Being a linguist is tough. No, it’s not because it’s hard to find a job after graduation. In fact, contrary to a joke I read online based on a perceived stereotype, every single linguist I know has a job.
No, it’s because people love to argue about language. More specifically, it refers to all of those situations when those who consider language a tool for communication come together with language purists. At this point, situations like these do feel like a never-ending story. And PETA is now in the center of it.
PETA is notorious for its questionable activism and their current call for avoiding terminology is no different
Image credits: Ajay Goyal
Recently, the animal rights activist group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) came out with a statement calling for everyone to stop using the word pet to refer to their animal companions (animal companions being one of their preferred alternatives) because the former is deemed derogatory.
To elaborate, PETA’s take on the issue is based on an article titled Terms of Discourse included in the Journal of Animal Ethics. The article explains that words like pet, critter, beast, brute, and bestial are considered derogatory terms of past thought. And as, according to them, language is an inherent part of the way we view the world and everything in it, these words ought to be changed for more egalitarian ones.
The organization has moved to switch from calling our animal companions as “pets”
Image credits: Frank Shepherd
In a public statement on the matter, PETA said this: “The way people talk about animals directly affects how we think about and treat them. Researchers determined that words like ‘critter,’ ‘beast,’ and ‘pet’ are derogatory and suggests using the much more respectful ‘companion.’” PETA also rejected the use of terms like owner as pets are not proprietary objects and suggested using guardian or human carer.
Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PETA, explained that such derogatory words connote commodity and decoration, when in reality these are living, breathing, and loving companions. According to Newkirk, in the same way that words like sweety make women feel less like people, the word pet is just as condescending to animals.
According to PETA, “pets” is considered a derogatory term and should thus be replaced by animal companion
Image credits: Aoshi
PETA also said that they have been extremely careful with their word usage when talking about animal companions. They believe that making a small, but nonetheless important, change in the way they refer to pets using different terms will eventually influence people to become mindful of the animal’s personalities, needs, and desires.
On the one hand, they are right in thinking this. Lera Boroditsky, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD, explained that language actually does shape the way we think. She provided ample support for the idea and even explained that people don’t need a lab to understand this—it’s enough to go to an art gallery and to see depictions of abstract concepts such as death, sin, and victory. Just the idea that these differ in gender between languages already explains the impact language has on our worldview.
They are also asking to avoid calling ourselves “owners”, but rather say “guardian” or “human carer”
Image credits: G. Dawson
On the other hand, there are others who claim that the question of language shaping the way we think is much more complicated than some might think. It’s more of a chicken or egg debate, and they put it best: “Are you unable to think about things you don’t have words for, or do you lack words for them because you don’t think about them?” There are also tradition, lifestyle, culture, and other aspects that shape the way we think and talk that complicate the matter.
There are dozens of other opinions on the matter, with some thinking that PETA shouldn’t waste their time with the terminology, while others claim that language is just a tool, and as long as their words are functional and not culturally derogatory, then they will continue using them. Yet some think all of this is ridiculous.
While there are supporters for this move, many still consider PETA’s call for change ridiculous
Image credits: Manu Praba
What are your thoughts on the matter? Let us know in the comments below.