Corporate language policies: a linguistic minefield

August 30, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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corporate language policies

Attitudes to corporate language policies might best be summed up by the quote attributed to John Lydgate, “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”. There is no doubt the Diversity and Inclusion market is booming, and much of this work involves well-intentioned recommendations around inclusive language. However, agreement about specific linguistic change is rather more elusive, hence the much-discussed recent tussle over Roald Dahl’s books.

Corporate declarations about inclusive language can be notoriously vague. Adobe InDesign promises “to better reflect core Adobe values of diversity and inclusion [by] replacing non-inclusive language and reference imagery in Adobe InDesign.” Who wouldn’t want to be more diverse and inclusive? But the devil is in the detail, as revealed by a spat on the user forums over the renaming of “Master pages” to “Parent pages” under this D&I scheme. Senior Lead Software Engineer, Sanyam Talwar, defends Adobe’s decision, arguing “Words paint pictures that speak loudly. The use of words with racist, sexist, oppressive connotations, overtones, or history can make the reader feel hurt, traumatized, or unwelcome.” Suffice to say, not all users were convinced that the previous nomenclature could be described as causing hurt or trauma.

Other institutions have taken to issuing labyrinthine language policy recommendations. The 2021 Ministry of Defence “Inclusive Language Guide” included an infographic with five levels of questions to negotiate in order to determine appropriate language around race and ethnicity. In light of this complexity, it is perhaps ironic that the same guide then advocates caution around “language that can deliberately exclude others: such as excessively complex wording or speaking in another language”. The ensuing uproar over exhortations to avoid phrases such as “crippled with debt” or “blind drunk” that could be offensive to those with disabilities resulted in the guide being withdrawn from the MOD website. Two years later and similar language policies are still dividing responses, as Oxfam recently discovered.

Many of these linguistic disputes cover familiar territory from previous iterations of social justice movements that harnessed language to drive change. But some suggest there is a difference in the current bid to embed specific political beliefs by policing language. The authors of the American Medical Association’s Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts urge the avoidance of “adjectives such as vulnerable, marginalized and high-risk” because these terms can be “stigmatizing”. Instead, phrases such as “groups that are struggling against economic marginalization” are preferred because this acknowledges the “causal factors” for the group’s characteristics. The guide suggests “conventional (well-intentioned) phrasing” such as “low-income people have the highest level of coronary artery disease in the United States” could be improved as follows, “People underpaid and forced into poverty as a result of banking policies, real estate developers gentrifying neighborhoods, and corporations weakening the power of labor movements, among others, have the highest level of coronary artery disease in the United States”.

Harnessing language policy in this way certainly seems different in scope and style to historic campaigns to replace “chairman” with “chairperson” and so on. The extent to which corporate language policies of this kind will be broadly accepted or achieve genuine language change remains to be seen and will provide fascinating research opportunities for future historical linguists.

*Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Rosetta Translation specialises in legal translations, certified translations and other language services, such as court interpreting services in London.

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