Socially critical language criticism

In this section, the authors of the ESO project comment on societal discussions of current language usage from a linguistic perspective. On the one hand, such public discourses use language as a medium for communication, for representing and constructing reality, or as an instrument of power. On the other hand, they negotiate societal topics by means of linguistic signs, which turns these public discourses again into objects of language-critical reflection. They exemplify how speech communities express, reproduce, and constitute attitudes, ways of thinking and concepts through their language usage.


Current contributions:

June 2014

Johannes Funk/Katharina Jacob/Luisa Larsen/Maria Mast/Verena Weiland/Kathrin Wenz

“Negro king” or “King of the South Seas”? A linguistic and language-critical statement

1 From public debate to academic reflection (Katharina Jacob)

Racism is a disposition that is not eliminated with the elimination of words.

Words take their toll even if they were not said with bad intentions.

Words, including the bad ones, always have to be considered within the context in which they are used.


Quotes like the ones listed above show that there is a heated debate going on in society concerning discriminatory terms in children’s and adolescent’s literature. This debate has started even before the controversy about the “negro king” in “Pippi Longstocking” began in January 2013. Terms in children’s and youth literature provoke intense discussions in the media – a display of society actively practising language criticism.

Some voices call for the deletion of passages that contain discriminatory words and thoughts. Others demand that these passages be rewritten or that terms like Negro King are deleted and replaced by more neutral terms like King of the South Seas. In addition, there are people who want to preserve the author’s artistic freedom and want to respect the text as a piece of art in its own right. They advocate parental meta-linguistic comments in order to guide children in the reading process and make them aware of the different interpretations. Society thus wonders: Should discriminatory terms in children’s and youth literature be eliminated, replaced, or kept and commented (or explained)?

Since reactions from linguists and other scholars have been scarce on this topic, we take the opportunity to give our views – after all, linguistics also encompasses language criticism.

We are PhD scholarship holders, postgraduate members and collaborators of the project European Language Critism Online (Europäische Sprachkritik Online, ESO), which investigates language criticism across various European languages as part of the European Center for Linguistics (Europäisches Zentrum für Sprachwissenschaften, EZS, Each of us delineates his or her language-critical perspective on the topic. We then conclude this position paper with a language-critical recommendation that serves as a summary of our respective perspectives.

Read the entire contribution here:


June 2013

Kathrin Wenz

“Professoren und Professorinnen” – a case for feminist language criticism?

The media has recently reported that Leipzig University now uses the grammatically feminine term “Professorin” for generic reference to designate both male and female professors. Potsdam University has also implemented a similar rule (cf. article in the Berliner Zeitung, Spiegel Online, June 4 and 5, 2013).

Potsdam University’s spokesperson Mangelsdorf explains the decision first with better readability. Second, she refers to the statement made by the University’s task group that proposed the change and that is of the opinion that – after centuries of patriarchal thinking – the time has come for a wholly feminine denomination (article in the Tagesspiegel on July 4, 2013). This decision has triggered strong reactions. On the one hand, feminists welcome the rule and see it as an important step towards more equal communication. Critics, on the other hand, consider the decision pointless say that this change will not affect the factual discrimination of women in the work domain. This is the most current example of a debate that has been going on since the 1980s on how gender equality may be achieved in the language use of forms of address and professional titles.

Read the entire contribution here:

K. Wenz – Professoren und Professorinnen – ein Fall für die feministische Sprachkritik_