What are words worth? Ali Holmes on language, power and being a Ms.

When I first met Ali Holmes, we were both on a journey of self-awareness and growth - and quickly realised we both have a passion for academic research and gender equality. When we connected - over a very early morning coffee – we discovered a shared love of writing and identification with the title Ms. In fact, I think we had both drank several coffees.

It was during this caffeine-filled conversation that the topic of language came up. As professional writers and academics, we both recognise the immense power of words.

Whether spoken, written, sung, rapped or sent in abbreviated codes via social networking sites, words are weighted with creative, social and political meanings we often don’t stop to contemplate.

 Whilst my personal and creative writing often comes from either a Bukowski-meets-Russell Brand-meets-Lena Dunham-truth-telling perspective, or a political activist-y International Relations perspective, Ali’s current writing – although also informed by a background as a professional writer and editor – is focused on the area of sociolinguistics.

 In an SMS she sent me, she posed the question: Does society shape language, or does language shape society? This got me thinking. Clearly, I needed to interview her immediately.

RG: Hi Ali! This topic of words and language is a big one. How did you get into it?

 AH: The real genesis of it, I suspect, as is the case with many people in similar fields, is a voracious love of reading. By primary school age, I was consuming a book each night(ish!); anything from my mum’s Agatha Christie collection to a book on European history or the OED itself. I even found myself reading ingredient lists on bottles in the shower (and consequently asking teachers why there was so much sodium laureth sulfate in everything?). I grew up in a household where if I asked a question, my mother would tell me to seek the answer in a dictionary or encyclopedia, rather than give me her pre-formed notion (my mum’s a bit of a hero for this). Words were food to an intrepid mind wanting to make sense of everything. It was only later I learnt their real power lay beyond their dictionary definition.

When I went on to study communications at university (in an only-just-burgeoning digital era), you could say I truly transitioned from mostly consumption into actual participation in the formation of information. I was and remain passionate about human rights, gender equality, humanism and anthropology, and whilst involved in activism in those groups, worked in marcomms in the corporate sector for a long time until my conscience inevitably bit me in the proverbial, and I started my own venture in writing and proofing services, encompassing pro bono work for charities.

 RG: What exactly is sociolinguistics, and why is it important to you?

 AH: As the name suggests, it’s the study of the interplay between society and language. Words provide a ready tool for us to label and categorise, and therefore influence our interactions with ideas or situations. Language carries weight that can lead to the pervasive maintenance of archaic/historic ideas, and more importantly, it can drastically influence our perception of contemporary realities. Words provide a vehicle for temporal interpretation as regards our interaction with knowledge.

 Take, for instance, quantum physics. Most people wouldn’t be able to define with any accuracy its esoteric terminology. But they can almost certainly tell you about the “atom bomb”. They can’t tell you the meaning of “eugenics”, but they can describe the holocaust in some detail.

 Humans tend to label and categorise most effectively as a group when our cultural memory comes into play, usually after the fact. I am very interested in before and during the fact. I see that as fundamentally important. Is it refugees or illegal immigrants? Is the burqa cultural autonomy or gender oppression? What does it take before ideas garner and phrase general usage? What does it take for those ideas to be framed as the new reality?

If I could sum up the importance of sociolinguistics in a few words, it would be this: “why do you call it that?”.

RG: In our current political climate, we are seeing world leaders use language in quite different ways. Some reinforce traditional notions of power, and some seem to rise above this and recognise the importance of equality and our shared humanity. What are your thoughts on this?

AH: Sadly, I believe its illusory to expect those motivations to rate high on the agenda: an individual’s, party’s or regime’s mandate to govern is always foremost, rather than the specific social appeals you have highlighted. Yes, those things might form part of their agenda, but they are secondary. Without sounding too tin-hat, the Orwellian idea of language control is not only demonstrably practised; there has been a significant escalation in its reach and power. (The tools used to measure its success, manifestly online, are both fascinating and alarming to me.) Chomsky famously wrote that “words are the currency of power”, and without holding the gold, you can’t spend it. (Speaking of spending, the US spends approximately $1.5 billion a year on it its “PR” activities!)

Indexical language (meaning the what, the who and the when words) in an electoral context is a great example of this persuasive language. Take Obama’s “Yes we can”: the power of the word “we” is evocative of the active participation of the people in their own governance. It’s highly appealing.  Trump’s “Make America Great Again”: the “again” indicates temporal differentiation between what was and what is, with a powerful nostalgic pull. From ancient times to the modern era, the choice of “indexical” words in political discourse has operated with this rhetoric.

 The buck doesn’t stop at governmental authority: it carries through to policy and legislation. A great historical example is the terminology surrounding education funding in Australia. We transitioned from Whitlam-funded tertiary education through HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme) - the implication that the individual is contributing to the cost - to HECS-HELP, where the burden of cost is on the student and the government is the one helping.

RG: We both identify as Ms. If a woman reading this is contemplating whether to Ms or not to Ms, what advice or thoughts would you give her?

 AH: I would ask her to question why her marital status should be immediately discernible from her driver’s licence, her credit cards or any other platform that provides identifying information. Is your marital “availability” something any given person needs to know, immediately and without your situational discretion?

Society doesn’t ask for a married/unmarried distinction for men on any application form they’d care to fill out – the only male-gendered honorific generally available is ‘Mister/Mr’.  (And even in the days when “Master” was an available title, it indicated not having achieving adulthood, not marital “availability”).

 As a woman, ask yourself why you’re invested in making this distinction available to the world? Using ‘Ms’ isn’t a statement of aggressive feminism; it’s simply extending the application of a convention to both sexes equally.

RG: We also both identify as activists. What does being an activist mean to you, and how can we encourage others to contemplate the language they use, without being preach-y?

 I don’t think activism requires the holding of a placard at weekly rallies in order to belong to the “club”; I don’t see the virtue in that way of thinking. Activism is, in essence, speaking up when doing so could engender a change of thought and therefore behavior/action in your audience. On a basic level, activism could consist of reacting to a friend sharing a nude photo without permission and asking whether that’s appropriate. It could be calling someone on an offensive racial epithet.

The emphasis here is the verb: “active”. If you feel passionately about a cause, do something, at whatever scale you are comfortable and able to, even if that’s voicing conversational opinion. There is no written or implicit rule on how far you need to take it: it’s simply the practice of voicing and acting on your convictions. Framing it that way makes it more accessible to people who otherwise may find the label of “activist” laden with stigmas that make it seem like too much hard work. Much like charity, begin at home, and if you can broaden that, all the better.

RG: What do you do for fun - what are you reading, listening to or binge-watching at the moment?

AH: My favourite part of the week is Saturday morning, sprawled in front of the cryptic crossword in the newspaper. I enjoy the challenge of any puzzle, but cryptics are a great way to challenge the mind to interpret words and phrases in a non-literal sense. (And BTW, don’t anyone believe the rubbish that your brain “can’t do them” – you can. Like most applications of our mind; it requires understanding and practice, and taking time to learn and apply the conventions on which the puzzle is built. I don’t know anyone who does them that wasn’t taught how by someone with greater experience!)

I’m currently reading Accidental Feminists by Jane Caro, and re-dipping into the bestseller Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. My “guilty pleasure” reading is Harry Potter: I think the values Rowling has woven through her narrative are worthy of the highest praise, and I still hold myself to them, as I did at in my early 20s when I first encountered the stories. Without spoilers (for those who haven’t yet read the series – do those people exist?) these include the importance of inclusivity, that decisions determine identity (and that choice is never too late), and that courage begets courage.

As for binge-watching, I just finished season 3 of 13 Reasons Why as I’m a passionate advocate for mental health awareness. The show may not always get it right, but it’s getting conversations started. And I think, like activism, sometimes that’s enough.

RG: Lastly, where can my readers find/follow you?

AH: Our business site at www.fullproof.online. Our pro bono program, ActiveProof, which supports NFPs and charities, can be found there too.

RG: Thanks Ali, you rock!

Sarah