here is my opinion

I think moral responsibility for this decision should be left in the hands of those whose lives are affected most.

9:28 PM

Blogger Sinaean said...

You're thoughts have struck me dead in my tracks. I simply must acknowledge you and your greatness.

10:24 PM

Blogger Sinaean said...

You're thoughts have struck me dead in my tracks. I simply must acknowledge you and your greatness.

10:24 PM

Blogger Sinaean said...

You're thoughts have struck me dead in my tracks. I simply must acknowledge you and your greatness.

10:24 PM

Blogger Sinaean said...

You're thoughts have struck me dead in my tracks. I simply must acknowledge you and your greatness.

10:24 PM

Blogger Sinaean said...

You're thoughts have struck me dead in my tracks. I simply must acknowledge you and your greatness.

10:24 PM

Blogger Sinaean said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:24 PM

Blogger Carrie said...

Language influencing thought? Wasn't the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis debunked years ago? I'd call what the Conservatives are doing rhetoric. Nothing new about that tactic from either side of the spectrum. It's a manipulation of information which influences the thought, not the language itself.

10:32 PM

Blogger High Power Rocketry said...

Interesting ideas...

I personally am stuck in an odd spot. I think abortion is ethically fine, in that it is not nearly as bad as other things we do to enjoy our modern life.

But I also think that abortion, as it stands, is not supported by the law. I feel that citizens, even before birth, have rights to protection. If a pregnant woman is killed, for example, it has been treated as a double murder.

I think to make abortion fit the law better, there should be an addition to the constitution giving the mother the right of abortion, but maintaining some protection for the little guy inside.


11:30 PM

Blogger High Power Rocketry said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:31 PM

Blogger Dusty said...

Both sides of this debate are hypocrites. Pro-Life screams “don’t kill the unborn children” but line up with their pop corn buckets to watch an execution. They never question whether or not the person could possibly be innocent. Convicted, found guilty… That’s good enough to strap them into the human bug zapper even when they know mistakes can and have been made.

Pro-Choice. They don’t want you to tell them what to do with their body. They line up to stop an execution without questioning the convict who has a voice. If I were on death row, which is usually for years, and they tell me my number is up. I don’t want someone coming in, delaying what I have had to face for years on end. Do it or don’t the yo yo effect is more devastating than actually getting it over with.

My conclusion, be on one side or the other. Death verses non death. If you want to be Pro Life, mean it for all life not just the clump of potential that may or may not form another member of society. If you want to be Pro Choice, mean it for all life as well.

3:12 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice blog you got. Why not promote your blog on forums.poddop.com?


5:52 AM

Blogger Natalia said...

Just happened to see this. Amazing stuff. I am doing my Ph.D. in Cultural Studies but took a few classes in linguistics and found them fascinating.


11:40 AM

Blogger Doofi said...

The debate is an age old issue, but language does indeed affect it. I for one am pro choice, but I am not pro abortion. There is much hypocrisy on the anti choice side (see the language usage there). How can one justify killing Drs, going to war or the death penalty and at the same time claim to be pro-life?

Furthermore, god has to be taken out of the debate. The idea of god is a personal concept different for every person, and sometimes non-existent, we can't make a law to stop abortions becuase it is a "sin". Find a scientific approach, an ethical approach, a moral approach, but do not preach your personal religious beliefs.

1:28 PM

Blogger Doofi said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:28 PM

Blogger Catnapping said...

...a couple of brief thoughts:

While "calling a foetus a "baby" or "living human being" is not going to cause persons determined to abort their foetuses to cease having abortions," I think that were they only referred to as 'fetuses,' fewer folks would have a problem with the idea of aborting them.

And personally, I have a problem with term, 'pro-life.' I think a more accurate term would be 'pro-birth.' Many of the same people who insist that poverty-sticken women bring their fetuses to term, also refuse to help feed, cloth, and shelter those same fetuses, once they're born.

I enjoyed your essay, and I know I'll be saving your URL.



11:52 AM

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3:51 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

I thought your post was quite interesting. I had previously thought that both the "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice" labels seem to have been created more to shape public perception rather than to describe a standpoint. On the otherhand, I have come to believe that those who describe themselves as "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice" are being honest with themselves (in that they really perceive themselves as a champion of life or choice, however contradictory that may seem).

I would put forth that the two groups don't agree on what fundamentally constitutes right and wrong in society, and this, in turn, makes the "Pro-Life" label appear preposterous to the "Pro-Choice" camp and vice-versa. They both make sense within their respective worldview.

4:41 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the first paragraph you use the views on racial words to support your statement on verbiage used towards abortion. They are not the same thing and does not support your issue in any way. Since this example starts off your thesis it places intitial doubt in your reasoning that is carried throughout the whole piece. I strongly suggest a rewrite. ~Ilada

11:54 PM

Blogger weblogbob83 said...

If this mass of cells is just more cells in a woman's body, why do these cells have another person's DNA? Scientifically speaking, when two haploid cells unite to become a diploid cell, they then have unique DNA, which, legally speaking, identifies them as a unique individual, as DNA testing is frequently used to identify people conclusively in legal proceedings.

As to the properties people might list for a "living human being" they might without realizing it include some things which would exclude the seriously ill, disabled, or disfigured. Does this mean that those who are disabled or disfigured are not "living human beings"? It could be that when people speak in generalities there will be exceptions; it was Ralph Waldo Emerson that said "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..."

What reason is there for considering a human foetus not a human life? It is definitely made up of human cells, it is alive (if not aborted), and - as I illustrated earlier, it is uniquely individual. So what else is there?

Really, to believe that a human foetus is not a living human being, one has to rely entirely on aesthetic judgements, right? If there is another way to come to such a conclusion, please enlighten me. You can leave a comment on one of the posts at my blog at



1:30 AM

Blogger Warm n Wonderful said...

I enjoyed reading this, as well as the comments.

I have a question for those religious types. When I had my miscarriage was that God giving me an abortion? How is that explained, I wonder?

4:45 PM

Blogger N.A.O said...

I really do think that as humanbeings, these talks about abortion will never end in white or black. It'll always remain in gray-whether dark gray or light gray.
I agree that both groups who agree and disagree with abortion has their own views and best arguments. Though in many cases, abortion is still wrong, but how about unsafe abortions done causing many more souls to be lost? Illegal drugs, illegal procedures? The moral things should be left to the most attached sides.
We can't be not religious at all or too religious on things. I really know it when people get too religious or not religious at all.
And it is not fair for some commentators who left their opinions to LanguageGuy that he shouldve rewrite the article. I don't think so! Heya, who are you to tell this BLOGGER LanguageGuy to rewrite it? People are free to have their own mind and express it. Do not limit people of what they can or can't do, since it can crash people's life. Having this very controversial article is such a nice thing, people can share views. If you only see one view, your mind is gonna be narrowing more and more and closing to other things outside of your view.

8:57 AM

Blogger surly girl said...

whatever you call it - baby/mass of cells/god's will is irrelevant. the key word here is choice. choice, people. if you want to do away with abortion or at least reduce it then look at the bigger picture. the bottom line is without education the choices are limited. and i honestly believe that in a situation like this no single person has a right to decide what another person chooses to do with their body. it's always going to be a flawed argument as there are so many points on the spectrum of opinion on this one, but my own personal belief is that the threat of an angry "god" does nothing to help clarify the situation. pro-life is a misnomer. it's pro-what-i-think dressed up as concern. and, as such, you can keep it.

3:55 PM

Blogger Om.powered said...

Fabulous! I have enjoyed each entry; I'm choosing to comment under this one.

And, for what it's worth, I've always believed that the gap between pro-choice and pro-life will never be spanned precisely because of the language involved.

Pro-life viewpoints revolve around the assumption that a fetus is a "life" - and that life needs to be saved (and isn't that a bit of irony to make you raise an eyebrow and scratch your chin?).

Pro-choice stances' focal points are the mother and *her* body, and therefore the language is very different.

Never the 'twain shall meet. Really. Don't you think? Not only philosophically impossible, but linguistically speaking as well.

Please consider yourself linked.

11:34 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the terms in which we phrase things. You will never find someone who is pro-choice who says "let them kill the babys" and you will never find someone who is pro-life say "women have no rights over their bodies."
I, myself, am pro-life, and there is one argument that pro-choice advocates make that I would like to dismiss. I am quoting Surly Girl below "no single person has a right to decide what another person chooses to do with their body." While she says is "no single person" what she means in this context is "the United States People." I have the right to vote, and therefore the people in power obtain their power from myself and others like me. Collectively, we do have the power to decide what people can and cannot do with their own bodies. If it were not so, running around naked wouldn't be a problem. It is afterall just your body. It is also illegal to run into a large building and yell fire when there is none. Even if it is just your voice you are using. The question is not whether or not we have the right to make such laws, the question is whether or not it is a good law to have. In this case I think it is a good law. I am a religious nut, and proud of it. I think the question of abortion has been raised because our country is becoming increasingly immoral. While I do not try to inflict my beliefs on others, I do use my vote to try and regulate what others can legally do. In this case, I try to save a baby's life. At least, that is how I see it.

4:29 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concerning your comment about the fact that a foetus is dependent on it's mother and therefore not a 'life', I would like to point out that to an extent everyone is dependent on someone. Even older children are dependent on their parents/guardians, but I'm sure you would class them as a 'life'. Although I believe that in some cases abortion is the lesser of two evils, (for example, after rape), I am generally pro-life, and I resent your comment that 'pro-life are typically pro-death when it comes to the death penalty'. I am totally against the death penalty and most pro-life people I know feel the same way. You have some interesting and valid arguments, but I feel that it is not fair to imply that you are giving both sides of a debate when you clearly are not. Congratulations on sparking such a debate, I have learnt a lot from your site, but I implore you think deeply about the other side of the argument in practical terms, and perhaps to refine your ideas. Concerning language, 'Pro-choice' obviously implies choice, but the idea behind it never gives the foetus the opportunity to choose life. I accept that not everyone agrees with me, and I am not trying to impose my opinions on anyone else, I am merely trying to provide some of the reasons behind my personal beliefs so that other people can make informed decisions about their moral stance (as long as they have taken into account the opposing argument as well!). After all, we are dealing with the issue of human life.

3:25 PM

Blogger JR said...

i think that there are two ways to view abortion. if one would like to go thru with carryin the baby and delivering it into this world, they have automatically attempted to try to do their best in bringing th kid up. but under circumstances whereby one is forced to have a child that she might not want(think rape cases), bringing the child to the world might be not of a good choice as she might feel less motherly love for the child than it deserves. The main point is, women should have the choice on whether they should have the kid or not, they only have to answer to their conscience and if they can raise the child right and give it a good life, then they should carry on in the decision of bringing the kid to this world. if not, abortion might be a better way.

4:04 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

I just wrote an extremely in-depth (and hopefully unbiased) discussion of the abortion debate on my blog, from the perspective of argument theory. Check it out if you get the time, and please criticize it.

5:36 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The influence of language over human behavior (as opposed to the more intangible "thought") is hardly undocumented; nothing has been said here that hasn't already been discussed by others and in-depth.

Read "Manufacturing Consent" for example.

Sometimes I get the impression that people today rely a little too much on "blogs" and dont do enough reading.

I also think that a lot of "bloggers" are seeking attention, and getting it, due to the large percentage of the population that have never bothered to read in any serious way.


11:00 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

I liked your comment about Pro-Lifers often being Pro-Death. My friend's parents said they choose their political candidate based on whether the person is Pro-Life because "nothing is more important than a life." What they fail to realize is that abortion isn't the only thing that has an effect on "life". For instance, those who can't afford health care, and hence die, or people who die in wars... etc.
I'd also like to point out that fact that many Pro-Lifers are also Anti-Contraception. For example... pushing abstinence only education (which turns out, doesn't work for their own children... see Palin), or allowing doctors in Emergency Rooms to refuse the Emergency Contraceptive pill to rape victims.
You would think they would be trying to prevent unwanted pregnancy...

2:54 AM


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