‘Slave’ vs ‘enslaved person’: the linguistics of political correctness

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I’m feeling mischievous today. I hope you’ll forgive me (though I’m flattered to know that in the eyes and prejudices of many I can never be forgiven).

I was impressed, at last Friday evening’s “Slavery & the Natural World” event at the Natural History Museum, by the consistent use by museum staff of the term ‘enslaved person’ in the place of ‘slave’. The substitution in contemporary discourse of the former for the latter is neither whimsical nor incogitant ‘political correctness’. Let me, as a linguist, tell you why …

A nominal form is paradigmatically used to signal inherent or intrinsic properties of its referent, the essential rather than the contingent or time-bound. In the words of Tony Trew, in an early paper in what would come to be known as ‘Critical Linguistics‘ (Fowler et al, 1979; Kress & Hodge, 1979; Fowler, 1991), nouns count as “basic categorizations which describe the participants in terms of qualities that are unchanging and stable” as opposed to qualifying adjectival or participial forms that “refer to qualities that are not permanent but which the participants sometimes have and sometimes not” (Trew, 1978, p.43). For example (and as anodyne an example as I can think of immediately), the expression ‘a Norwegian clairvoyant’ would identify, in the context of an utterer’s current domain of interest, a natural class or category–the set of all individuals in the world who are clairvoyants–and then partition that set into those who happen to be Norwegian (and, by implication, the rest who are not); or, in other words, the person referred to is first, foremost, and essentially a clairvoyant and only contingently Norwegian. By contrast, the expression ‘a clairvoyant Norwegian’ picks out the set of all individuals who are Norwegian and identifies a member of a sub-set, one who is ‘clairvoyant’.

Let’s now, in that light, consider the contrasting terms ‘slave’ and ‘enslaved person’. In the former case the implication, in the absence of explanation or qualification, is that the referent is inherently or intrinsically a ‘slave’, member perhaps of some natural class picked out by that noun: “a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another; a bond servant”, “a person who is owned by someone, “a person who works for a master to whom he belongs” (definitions from Dictionary.com; my italics). ‘Person’, on the other hand, is neutral with regard to social status; and it just so happens that at some moment or under some circumstance a person may be ‘enslaved’. Moreover, the participial form both conceals and implies an elided agent: ‘X enslaved a person’. And the weight of disdain properly falls, in this enlightened age, on the enslaver rather than the enslaved.

And this is the point at which I gleefully surrender to mischievous temptation. I should like to vigorously propose that, in the interests of honouring human dignity (rather than of mere ‘political correctness’), the holy books of those religions in which there is reference to ‘slaves’–the Torah, Christian Bible, and Qur’an for starters–should be revised in such a way that for every mention of ‘slave(s)’ (and there are impressively many mentions in each) the expression ‘enslaved person(s)’ is substituted.

“But you can’t do that!” (I hear voices indignantly protest) “these books are the holy word of God, immutable and eternal; and in any case, even if you do not share my religion, you must respect the fact that these documents, committed to written form so very long ago, are as they are and cannot be altered. Would you, after all, consider rewriting Shakespeare or Homer?”

I presume (I would answer) that you hold these books to be as vitally authoritative and relevant today as on the day when they were first delivered to humankind, perennial guidance for present and future believers as much as documentation of a past? Shakespeare and Homer are dead, their works testimony to world views of times long passed; much as I would wish you to understand that God, too, is dead, I know that you’d not agree with me, and consequently I feel you owe it as a sacred duty to your Creator to make such amendments as are necessary to assure us all that his (for it is always a ‘he’) holy writ is respectful of the human dignity of the individual today.

No, don’t bother to answer that … I’ve a strong intuition that we’ll never quite see eye to eye on this issue.


Fowler, R., Hodge, R., Kress, G. and Trew, T. (1979). Language and Control. London: Routledge &. Kegan Paul.

Fowler, R.G. (1991). Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press. London: Routledge. ISBN: 0415014190.

Kress, G & Hodge, R. (1979). Language as Ideology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN: 0415070015.

Trew, T. (1978). ‘Theory at Work’, UEA Papers in Linguistics #6. Norwich: University of East Anglia. Pp.39-60.

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