ozarque (ozarque) wrote,

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Linguistics; verbal self-defense; "hostile language" and "verbal attacks"

Istemi commented:
"Could you clarify something for me? You've described this kind of language as 'hostile' and 'attacks'. I understand those words to connotes intention as well as effect. ... " [And then a set of examples.]

There are actually two things here that need clarifying here -- my terminology, and the matter of intention -- and they're tangled up together in a way that doesn't help matters.

Terminology, first. I've been working with the American English Verbal Attack Patterns (VAPs) for more than 25 years. I was several years into that work before I realized that AE speakers don't all define "attack" the same way. For my generation and my children's generation, there was (and often still is) a clear gender difference. Most women perceive the roles for "attack" as Attacker versus Enemy, which brings up the Combat metaphor almost automatically. Most men break into two groups: a group that, like women, goes with Combat/Attacker/Enemy; and a group for whom the roles are Attacker and Opponent, which brings up one of the sports metaphors instead of Combat. This is changing now, and changing fast. AE native speakers younger than 30 no longer seem to me to break this down by gender, but as individuals. Under-30s of all genders break into two groups, with some going for Attacker/Enemy and others for Attacker/Opponent -- and I don't what they base their choice on. Opponent is one thing; Enemy is quite another; the grammars are different. (And I know some women of my generation who still don't make that distinction at all.)

I needed to be able to write verbal self-defense books that would serve for all these generations, somehow. For that reason, I chose "hostile language" as a cover term, with the idea that it would be intention-neutral. [I think I started this when I wrote How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable for John Wiley & Sons, but I'm not positive; that was a three-book contract, and it's hard for me to keep the three straight in my head. Before that I had talked and written about the grammar of American English "anger," but "anger" turned out to be too narrow a term.] X may use hostile language to speak to Y when the hostility has nothing to do with Y, isn't an attack on Y, and when X isn't angry with Y; X may just feel hostile because X is having a bad day, or because X is having trouble handling the way the 2004 election turned out, or some such thing.

Now, intention. There's a widespread popular conviction that people who use hostile language chronically and constantly -- including the VAPs, which are a common form of hostile language -- do that with the goal of causing pain for the people they're talking to. I think that's quite wrong; it's not what I observe at all. There are sadists in this world, who use language to cause pain in the same way they'd use their fists or a whip to cause pain; they're rare, thank heaven, and sadism is a serious mental disorder that requires expert attention and is outside my field entirely. (If you have a sadist to deal with, you'll know it without having to rely just on language behavior.) In my experience, most people in the American-English-native-speaker population who are "chronic verbal abusers" use hostile language because they're desperately hungry for human attention and hostile language is the only way they know how to get that attention. They may know their language causes pain; they may even be sincerely sorry about that. But the pain is not their goal, getting attention is their goal, and if they can't get it without causing pain they're willing to let that happen. If they knew a way to get attention without causing pain, they'd choose that other way -- which means that, unlike sadism, this is a problem that can be fixed without calling in a therapist.

There's also a smaller group of people who are chronic verbal abusers because they genuinely don't know any better. They grew up in families where every disagreement, no matter how trivial, was solved with physical or verbal violence (or both), and they've never learned any other way to handle disagreement. This is ignorance, not a character flaw, and like any other kind of ignorance, it can be fixed.

I hope this clarifies things somewhat. If it only makes them murkier, I'm willing to try again; just help me by letting me know where the problems are.


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