The Linguistic Pregnancy

What is pregnancy? What’s in a name, for that matter..? Is it true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, or is there something in the name itself that alters and affects that to which it refers? Neo-Whorfianism, in other words…

For example, the Chinese word for what we in English call ‘pregnancy’ is youxi (transliterated, of course). If you break it apart, though, it is composed of two Chinese characters: you –which means something like ‘to have’ and xi which means ‘joy’ or words to that effect. Only when strung together as a unit, does it mean ‘pregnancy’.

There are many other similar examples, of course; the one that comes to mind here in bilingual Canada is the French word for pregnancy: la grossesse –largeness. Or how about Spanish: embarazada –etymologically it derives from the same root as does the English ‘embarrassed’.

But is this really telling us anything important about the culture – or anything at all? Look up our own English word ‘pregnant’. It derives (probably), says the Oxford English Dictionary, from two Latin words: prae –meaning ‘before’ and the base of gnasci, or nasci –be born. Not much to talk about there… Time for a little background.

In the 1930ies, Benjamin Whorf hypothesized that language alters how its users view reality. If there exists no word in a society for numbers, then how could its members count? He discovered that in the Hopi language –a Native American people- there were no markers of time –no later, or earlier, for example. So maybe they considered past, present and future the same? No words for time, no sense of time… The hypothesis put the cart before the horse it would seem, but the idea caught on… For a while, anyway.

Tempting as it may be to read cultural and etymological significance into the words that have come to be used for pregnancy –are Spaniards really embarrassed about being pregnant, for example?- many linguists have suggested that there is little if any validity in so doing. Well perhaps they’re right –all I  know about language is what the experts tell me and this seems to change over time.

So maybe I can take my pick of the plethora of  linguistic opinions. I mean it all seems to hinge on which theory is ascendant, which linguist is the most convincing/charismatic, and which theory gets the most press –a rare thing at best in Language Theory. But sensitivities do change, and revisionism usually rears its head to correct insensitive contentions. Data appears to go in and out of fashion; each side argues about it and then poof, a paradigm shift, and they’re off again. It’s almost like watching a hockey game.

From a decidedly lay position, though -one firmly rooted in popular mythology- I’ve come to suspect that linguists are trying to take the soul out of language: the fun. So I’m throwing in my lot with the opposition. Languages are alive; they simmer and bubble neologistically; they evolve according to need. They incorporate metaphor…They are metaphor until a suitable word is created to fill a niche.

The richness of a language resides both in the changes it undergoes and what it does with the remnants. With Semantic Drift, nothing is wasted; old ideas -old words- hide just beneath the surface, noticed only when pointed out. Borrowed words from other languages and other times play with meanings like colours play with fashion. It’s likely the same in all languages, all cultures, but I’d be stretching the obvious if I pretended to comment intelligently about anything other than English.

So does that make me a culturalist –or whatever the term would be for someone who loves to think each culture adds its own unique iridescence to the mix? And am I really harming anyone -or any society- if I smile at how some languages have managed to add a whiff of descriptive ingenuity to a word as important as ‘pregnancy’? Isn’t it wonderful to think that a language could transmute one or two words, conceal them in plain sight (or hearing?) -but unobtrusively so they don’t stand out like hitchhikers- and have them function as ambassadors for something totally new? And yet, like ‘Where’s Waldo’ they are there all the while, chuckling in the background at their clever disguises.

Personally, I think the world is more of a family if we can search inside each culture’s heritage for these shared gems without the fear of opening a racial Pandora’s box.  To unveil them should not court accusations of malevolent intent, or naïve generalizations. Just because, for example, one of the terms to describe being pregnant in Russian (Beremenaya in transliteration) translates, roughly, as ‘load’, ‘burden’, or even ‘punishment’, it says little more about the culture’s attitude to pregnancy than that it has a sense of perspective –and humour. Should we seriously speculate that because of their word for it, Malawians (in the Chichewa language) really, deep down, consider pregnancy an illness?

I think everybody should just lighten up and enjoy the archeologized meanings for what they are: a demonstration of the incredible ability of humans to bend their words and meld them into new and intricate designs. I don’t know, sort of like Isaiah’s idea of beating swords into ploughshares… Or would that be denigrated as a neo-neo-Whorfianism?


The Mystery of Pain

Obstetricians and midwives are, at times, unavoidable witnesses to pain; they wade through it, explain it, try to alleviate it, but never experience it because the physical sensation of pain cannot be transferred to anyone else. It is the one constant attendant in the labour room, the uninvited guest that, welcome or not, arrives early and departs late. It is the ghost in the room, invisible to all but the patient. Unsharable. Unprovable. Indescribable except by metaphor, analogy – it is like something: a drill, a knife, a pressure… We all realize it is there -but there, not here. We do not share in the pain; we have to believe it exists because we are told it does. It is not an objective thing, pain; it is entirely subjective –an owned phenomenon.

In a way, pain has no voice. As Virginia Woolf put it [and here I will use Elaine Scarry’s paraphrase and elsewhere, quotations from her extremely helpful book The Body in Pain]: “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.”

It is a cruel proof of the Theory of Mind: although I realize that you may have different thoughts and feelings from what is in my head, I can only guess what they are; I can never know what they are. Scarry again: “For the person whose pain it is, it is effortlessly grasped (that is, even with the most heroic effort it cannot not be grasped); while for the person outside the sufferer’s body, what is “effortless” is not grasping it (it is easy to remain wholly unaware of its existence; even with effort, one may remain in doubt about its existence …).” And indeed, “… if with the best effort of sustained attention one successfully apprehends it, the aversiveness of the ‘it’ one apprehends will only be a shadowy fraction of the actual ‘it’”.

We can only know something of what the other person is feeling if they can verbalize a suitable metaphor that we all can understand. And given the difficulty of descriptions in the setting of ongoing pain, these can be hard to find, let alone verbalize. Pain Clinics will often use aids such as the McGill Pain Questionnaire that suggest words that do other than merely measure intensity: moderate, severe, or number on a scale of ten, for example. So their vocabulary offers a choice of qualitative descriptions as well as quantitative.

But for most of us following a woman in labour, such questionnaires are unhelpful -and except for the vocabulary, almost useless, in fact. We are still left standing on the outside, trying to sense the existence of something we do not apprehend. It is not like Nietzsche calling his pain ‘Dog’ and saying “it is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog –and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it …” For us, the attendants, this is sophistry.

Pain –the verbal reaction to pain, at any rate- seems to have different ways of expression in different languages, different cultures, even different geographical regions. As Scarry notes: “… a particular constellation of sounds or words that make it possible to register alterations in the felt-experience of pain in one language may have no equivalent in a second language.” And yet it is really all about the same thing, and serves to “… confirm the universal sameness of the central problem, a problem that originates much less in the inflexibility of any one language or in the shyness of any one culture than in the utter rigidity of pain itself: its resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes but is essential to what it is.”

Empathy, which is as close as an outsider can get to the pain experienced, will have to suffice. Or -far better phrased- Shakespeare’s opinion:

A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,

We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;

But were we burdened with like weight of pain,

As much or more we should ourselves complain.

I suppose it is the ‘why’ of some types of pain that is so puzzling. The etymological root of the word itself is poena: punishment. In the end, is that really what it is: nothing more than an  arbitrary abuse meted out by a blind and indifferent Nature?  We may understand the physiology of pain, the biochemical irritants that cause it, the nerve fibers that fire in response; we may even postulate the evolutionary protective purposes it sometimes purports to serve, and yet… And yet we are still left wondering about more than the physical nature of pain. As Scarry says: “… when one speaks about ‘one’s own physical pain’ and about ‘another person’s physical pain,’ one might almost appear to be speaking about two wholly distinct orders of events… Thus pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed.”

It is a relief to find that I am not the only one who finds these disparate aspects of pain to be numinous -and the ‘why’ of pain as elusive to others as it is to myself. If the only way to describe one’s own pain, as I have already mentioned, is through metaphor, perhaps the only way to understand pain, then, is also through metaphor. Story. Literature.

Nietzsche once again: “Only great pain, the long, slow pain that takes its time… compels us to descend to our ultimate depths… I doubt that such pain makes us “better”; but I know it makes us more profound… In the end, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns newborn, having shed one’s skin… with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childlike and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before.”

I do not understand Pain, but I do not discount it. I will merely rest my discomfort on another of Shakespeare’s observations: that maybe “Pain pays the income of each precious thing.” It’s a start anyway…










Prostitution Laws

Okay, I think you’re going to have to help me with this one. Suppose you have a product the courts have decided you are legally entitled to sell, but a new law is enacted making it both illegal to advertise or purchase it… Am I missing something here?

In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous 9-0 ruling, struck down Canada’s prostitution laws as violating the Constitution guaranteeing Life, Liberty, and Security of Person. The law it disallowed had prohibited brothels, street solicitations, and living off any money derived from prostitution. The government was given a year to come up with a new law.   

So, six months later in early June, they did just that, closely following the so-called Nordic model: selling sex is legal; paying for it is not There are a few subtle Canadian twitches to this model (of course), but it pretty well boils down to the the same result. Which brings me to the issue with which I need some help.

The problem that the government is trying to solve -apart from what they perceive to be the moral one- is the crime that often accompanies prostitution: drugs, violence, and the nuisance to the community where it occurs. And when pressed, they seem to subscribe to the views of Gunilla Ekberg, a lawyer in Sweden who played a role in that country’s adoption of the Nordic Model in 1999. She described prostitution as a form of male sexual violence and has said that the law focuses “on the root cause, the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able to flourish and expand.

The problem with that argument, of course, is that it doesn’t get rid of prostitution; it merely drives it further underground unsupervised, and into dark and unsafe alleys. It is an approach that, to be polite, is naive, and dangerous for prostitutes -who, remember, are legally recognized as such. And as citizens living within the law, they are entitled to its protection. That, I think, was the intent of the Supreme Court’s decision.

There are various models in other countries that have also attempted to deal with the issues surrounding prostitution. None is perfect, but some appear to offer more protection than the one proposed as a reaction to the Supreme Court. The New Zealand approach seems popular with sex workers in Canada:(

And as the linked article states: Prostitution, including brothel ownership and pimping, has been legal in New Zealand since 2003. The sex industry operates under employment and public health laws. Prostitution that is not consensual or involves someone under 18 years is illegal. It’s also against the law to compel or induce someone into sex work, or to provide their earnings. Larger operations must be certified. Prostitutes are still vulnerable if they work on the streets, of course, but the brothels at least allow better working conditions and protection.

It seems to me that offering safe working conditions for a service between two consenting adults goes a long way towards the intent of our constitutional protection. To ascribe denigrating moral attributes to a consensual act ignores the overriding necessity of security of person. To fly in the face not only of the intent of the Constitution but also the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada which acted to defend it, merely to punish those who, in your opinion deserve it, strikes me as arrogant in the extreme. Intolerant. It smacks of a fundamentalist omniscience, a disinclination even to attempt to view society through the lens of those with whom you disagree. 

I hasten to add that I know we all have strong beliefs surrounding this issue -myself included- and I understand the disparate feelings the ruling seems to have unleashed. I also recognize that there is likely no solution that can satisfy everybody. Debate about it is not only appropriate, it is necessary. But to debate, one needs to hear both sides of the argument. The merits and problems with each and every viewpoint need to be explored. There should be no monopoly on interpretation. No unilateral power politics. It is not the prerogative of any elected government to legislate morals at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Personally, I object to any government assuming it knows what we should and must believe. And I object to a government that is so convinced that prostitutes are on the wrong track, it thinks it should commit $20 million for a program to encourage them to change their ways. Not all the electorate subscribes to this evangelistic approach:

I’m reminded of a quotation from Oscar Wilde: Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike. Is that what’s going on here? The government says it’s not… so it can’t be. Right?

Violence Against Women

According to a recent meta-analysis by the World Health Organization, one in three women worldwide are subject to intimate partner violence (IPV) . And it’s not just a third world problem either, as we Canadians with our often parochial outlook would no doubt like to believe. True, some countries seem to be over-represented: ‘East Asia having the lowest incidence, at 16.30% (range, 8.9% – 23.7%), and Central Sub-Saharan Africa having the highest incidence, at 65.64% (range, 53.6% – 77.71)’, but we in Canada are certainly not immune.

Recognizing this, there has been a move to screen women for IPV in hopes of decreasing the violence or improving the outcomes for the victims. However, in a review published in the May 13 edition of the British Medical Journal, the lead author, Dr. Lorna O’Doherty from the University of Melbourne ‘Did not detect a decrease in rates of violence in women’s lives as a result of screening nor did it find improved mental and physical health outcomes for women.’

I have to admit that I had hoped that screening would have had more of an effect than is reported, but maybe on closer examination there are readily identifiable reasons for this. The whole issue seems to involve a complex algorithm with a lot of contextual conditions that have to be considered. First of all, the woman may not yet be ready to admit abuse is taking place; she may not actually see it as ‘abuse’ and so is unlikely to report it as such, even if asked. Or, perhaps she has thought about it, but isn’t yet ready to address or admit the issue –especially to others because of the stigma. There are phases through which she needs to progress in accepting and addressing the abuse. And yet, even if she is ready, her ability to admit it to someone else is going to be predicated on several factors -the WHO report again (and I quote an article in Medscape for the summary):

The report points out that certain healthcare settings (eg, antenatal clinics and HIV screening clinics) offer good opportunities to spot problems and intervene.

However, to be effective in such situations, the recommendations say, certain minimum standards need to be in place. Those include that:

  • providers need to be trained on how to ask about violence,
  • standard operating procedures need to be in place,
  • consultations need to take place in private settings,
  • confidentiality needs to be guaranteed,
  • referral arrangements need to established and maintained, and
  • providers need to be properly equipped to handle the physical and mental consequences of sexual assault.

This sounds reasonable; our obstetrical delivery unit provides universal IPV screening, but I am disappointed with the finding in that study published in the British Medical Journal that even so, the mental and physical outcomes for those women were not improved. And although we are probably missing the vast majority of women who suffer from abuse (and in some cases men as well -but more likely detected in a different venue), one would still like to hope that for those we have found, discovering the problem would be a step towards its solution.

But I think that public recognition of the problem is an equally important, if preliminary step. I sometimes wonder if we inadvertently stigmatize IPV because we, as a society, simply do not acknowledge it. It is something we’d rather not think about, or if we do, we do so judgementally. So, despite various professionals attempting to detect it and thereby (it was hoped) ameliorate the consequences, the victims remain reluctant to admit it is even happening. They, like the rest of us, see it as shameful and perhaps reflecting on their own choices, their own self-worth…

I’m reminded of our Canadian disgrace: the seeming indifference to the disappearance and violence against our Aboriginal women. There is, of course, lip service acknowledgement by the government that there might be a problem, but a rather indignant assurance that they are taking steps to resolve the issue seems to be all they have to offer. One could be forgiven for wondering whether they simply didn’t want any more public attention drawn to the problem.

I see the problem of violence against women differently. I think that the more it is publicized, the more it will be recognized, and the more will be society’s demand that the hitherto secret norm of violence will be seen to be inappropriate –no, not inappropriate, wrong. Think of the changing (I’d like to say changed but I suspect it would be premature) attitude to drinking and driving. As a society, we are realizing it is something to be condemned, not tolerated. Something that can be, and should be, discussed in the open. Something that is no longer acceptable…

It is possible to alter behaviour we have always viewed as undesirable, yet secretly condoned by our unwillingness to confront it. We need to acknowledge and tackle it as a society –and we need confront it often, publically, rationally, doggedly. I am reminded of something Lucretius wrote: The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling.