William C. Gay, "Exposing and Overcoming


Linguistic Alienation and Linguistic Violence"


Philosophy and Social Criticism 24, n2/3 (1998):  137-156



Introduction:  Philosophy and the Politics of Language

A. Language and Power

1.  General Points

a.  If knowledge is power, so too is language

b.  Just as wealth and knowledge are accumulated, so too is language

c.  In each cases, alienation of the "have nots" is one of the results

2.  This essay on the relation of language to power

a.  Focus initially on linguistic alienation, providing examples of the types of alienation from oral and written communication

b.  Proceed to examine linguistic violence, presenting examples along continuum of subtle, abusive, and grievous types

c.  Have not previously tried to articulate the relations of linguistic alienation to linguistic violence

B.  My Theses

1.  Some linguistic alienation is justified

a.  Divide Rossi-Landi's special sublanguages into private and personal sublanguages

1) The former are like private property and often involve abuse

2) The latter are like personal property and typically are justified

b.  Beyond all of these forms

1) Possibility for an understood language of inclusion

2) Overcome linguistic alienation and linguistic violence through a practice of linguistic nonviolence

2.  Qualifications

a.  Omitting discussion of numerous forms of violence--from physical assaults to international war

1) Often, number and gravity of instances of physical violence far exceed typical linguistic alienation and linguistic violence

2) In several cases, these manifestations of violence are also far more pressing than the types I am addressing here

b.  Elsewhere, I address problems associated with nuclear weapons, war, and other types of overt violence


Part I.  Language and Power

A. Perspective of Political Philosophy on Language

1.  Language is a social institution, and one of the most conservative ones in any society.

2.  Language is inseparable from the distribution of power in society, and these relations are unequal in every society.

3.  Language is frequently an instrument of covert institutional violence.

4.  Language shapes, but does not determine, human consciousness and behavior.

5.  Language that appears to ameliorate conditions of social violence can actually represent a merely formally sanctioned sphere of less violent discourse which leaves unchanged the cultural base that spawns and sustains various forms of social violence.

B.  Elaboration on five theses

1.  Institutional view of Saussure's analysis of la langue (language as a sedimented sign system

a.  Science of linguistics treats language as a convention that is beyond the control of the speakers who passively assimilate it

b.  "Of all social institutions," Saussure insists, "language is least amenable to initiative"

c.  The linguist can describe, but does not condemn, the actual signs available in a language system

2.  Bourdieu on language and power

a.  "The use of language...depends on the social position of the speaker"; language's authority "comes to language from outside"

b.  This "outside" is composed of the social conditions within which communicative acts are situated

1) Speaking "the language," for Bourdieu, "is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit"

2) The formation of a single "linguistic community" is the product of political domination

c.  Since the distribution of power in societies is unequal, the analysis of language should not be separated from an awareness of social classes and the relative social positions of the participants in any communicative situation.

1) The issue is not purely one of class

a) Bourdieu does not say that only the children of the dominant class are admitted into the best schools

b) Suggests those who enter or finish programs at top schools generally have the legitimate language imposed on them

c) By defining qualifications/credentials, educational systems create/sustain inequalities, avoiding use of overt force

2) An inverse relation often exists between possession of symbolic power and use of physical violence

d.  Second thesis does not deny Saussure's position

1) His diacritical theory of meaning restricts meaning to internal oppositions (mutual delimitations) of signs within a system

2) Second thesis brings out differences that are not just diacritical ones internal to the system of signs

a) Differences that my second thesis expose are ones that result from oppositions in relative power of social groups

b) These differences, of course, occur at the level of la parole (speaking), rather than la langue

3.  Garver's typology of violence

a.  Violence can be personal or institutional and overt or covert

b.  Language, as a social institution, can do violence against individuals that is psychological rather than physical

1) Words can hurt in ways of which we are painfully aware

2) Words can harm us in ways of which we may be unaware

4.  Merleau-Ponty on linguistic change

a.  Linguistic freedom

1) Facilitates linguistic changes that ameliorate violence in society

2) Can be exploited to aggravate the conditions of social violence

b.  Restrictions on social groups and distortion of their perceptions

1) At extreme one is at linguistic control by totalitarian regimes that manipulate discourse to distort people's perceptions

2) Power of state to control minds of individuals not total

5.  Marx's distinction between political and human emancipation

a.  Exposes limit of merely formal or political approach which, since not address material or cultural base, fails to be adequate solution

b.  Political emancipation aims for formal equality of a disenfranchised group before the law

1) Such formal equality does not guarantee its concrete achievement in everyday life just because it has become law

2) Ultimately, the transformation of the cultural base is also required, which Marx refers to as human emancipation

Part II.  A Typology of Forms of Linguistic Alienation

A. Obstacles to Communication Opportunities

1.  Dysfunctions resulting from physical or intellectual challenges

a.  From birth

b.  Subsequent to accidents suffered during life

2.  Alienation resulting from intentionally imposed obstacles

a.  Blind person is not alienated from sight

b.  Sighted person blindfolded without consent is alienated from sight

B.  Marx and and Rossi-Landi on the concept of linguistic alienation

1.  Marx's "Species being"

a.  Particular social groups are alienated when society systematically denies to them possibilities of which they are capable

b.  Views human essence, species being, as free, conscious activity

1) Alienation from distinctive species capacity when possibilities denied to specific groups--whether groups based on gender, sexual orientation, race, class, or other non-essential trait

2) While alienation from "species being" or "species possibilities" takes many forms, I focus on linguistic manifestations

2.  Rossi-Landi and speaking as a type of work

a.  Explores the analogies between linguistics and economics

b.  Since words can be marketed, language can function as capital with huge profits being reaped by the elite groups that control the means of linguistic production

c.  Those portions of language that are treated like private property result in linguistic alienation for the masses

C.  Ong and Differences between Orality and Literacy

1.  Ong

a.  Orality tends to be open and public; those who know the language understand most of what they hear

b.  Literacy tends to be closed and private; those who know the language do not necessarily understand what they see (writing)

1) Historically, orality functions in a more democratic and egalitarian manner than literacy

1)  Unless universal, literacy is elitist and creates a significant social class differentiation

2.  My extension on Ong

a.  Two forms of linguistic alienation, namely, alienation from oral communication and alienation from written communication

b.  Focus on cases where dysfunctions are not present, namely, cases where an individual is functional in relation to oral and written communication but is denied access to arenas of one or both of these forms of communication

D. Possibilities of alienation from oral communication

1.  Abbreviations

a.  H stands for being allowed to hear

b.  ~H stands for not being allowed to hear

c.  S stands for being allowed to speak

d.  ~S stands for not being allowed to speak

2.  Table 1.  Alienation and Orality





Case #1



Case #2



Case #3



Case #4




E.  Analysis of Table 1:  S & H Functionality Does Not Guarantee Access

1.  Example of Case #1, where someone is not allowed to hear or speak

a.  Occurs when a social group holds closed door meetings

b.  Many people who could hear what is communicated and who could speak to those assembled are denied access to this forum

2.  Example of Case #2, where someone is allowed to hear but not speak

a   Occurs with the audience at a trial

b.  Violation of this restriction can result in eviction from court

3.  Example of Case #3, where  someone is only allowed to speak to group but is not allowed to hear what they say to one another

a.  Occurs when a defendant is allowed to speak before a jury but is not allowed to listen to the deliberation of the jury

b.  Clear limitation of forums in which speaking is allowed

4.  Example of Case #4, where both hearing and speaking are permitted, might not appear to be one in which linguistic alienation occurs

a.  In many unrestricted public forums, persons who can hear and speak are not linguistically alienated

b.   In spoken sublanguages Rossi-Landi describes, individuals are allowed to hear from and speak to authorities but, because they do not understand technical vocabulary, are alienated


F.  Possibilities of alienation from written communication

1.  Abbreviations

a.  R stands for being allowed to read

b.  ~R stands for not being allowed to read

c.  W stands for being allowed to write

d.  ~W stands for not being allowed to write

2.  Table 2.  Alienation and Literacy





Case #1



Case #2



Case #3



Case #4




G. Analysis of Table 2:  R & W Functionality Does Not Guarantee Access

1.  Example of Case #1, where someone is not allowed to read or write

a.  Can occur in cases of solitary confinement

b.  In this situation, individuals who can read and write are denied access to materials to read or instruments with which to write

2.  Example of Case #2, where someone is allowed to read but not write

a.  Also occurs in some prisons where an individual is given access to a wide range of reading materials but is not allowed to send written messages to others, especially outside the prison

b.  Clear limitation on access to writing

3.  Example of Case #3, where someone allowed to write and not read

a.  Occurs less commonly but also in prisons when an individual is not allowed to receive written messages or to read other written materials from the outside or even from others in prison but is allowed to write a variety of messages

b.  Clear limitation on access to reading

4.  Example of Case #4, where both reading and writing are permitted

a.  Also might not appear to be case where linguistic alienation occurs

b.  And in many unrestricted public forums, persons who can read and write are not linguistically alienated

c.    In written sublanguages Rossi-Landi describes, individuals allowed to read texts by authorities and write about them but, because they don't understand technical vocabulary, are alienated


H. My conclusions

1.  Discussion of linguistic alienation

a.  Typically concerns individuals who can hear and speak or who can also read and write

b.  Issue is not functionality

2.  Level of orality

a.  Often, forms of discrimination are practiced against speakers of unofficial dialects and against persons who are illiterate

b.  Work of Paulo Freire addressed issues of what I would consider to be unjustified forms of linguistic alienation at the level of orality

3.  Literacy

a.  Discrimination is also practiced against individuals who, although literate, do not understand technical vocabularies

b.  Rossi-Landi's treatment of special sublanguages shows their unjustified character


Part III.  A Continuum of Forms of Linguistic Violence

A. My work on linguistic violence

1.  Argue that the concept of violence is applicable to language

a.  Argue against the view that tries to restrict the term "violence" to cases of overt physical injury

b.  Covert psychological violence can be linguistic

2.  Suggest forms of linguistic violence be conceived along continuum

a.  Emphasize degree to which victims are conscious of the violence

b.  Emphasize degree to which they are harmed by these and related forms of violence

3.  Argue that a practice of linguistic nonviolence is possible

a.  Support a partially voluntarist theory of language

b.  Support an egalitarian theory of justice

B.  How Language Does Violence

1.  Perspective given by Stephanie Ross

a.  Uses Joel Feinberg's distinction between hurt and harm in order to address how language can be an instrument of violence

b.  For Feinberg, we usually know when we are hurt, but we are often unaware of a harm we have suffered

c.  While assault is a hurt, undetected burglary is a harm

d.  For Ross language if  hurts is offensive and if harms is oppressive

2.  More on Harm and Hurt

a.  Language perpetuates harm of oppressive system, whether individuals conscious of hurt of its transgressions against them

b.  Ross contends "Words can hurt, and one way they do is by conveying denigrating or demeaning attitudes"

3.  My Expansion on Ross, language that harms also violent

a.  Garver allows me to classify the harm done by means of oppressive language as a form of linguistic violence

b.  Fundamental issue is whether linguistic violence is unavoidable consequence of institution of language or whether through conscious effort it can be eliminated

C.  My Continuum

1.  Degrees of awareness and degrees of violence

a.  Place at lower end forms of linguistic violence about which victims often unconscious or only vaguely aware of oppressive dimension

b.  Place at upper end those forms of linguistic violence about which victims are usually conscious of offensive dimension of language

2.  Subtle Forms

a.  Children's jokes

1) May appear as innocent manifestation of child's attempt to make fun of adult authority figures, but power issues involved

2) Often children's jokes hardly subtle in their linguistic violence

b.  Official languages

1) More subtle to those who have mastered the official language than to those who have not

2) Another unfortunate legacy of colonialism, imposition of alien language, along with alien government, onto indigenous peoples

3.  Abusive Forms

a.  Traits

1) Rely on offensive terms

2) Frequently aim to hurt the individuals to whom they are directed

b.  In racist, sexist, and heterosexist language, both the practitioners and victims are more likely to be aware of the degrading intent of these forms of communication

1) Just as many speakers of official language do not see how it is oppressive, many individuals who employ and some who hear and read racist, sexist, and heterosexist language are unaware of its oppressive nature

2) With distinction between oppressive and offensive, one can handle fact that while form of discourse may be oppressive, not all individuals need experience it as offensive

4.  Grievous Forms

a.  Traits

1) Often have intent to silence or eliminate entire social group

2) Clear examples found in totalitarian and genocidal language

b.  Most difficult to eliminate

1) Totalitarian and genocidal language lead to killing large numbers by organized groups, such as state, subnational political organizations, and religious, racial, and ethnic groups

2) Still, not totally successful

G. My Table

1.  Organization

a.  The three columns represent a progression in the degrees of linguistic violence

b.  Generally, abusive forms more violent than subtle forms, while grievous forms typically more violent than abusive forms

1) Exceptions, since some grotesque racial and sexual epithets do more hurt and harm than some of the milder terms of derision used in relation to the enemy within warist discourse

2) Also I am suggesting a progression of degree within the columns in the cases of subtle and grievous forms and in the number of people affected in the case of abusive forms

2.  Table 3.  Form of Linguistic Violence


Subtle Forms


Abusive Forms

Grievous Forms

Children's Jokes


Heterosexist Language

Warist Language

Literacy Restrictions


Racist Language

Nuclear Discourse

Official Languages


Sexist Language

Genocidal Language


H. More on Table

1.  Differnce

a.  Unlike my typologies of linguistic alienation, my continuum of forms of linguistic violence is not intended to be merely classificatory at the outset

b.  I see no way to classify most of these linguistic forms in a value-neutral manner

c.  Rather, as I indicated, I am providing a general ranking of them by degrees of violence or number of people affected

2.  Political correctness

a.  I realize that, as a consequence, my continuum of forms of linguistic violence will strike some people as an attempt to promote "politically correct" language

b.  I do not seek to dodge this charge, though I prefer to say that I seek to promote nonviolent language


Part IV.  Distinguishing Linguistic Alienation from Linguistic Violence

A. Rossi-Landi's Special Sublanguages

1.  My Qualification

a.  Just as Marx called for the abolition of private property, Rossi-Landi calls for the abolition of special sublanguages

b.  Unless this call for abolition is qualified, all instances of special sublanguages are unjustified

1) Just as some Marxists distinguish personal and private property; I distinguish personal and private sublanguages

2) While private property used within process of circulation to gain capital, personal property remains for consumption

2.  Private sublanguages

a.  Private sublanguages are monopolized portions of technical discourse that are circulated within the public sphere by elite groups with the aim of augmenting their power and many times their wealth as well

b.  Most of us are all too familiar with how political leaders, military strategists, and professionals in fields such as law and medicine can hide behind their technical vocabularies

c.  Of not speak comprehensible vernacular, private sublanguage become instrument of paternalistic (patriarchal) authoritarianism and undercuts rational discourse and public debate

3.  Personal sublanguages

a.  By contrast, some specialized vocabularies are not designed for public circulation and the augmentation of power or wealth

b.  Examples of personal sublanguages include special terminology sometimes developed and exchanged by children in their play, by lovers in their intimacy, and by dissidents in their imprisonment

c.  Personal sublanguages are like private sublanguages in being arenas of privileged, that is, restricted communication which intend to exclude others

B.  Difference in Personal and Private Sublanguages

1.  Control over information is justified and when it is not

a.  We live in societies that distinguish private and public spheres

b.  We need to respect the proper linguistic use of personal privacy and to reject the improper linguistic abuse of public power

2.  Contrast

a.  We rightly exercise such control during play, in establishing friendship and love, and when protecting ourselves from agents who are trying to monitor our every word or deed

1) Personal sublanguages are justified linguistic alienation

2) Individuals are entitled to privacy regarding personal issues

3) Personal sublanguages do not involve a violation--they preclude such violation by establishing a separation

4) Personal sublanguages are not instances of linguistic violence, even though they are instances of linguistic alienation

b.  We wrongly exercise such control when it is used to pursue power or mastery in the public sphere

1) In private sublanguages, linguistic alienation unjustified

2) Not entitled to authoritarian control over public concerns

3) Private sublanguages do involve violation--they exclude segments of the public who should not be separated

4) Private sublanguages are linguistic violence and alienation

3.  Conclusion

a.  We should not want to destroy personal property of others

b.  We should not want to destroy personal sublanguage of others


Part V.  Distinguishing Linguistic Violence and Linguistic Nonviolence

A. Goal

1.  The goal of my work on the politics of language

a.  Expose and eliminate as much linguistic violence as possible

b.  Facilitate the practice of linguistic nonviolence

2.  Practice of linguistic nonviolence

a.  Require the availability of an understood language of inclusion

b.  Aim to show its logic place

1) Given the concepts of linguistic alienation, linguistic violence, and conscious awareness, there are eight possible situations

a) Shows it is not obvious any linguistic violence is justified

b) Shows some linguistic alienation clearly is justified

2) Significantly, the logical possibility exists of a nonalienated, nonviolent, conscious language of inclusion

3.  Diagram on Linguistic Alienation and Linguistic Violence



C       =       conscious awareness

A       =       linguistic alienation

V       =       linguistic violence

B.  Point of Diagram

1.  Difference from usual diagrams

a.  Usually, such diagrams are used to illustrate something about various areas of intersection

b.  My ultimate aim is to argue that nonalienated, nonviolent discourse is possible

1) Area #1 is not empty

2) Diagram an aid to reader's intuition of various relations

c.  Meaning of each area

1) Understood language of inclusion  (C, ~A, ~V)

2) Unnoticed personal sublanguage  (~C, A, ~V)

3) Noticed personal sublanguage  (C, A, ~V)

4) Offensive paternalistic use of private sublanguage  (C, A, V)

5) Abusive linguistic violence  (C, ~A, V)

6) Subtle linguistic violence  (~C, ~A, V)

7) Oppressive paternalistic sublanguage  (~C, A, V)

8) Idle communication  (~C, ~A, ~V)

2.  Implications

a.  The most desired circumstance is represented by Area #1

1) Neither linguistic alienation nor linguistic violence is present

2) The individual is conscious of this fact

b.  Challenge to the claim that there are cases of non-distorted, non-ideological discourse

1) If all language is distorted in a manner that necessarily results in linguistic alienation or linguistic violence, then Area #1 is empty

2) I claim this view is not correct

C.  Whether Any Signs Nondistorted

1.  V. N. Volosinov on claim that every sign is ideologically charged

a.  One result would be that alienation and violence are totally intractable features of language

b.  Argues that semiology is ideology

1) "The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs"

2) "Any current curse word can become a word of praise, any current truth must inevitably sound to many other people as the greatest lie"

2.  My Position on Semiological Distortion

a.  My fourth thesis on language

1) Offers a basis for challenging Volosinov's claim

2) My fifth thesis on language suggests how efforts to overcome linguistic alienation and linguistic violence can delude us into thinking we have succeeded when results are at best partial

b.  Jurgen Habermas represents one way Volosinov's position

1) Contends rational justification is possible and based on truth

2) Maintains the norms of rational discourse entail a universal morality and such norms have an immanent relation to truth

D. Re-assertion of my point

1.  Main issues at stake

a.  Circumstance illustrated in Area #1 is the ideal

b.  Other limit case is represented by Area #8, viz., discourse that occurs outside the parameters of the three circles of the diagram

1) Area #8 illustrates discourse in which although speakers are not using linguistically alienating or violent language, they also are not conscious of this aspect in their discourse

2) Either such cases Heidegger was incorrect when he wrote about idle talk

a) Forms of communication that involve "gossiping and passing the word along" or "superficial reading" and "'scribbling'" epitomize what he means by idle talk

b) If there is idle talk that is innocent, innocuous, or even largely vacuous, there can also be cases that include linguistic alienation and linguistic violence

2.  Collective implication of my examples

a.  Show that linguistic alienation can be distinguished from linguistic violence

b.  ~(A @ V) [it is not the case that A is equivalent to V]

3.  Other points

a.  The most important areas for distinguishing justified linguistic alienation from unjustified linguistic alienation are Area #2 and Area #3, on the one hand, and Area #4, on the other

1) Personal sublanguages, whether noticed (Area #3) or unnoticed (Area #2) are distinct

2) Private sublanguages used in a consciously offensive manner (Area #4) are distinct and occur in paternalistic discourse

a) Represents what Rossi-Landi terms a special sublanguage

b) Represents what I term a private sublanguage in contrast to my notion of a personal sublanguage

b.  If there are examples of Area #4, then there are probably examples of Area #7

1) Some people are conscious of discourse that is both alienating and violent (Area #4)

2) Others may be subjected to the very same discourse without having this awareness (Area #7)


Conclusion:  Overcoming Linguistic Alienation and Linguistic Violence

A. Language and Thought

1.  Theses

a.  Language does not determine thought

b.  Politics of language makes efforts to hoe rows that run counter to current furrows arduous and often unappreciated labor

2.  Effort to eliminate linguistic alienation and linguistic violence

a.  Part of a larger struggle to reduce cultural violence

b.  First step is breaking our silence on many forms of violence

1) As Cameron observes, "Silence is a symbol of oppression, while liberation is speaking out, making contact"

2)  Often silence is violence

3)  Peacemaking should occupy the space between silence and violence


B.  Critique of linguistic alienation and linguistic violence

1   Contribution to the transformation of society

a.    Goal of human emancipation, dignity, and respect not restricted on irrelevant factors of gender, race, or sexual orientation

b.  Vigilance is needed to guarantee that this linguistic nonviolence moves from being merely formal to becoming substantive

1) As Rossi-Landi observes, "No real operation on language can be only linguistic

2) To operate on language, one has to operate on society

a) Here as everywhere else, politics comes first"

b) "One fights on the side of the masses of speakers, in this way putting oneself at the service of the people"

c) In this context, we are involved in a struggle for voice

2.  Rossi-Landi, wants a public discourse that empowers the people

a.  Places Wittgenstein in the context of continental thought

b.  Marx, Freud, and Wittgenstein were healers who did not just build theories but also started new practices

1) Wittgenstein tried to eliminate false thought and consciousness

2) He was working with the concept of linguistic alienation and was developing methods for its reduction

C.  Rossi-Landi on Applied Wittgenstein

1.  Reject Wittgenstein saying everything in language is as it should be

a.  Use him to stress the fact that linguistic alienation often occurs

b.  Linguistic alienation occurs precisely "when we do respect the rules which have been taught to us"

2.  Reject Wittgenstein as a linguistic therapist who teaches those who have lapsed into "disturbed communication" to "respect" the language games in which they are involved

a.  What we call "normal communication" masks the ways in which discourse and power are skewed

b.  Use Wittgenstein to show how language favors specific educational, professional, and racial classes

D. Gay on Applied Wittgenstein

1.  Useful linguistic therapy

a.  To help patient, linguistic therapists need to make "house calls"

b.   Philosophy texts are rarely read by health care professionals, business executives, public school teachers, or laborers in the public sphere


2.  Other aspects of applied Wittgenstein

a.  More hands-on than theoretical

b.  More at the level of community outreach than out-of-the-reach of the community

E.  Other connections

1.  Providing Help

a.  Wittgenstein persuaded some of his best students to enter potentially humanitarian professions such as medicine

b.  Practitioners of applied philosophy can become involved in outreach programs that make their local communities--and even the global community--healthier linguistically and morally

2.  Locus

a.  Can and should be practiced at the local level

b.  Can and should be extended all the way to the arena of international politics

3.  Words and language games--even forms of life--are conventional

a.  No natural basis for their maintenance

b.  New conventions can be adopted, ones which decrease alienation and violence

c.  From individual words to entire forms of life, can make changes which serve broader, loftier interests than current conventions.

F.  Future

1.  Nonviolent action and nonviolent discourse

a.  May not always be successful

b.  The linguistically alienated and linguistically violated may always be with us

2.  Progress in related areas is worth noting

a.  Persons with naturally-caused dysfunctions who have been denied initial access to oral and written communication have made remarkable progress in finding alternative strategies

b.  Successes of persons with naturally-caused dysfunctions offers hope for persons suffering from socially-imposed alienation

c.  Alienated masses may also find effective strategies for breaking into once closed oral and written forums of communications.