Friday, April 29, 2011

Language is Real--to Humans and Animals

This week, there have been a flurry of media stories surrounding an editorial by theologian and scholar Andrew Linzey in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Animal Ethics. It is rare that the media covers journals in human-animal studies or animal ethics, so this week’s coverage was notable indeed.

What was the focus of the editorial? Linzey argued that the language that humans use when discussing non-human animals matters, and shapes how we treat them. The media's response? That crazy academics like Linzey are worried that animals will be “insulted” if we call them pets, critters, or beasts. Sadly, these stories entirely miss the point.

Language is more than just the means by which we communicate. Language both reflects, and also shapes, how we see the world. So it shouldn’t surprise us that words about animals shape our understanding of animals. Terms like “pet” and “livestock” reflect a particular understanding of animals, and then shape our treatment of them. Once an animal has been classified as a pet, it would, in our culture, be difficult to turn that animal into meat, and we are horrified to hear of dogs in China being raised for human consumption. Similarly, we don’t think twice about killing animals that have already been classified as livestock or pests. New Zealand, for example, just held their annual Easter Day Hunt in which over 23,000 rabbits were hunted and killed, for fun and for charity. Other than animal activists in New Zealand and rabbit lovers elsewhere, most people do not care. That’s because these rabbits were already classified as pests.

Language is never neutral—it shapes behavior. In her analysis of the history and mythology of the turkey, Karen Davis makes the claim that when we’re determined to do violence to an animal, we must first turn the victim into a despicable “thing” that deserves such treatment.
In addition, idioms like “skin a dead cat” contribute to a permissive social attitude towards the abuse of animals. Negative animal idioms normalize or trivialize violence towards animals. When sayings like “flog a dead horse” are used and become a normal part of our vocabulary, we can no longer “see” the implications of human violence against animals. These expressions mask the real violence within them and demonstrate human power over animals.

In Defense of Animals began a campaign in 1999 to encourage people to call themselves guardians of companion animals, rather than owners. IDA has long argued that “owner” is linked with the treatment of animals. In particular, using the term means that companion animals are considered to be simply commodities or property, not individual beings, and IDA argues that this classification underlies their exploitation. The organization and other advocates argue that it is not so long ago that women, children and others were seen, in legal terms, as merely property.

This is the point that Linzey and the editors of the Journal of Animal Ethics were arguing: Language is real, and language does something. The fact that so many of the media reports surrounding the issue not only didn’t get that issue, but trivialized it, indicates how far we have to go as a society to take animals seriously, and to take seriously their treatment.


  1. Spot on! As a linguist, this is exactly what I've found to be true -- and just to be facetious, I'll quote Jesus: "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34) Language is so intrinsic to our way of life as humans, we forget that words have meaning. The things you say reflect what your unconscious mind accepts. This is why slurs are never okay in my book. And I agree about how the way you talk about animals reflects your willingness to treat them a certain way.

  2. Excellent post! For those wanting to know more about this issue, I highly recommend a podcast called "Compassionate Cliches" by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau of Compassionate Cooks. The podcast examines how our use of common idioms and proverbs denigrates animals and contributes to our violence against them; it looks at the origins of some of these expressions and offers some compassionate versions that will replace the more violent, offensive ones.

    You can find the podcast by visiting