Linguistic Interventions and Transformative Communicative Disruption

In Herman Cappelen, David Plunkett & Alexis Burgess (eds.), Conceptual Engineering and Conceptual Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 417-434 (2020)
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What words we use, and what meanings they have, is important. We shouldn't use slurs; we should use 'rape' to include spousal rape (for centuries we didn’t); we should have a word which picks out the sexual harassment suffered by people in the workplace and elsewhere (for centuries we didn’t). Sometimes we need to change the word-meaning pairs in circulation, either by getting rid of the pair completely (slurs), changing the meaning (as we did with 'rape'), or adding brand new word-meaning pairs (as with 'sexual harassment'). A problem, though, is how to do this. One might worry that any attempt to change language in this way will lead to widespread miscommunication and confusion. I argue that this is indeed so, but that's a feature, not a bug of attempting to change word-meaning pairs. The miscommunications and confusion such changes cause can lead us, via a process I call transformative communicative disruption, to reflect on our language and its use, and this can be further, rather than hinder, our goal of improving language.

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Rachel Katharine Sterken
University of Hong Kong


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