The Germanist Constanze Spieß on the upcoming election for Unword of the Year – and what influence the pandemic has on it.
Ms. Spieß, what makes a word a bad word?
A bad word is a bad word if an expression is used in such a way that it violates the principle of human dignity or democracy. When it discriminates against individual social groups or is used euphemistically, in a veiled or misleading way. These are our four criteria for a nonsense.
Let’s talk about the “power” of the word: What can a word really do?
We have to make it clear that what we say is what we do. We can change things in the world with language, we can praise people, but we can insult them just as well. By expressing praise or an insult, we already do it. One speaks here of the linguistic potential for action. With language one can accordingly generate realities on the one hand, but on the other hand the experienced reality can also have an effect on the use of language. Language and reality are thus in a mutual condition and dependency relationship.
That doesn’t always happen consciously.
No. We are socialized in our language usage. Even at a young age, with their language acquisition, children learn to behave pragmatically, that is, to act with language. In this respect, we are socialized into these language practices or communicative practices and, of course, a lot happens unconsciously.
How can we become more aware of the reasons behind our choice of words?
It is not uncommon for us to address the use of language. This happens in the private sphere as well as in the public-political sphere. Even small children are discussing which language is appropriate in their living environment, what something means or how certain expressions are used. In the public sector, for example, when choosing the unword of the year, there is a public discourse or discussion about whether a certain expression is an unword at all or not. One can be made aware of this. But also by making it clear to myself that I can achieve or do something with my speech. For example, that I do not address people correctly, that I do not address them appropriately, or that I exclude someone by addressing them. Realizing this is a process and one can learn to reflect on it.
Are there any signs of development in this regard?
About the person: Constanze Spieß is professor for pragmalinguistics at the Institute for German Linguistics at the Philipps University in Marburg. She is a member of the “Unwort” jury.
The theming of language use already plays a major role in public discourse. Especially with regard to the corona pandemic, it should be noted that the use of language is discussed again and again. The Duden has reported that the corona pandemic resulted in a large number of new word formations, for example boosters has become a very frequently used word, due to the situation. Here, too, it shows how creative language can be. Take, for example, the word formations that were not new to our language, but were used more frequently, for example vaccine skeptics, mandatory vaccination. This shows very nicely that social dynamics and changes are also manifested in language.
Anyone can: r submit suggestions for the nonsense. How do you make the selection?
We look at all the submissions, this year it’s a little over 1000 so far. There are a lot of submissions that don’t meet our criteria. These are then no longer candidates for non-words. We then take a look at the remnants with regard to the non-verbal criteria. It is very important to us that a source is named where this word appeared, and a reason why it is a nonsense. Sometimes you have to research whether it was actually used that way. Then we discuss it. If a word is sent in particularly often, it doesn’t have to mean that it will be chosen. For us, the qualitative characteristics are much more central.
Have there been any controversial suggestions for non-words?
Among many other suggestions, the gender star was suggested as a nonsense, but also the word abuse. This shows that, on the one hand, different topics are being discussed in a relevant and explosive manner and that different social groups are making proposals. It is important to us with the submissions that a reason for the proposal is included, for example why the expression gender asterisk or abuse is used in a discriminatory way against individual social groups or to what extent the use of the expression is euphemistic or violates the principle of human dignity or democracy.
Why should you submit proposals now?
It is important to us that attention is drawn to the use of language that meets the criteria of a non-word. We see ourselves as an educational institution. We don’t want to prescribe or prohibit anything. We just want to show that unpleasant things can be done with linguistic means. This is also currently evident in the overall situation of the pandemic: The consensus on what is still acceptable to say publicly is fragile.
Let’s take the lateral thinker movement as an example, which on the one hand makes use of violent language, on the other hand stylizes itself as a victim, in that actors in the lateral thinker movement claim that there is no longer any freedom of expression or by using a yellow star as a symbol the label ‘unvaccinated’. By communicating in this way, they mock the Holocaust. Such mechanisms are dangerous for democratic coexistence. For this reason it is important to draw attention to inhumane, anti-democratic ways of speaking, to verbal discrimination or also to misleading, i.e. euphemisms. Our aim is to show from a linguistic perspective how such mechanisms work linguistically. Then everyone can form their own judgment and maybe or hopefully become a bit more sensitive with regard to their own use of the language.
Interview: Clara Gehrunger