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Language for Animals

Language for Animals

In the English language it is not uncommon to hear people refer to living beings as if they were objects, to demean someone by comparing them to non-human animals, or to use entirely different words and language to describe the behavior of another species, even if that identical behavior is found in humans as well. 

The treatment of non-human animals as if they were objects, devoid of feelings and emotions, is what allows the horrific animal exploitation industries to exist. An aspect of this mindset though, may lay in the common language many of us use when speaking of, or about, non-human animals.

Because many people have difficulty distinguishing the sex of other species, they will use the pronoun “it” when referring to non-human animals. Although the use of “It” may be grammatically correct, the connotations that come with it are far reaching.

To use the word “it” when speaking of a living being, who is capable of complex emotions and thoughts, as many non-humans have proved to be, ignores such traits and abilities. It seems odd to use the same pronoun for a cup as you would a cat.

Many people will use “it” interchangeably when speaking of animate and inanimate objects, such as “I filled it with water” in reference to a cup, or “It was sleeping on the couch” when referring to a cat. This double usage goes unquestioned, but if we were to reverse the pronoun, to a more correct form, and instead say “They were sleeping on the couch” and then use it interchangeably again in referring to a cup, as in: “I filled they with water”, it makes little, to no sense.

The use of “it” when speaking of a living being is not simply an issue of inappropriate use of the English language; it goes much deeper than that. It reinforces the idea (even if only on a subconscious level) that non-human animals are objects — to be used and disregarded.

All animals have a gender and, therefore, deserve to be more accurately referred to by “he”, “she” or “they”, rather than “it”.

It is much harder for people to justify killing non-human animals when we use the proper pronoun for their victims. Making it a point to refer to dairy cows by “she” or “her” takes away the abstract nature of “it” and reminds the abuser that the animal they are killing or consuming was once a living, breathing, sentient being with feelings of her own.

Removing the word “it” from our vocabulary when referring to non-human animals is not a misguided attempt to be politically correct, but rather an important reminder for ourselves and others that the fellow species we share this planet with are more similar to us than many of us would like to admit.
It won’t completely obliterate the view of non-human animals as being objects, as many Latin based languages prove with their gender assigned nouns. But it will ask people to question, and perhaps rethink, how they look upon non-humans.

No animal, human or otherwise, is an “it” and should never be referred to as such. We all have feelings, preferences and lives that we cherish. To label anyone as an “it” robs them of these qualities.

When in doubt of the sex of another species, the use of the word “they” is appropriate, just as we refer to humans to whom we are unsure of their gender.

It seems that English-speaking (and other) human beings suffer from an extreme identity complex and will go to great lengths to distance our species from others. The use of the word “it” in regards to non-human animals, is just one of the many linguistic inventions people have come up with to separate ourselves from the other species of this planet, whether correctly or not.

Many people find it rude to apply the terms such as, “breeding”, “offspring” and “mating” to human behavior, even though the behavior is virtually identical in other species.

There is an entire group of words in the English language that are solely reserved for non-human animals. Even the word “animal” itself is a product of this. Although humans are in fact animals, it is seen as, and usually intended as, demeaning to refer to another human as an “animal”.
 
When people use words such as “love”, “children” or even “emotion” when speaking of identical behavior found in non-humans, they are usually shouted down as being anthropomorphic, or even worse, as sentimental. But when there are legitimate differences in behavior, we denigrate another animal’s natural behavior, by comparing it to that which we see and do not like in our own species, such as “pig” for someone who is dirty, or “rat” for someone who is untrustworthy or mean.

The truth is that a pig may appear dirty because she wallows in mud, which she does to cool herself because she lacks sweat glands.  A rat may seem untrustworthy because he may scurry from one area to the next because of a legitimate fear for his own safety.

One of the worst and most common obscenities you can use against a woman is to call her a “bitch” which is simply the name given to describe a female dog.

By using the name of non-human animals to demean people, we reinforce the idea that other species are below us, which then somehow condones our perpetuation of their confinement, abuse and death. If 9 out of 10 times you hear the word “pig” used as a negative statement or comment, there is the potential for much less compassion for the actual animal forced to bear the name.

Why should being compared to another animal be considered such an insult? Is it because we dominate and kill other animals? If we stopped killing other creatures would our language change? If we changed our language would we stop dominating and killing other animals in the same way?

Rethinking how we treat, view and speak about the other animals of this world is important, not only because it will greatly evolve our treatment of them, but also for our viewing and treatment of other humans, whose nationalities, religions and colors are also different from our own.

 

 

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photo credit: thanks to travlinman43 via flickr

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262 comments

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10:06AM PST on Nov 20, 2011

I'm not sure I follow the semantic logic of the fifth paragraph, but it's a really interesting idea. (By the way, why do some people, even when repeatedly told, always insist on getting the sex of an animal wrong. They've got a fifty-fifty chance, after all. I've noticed this from childhood.)

2:53PM PDT on Oct 2, 2011

Take the time to listen to your animals. They understand more than you think and they read body language like no other.

1:28PM PDT on Jul 11, 2011

Thanks for sharing, Marsha. This is a good idea and economical!! I'll use "s/he" from now.

11:57AM PDT on Jul 11, 2011

This is a wonderful, wonderful post, and I'll be happily sharing it! The points made are all true.

By the way, for years and years, I've been trying (in my professional life as well as in private life) to promote the use of "s/he" in written language when the sex of the person or animal isn't known. Example: "It is important to teach a child good manners so that s/he will do well socially." It is more economical than the phrase "he or she" and it is also less sexist. Please, folks, try to use "s/he" from now on!

4:43AM PDT on Jul 8, 2011

commenting again without reading. when in doubt call everything a 'he". then you get called sexist. so then if someone is talking about their horse, and you butt into the convo, change it to she. if you were wrong, you will be corrected with "Uh, my horse is a stallion.. he is doing fine"

I commonly have a thing where "everything is a he". it has become a catch phrase habit of mine."I need to borrow your guy/i have your guy". where "guy" can be any object. I blurted it out once while watching someone eat an icecream. "OMG where did you get him!"

use "it" if something is impersonal. or demand your world leaders to invent a replacement., or use "the______"
I see a cat across the road. I don't know if is a he or she. using "the______" could be reduntent. as mean as it sounds. it makes things cleaner.

"i saw a dog run across the road, he or she made it. I hope he or she(or use they?) finds his or her home. he or she must be horrible missed by his or her family(or use their?)"

I know "my" cat is male. I will call Ivan he/him/his. he is not an it. but if I did not know the cat, and I see a cat, "it" becomes "that cat"

4:30AM PDT on Jul 8, 2011

they have a gender? or a sex? gender is a social construct. if a female dog cock her leg as she squats to pee, is she trying to get her scent higher or "hahahah she thinks she is a boy".

even if she cocks her leg no where near a rock, tree or log.

2:05AM PDT on Aug 24, 2010

It's the same in German. I hate that most germans - even vegetarians - say Vieh (=livestock), this sounds to me like slave or object.
We should think about our words.

3:36PM PDT on Aug 9, 2010

Wow, what an intersting and thought-provoking post! Hadn´t thought about this before, but having read the post, I completely agree with it.

4:12PM PDT on Jul 26, 2010

Hadn't thought about this subject but I can only think that a non-animal lover would call them "it"! My pets are my family-wouldn't call my human children "it"-why then call an animal "it"! Ignorance comes in all forms! Thanks for the article-always appreciate thinking people!

7:34PM PDT on Jul 23, 2010

All animals talk it is us humans who don't know how to listen!!
Our vanity blinds and deafens us to animals and the natural world.

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