I've several times now run across a new linguistic trend, mostly among a certain brand of academic. When writing about people we would normally call slaves, the new trend is to call them "enslaved people". I assume the reasoning here is because we don't want to define someone by their enslavement, as if it's an identity-forming feature of their existence, and we shouldn't let someone in one of the most oppressive situations be defined by something entirely outside their control that has demeaning connotations. In that way, it reflects some of the concerns of person-first language, which I've usually encountered in the context of disabilities.
[See my critique of person-first language. It's a bit over-the-top, as most satire is. The sense you get from it about what my views must be is not quite what they are. I'm not completely opposed to person-first language, and I even think sometimes it's the best way to go in certain settings. I would say that with small children it's far better to speak that way, whereas with older children and adults it's best to help them understand the categories we in fact use while drawing attention to the ways we illegitimately think about those categories and ways we process them unconsciously and thus denigrate the people we're talking about without always being aware of it.]
But this is different. For one thing, this isn't person-first language. Person-first language would not speak of enslaved people. It would speak of people with enslavement or people encumbered by, trapped by, oppressed by, or otherwise affected by enslavement. Person-first language is so roundabout, awkward, and unworkable that even those tempted to apply it in this case have actually refused to go that far. They will avail themselves of adjectives rather than nouns and use the adjectives to modify the noun 'people' or 'person'. It's grammatically parallel to "deaf people" or "autistic people" rather than "people without hearing" or "people with autism". But it's certainly a step in the direction of person-first language when compared with calling people slaves. The only grammatical equivalent is to speak of the deaf with no noun or to talk about people with autism as autists. [I should note that that's a bad idea even if there weren't any other problems with the term, because people will just think you're from Brooklyn or the Bronx and talking about people with very creative abilities and outlets.]
But there are differences, and I think some of them matter morally. One is that ordinary language does allow for slaves, and "enslaved people" is awkward, whereas "autistic people" or "people with autism" are both common, while "autists" is not. Another is that it's generally accepted that calling someone an autist is unacceptable, and it's at least not generally unacceptable to call someone who is enslaved a slave. That's not the only issue, but that's a difference. For example, it was much worse to call people retarded once that became a standard insult for people without any cognitive disabilities than it was when it was the accepted term and had not yet been used as an insult. Whether it was a good term ever is something people can debate, but surely it's made worse once it becomes used as an insult. So the fact that a lot of people do oppose a way of speaking does count more against it, and the fact that many people approve of a way of speaking does mean there's less to count against it, whatever else is true.
Another difference is that one is a disability and the other is an imposed condition. Both are involuntary, at least in most cases of slavery. Slavery can be accepted voluntary, especially in cases of indentured servanthood, selling oneself into slavery to pay off a debt, or accepting slavery to avoid a death penalty (well, that's at least not completely involuntary, although it's not actually a range of choices that anyone would consider sufficient for the choice to be fully voluntary). But one is known, at least by most people today, to be something that is not central to who one is but rather imposed. No one today, at least no one I personally know, thinks that anyone who is a slave is the sort of person whose slavery is necessary because they couldn't otherwise function in life. No one thinks slaved naturally deserve slavery. No one thinks it's part of a slave's nature to be a slave.
This is not true with racial categorizations. As much as we might discover scientifically about how there isn't all that much difference between different racial groups, we do process racial categories with stigmatized stereotypes, and scientific studies for decades now have consistently shown that these stereotypes and stigmatized categories will affect how we treat people, at least in small ways that most of us don't pick up on (and especially in situations where we're tired or busy and have to make decisions quickly without thinking carefully about them). This isn't true of the category "slave" even if it is true of other contingent categories. If I find out someone is a slave, I'm not going to process that the way I do if I find out they receive welfare, are homeless, or grew up in a ghetto. Whether I want to or not, I will make assumptions about the person if I discover they're in one of those other categories, and I won't if I find out someone had kidnapped and enslaved them. We're distant enough from the 19th-century practice of slavery (and what does go on today is both under the radar and officially disapproved of) that we just don't respond that way anymore.
So one of the important reasons for avoiding linguistic constructions that serve to foster innatist, essentialist thinking (which really only matters with small children anyway, according to the most careful psychological studies) does not matter with slavery. That means any argument for preferring "enslaved people" to "slaves" must have to do with how people in those categories would perceive it, not how others will be influenced by speaking or hearing the construction. And I suspect the same debate that occurs with disability would crop up here. People who prefer "person with autism" are usually parents, teachers, and psychologists who want to encourage not defining someone by the disability and who want others to respect them as people, taking their interests and desires as important, assuming competence first before assuming incompetence, and other essential features of treating someone as a person. Yet one can do that while using the word "autistic" as an adjective.
The other side is usually from people who have the condition who have the communication skills to express their view on the matter. They in fact prefer to be called "autistic" as an adjective, just as the deaf community generally prefers to be called "deaf" and thinks person-first language is insulting. Why is that? Because they see their condition (which they don't always see merely as a disability, because it involves both impairments and increased abilities) as something very important to who they are. It shouldn't define them as if it's the only thing that matters, but it is part of how they've formed their identity, just as race is for anyone who isn't in the dominant majority racial group in their social location. White people in the U.S. don't see whiteness as part of their identity, because it's part of white privilege not to be affected by race is ways that make you constantly think about those categories. Most members of other racial groups in the U.S. do consider their race to inform their sense of their own identity in significant enough ways that they wouldn't want people not to think of them according to those categories, as the dishonest color-blind ideal (does anyone really think they can pretend not to see race?) would have it.
How should this affect calling people "slaves" vs. "enslaved people"? Well, not having the chance to interview a bunch of people in that category, I just have to guess, but my suspicion is that it's going to be like race and disability, at least in terms of how they think of their identity while enslaved. It's pretty all-defining of what their life is. I can't see how that wouldn't be identity-forming. It's certainly more easily removed than the other cases I've been discussing, and that's why we can speak of people as former slaves. But that linguistic option show that we can handle the contingency of the category while still availing ourselves of the ordinary way of speaking, and there is at least some moral argument for retaining the category rather than abandoning it, which gives me little reason to want to engage in a major effort to revise our language in a pretty large way.
I've discovered the need to adopt a new way of speaking about people who are recently-descended from Africans. We've learned in the last couple decades that we ought to emphasize someone's personhood above any other characteristic, and thus it's thoroughly immoral to use any adjective in front of 'person'. We need to use predicate nouns instead. We no longer have sad people, for example. We simply have people with sadness. We no longer have short people. We have people with shortness. We don't want to define people with sadness as if their sadness is more important than their personhood, so we have a moral obligation to put the noun form after the word 'person'. Grammar does always indicate metaphysics, after all.
One sphere of language in which this lesson has never been properly applied is in the area of race. Why are we still talking about black people, for instance? Do we really want to define people solely in terms of their race? Do we really want to signal that their blackness is so central to who they are that we're going to pretend that people with blackness aren't people? If we call them black people, then we are treating their blackness as if it's a greater part of our conception of people with blackness than their personhood is. People with person-firstness have instructed us that we should never put disability-related adjectives in front of a noun or pronoun referring to a person, because we don't want them identified with that condition. But we've also learned from the same people that having a disability is not negative, which means this policy is not because disabilities are bad. Therefore, we ought to apply it to other cases when something is not bad but might wrongly be taken by someone to be bad, just as we would apply it to things that are genuinely bad. If race is not to be a negative, then I am not a white person. I'm a person with whiteness. It does make it a little awkward to speak of people with Asianness or people with Australian-first-people-ness (i.e. what used to be called aboriginalness). But it's worth the awkwardness of expression to avoid any chance of identifying them with the racial or ethnic group whose membership they possess.
Even worse, it's especially pernicious to say that someone is black (or African-American or whatever racial term we might choose). After all, using predicate adjectives amounts to making identity statements rather than merely ascribing a property to someone the way we would have thought that adjectives in English, even predicate adjectives, do. It's much more preferable to say that someone has blackness than to say that she is black. People aren't anything except persons. I'm not philosophical. I have philosophicalness. Glenn Beck is not unfair to his political adversaries. He has unfairness to the people who have political adversariness with him. President Obama is not bad at speaking without a teleprompter. He has badness at speaking without a teleprompter. I shouldn't say that I am Christian. I'm a person who has Christianity. I shouldn't be identified with my faith. I should claim, rather, to possess the entirety of Christianity, as if it belongs to me. We need to avoid identifying people with any property ascribed to them other than personhood. It's much better to say that they possess the entirety of the thing that formerly we would have used to describe them.
For more explanation, please see here (except you can ignore the sections explaining how people with blindness and people with deafness have offendedness at the obviously-correct way to refer to them, and you certainly shouldn't read person-with-autism Jim Sinclair's reasons for disliking person-first language).
Many people consider it an article of faith that you should capitalize every word that could possibly be related to God. Those who don't think about it much will just capitalize the personal pronouns. Occasionally it extends to adjectives (e.g. "God is a Holy God.") Sometimes adverbs, nouns referring to divine attributes, or even verbs join in the fun. For a spoof on this, see this piece at The Holy Observer.
I don't even capitalize divine pronouns, and I have very specific reasons. It's not out of lack of reverence for God. My reasons are largely biblical ones. The Bible doesn't say not to capitalize these words (though it doesn't say we should do so either). It does fail to capitalize them itself, at least in the original manuscripts (except when it capitalizes every letter). Hebrew doesn't have a distinction between capitals and lowercase, and Aramaic uses the same alphabet (I think). Greek does have the distinction, but the New Testament manuscripts are either all caps or all lowercase.
So the Bible itself doesn't capitalize divine pronouns, though some translations do. This itself creates a problem, though. What if a passage is ambiguous about whether it's referring to God or a mere human being? This isn't common, but the lack of capitalization in the original creates this possibility, and it does occur. More common in when a passage about kingship in the Old Testament refers first of all to a human king (or other type of Christ) or ideal kingship and then in an extended sense to the Messiah. Should you then capitalize the pronoun?
Some people try resolve this by not capitalizing pronouns when it's unclear but doing so when it's clear, but this makes an interpretation already, since the reader will take it as a mere human reference. Another try is to capitalize pronouns for God the Father but not for Christ, since most of the references are those fuzzy Messianic references. This creates two problems. One is the fact that some passages are hard to tell whether the reference is to God or to a mere human (and some are hard to tell whether God the Father or Jesus Christ). The second problem is that this starts to make Jesus look less deserving of reverence, since the point of capitalizing was to convey reverence.
So I say we should do what the biblical authors did. We should follow ordinary capitalization conventions for our language. We should capitalize at the beginning of sentences, since that's what we do in English, and we should capitalize proper names. Other letters are lower case for the most part.
It's important to capitalize the word 'God', though. Many of my students don't do it, and it's one of my biggest pet peeves. Proper names should be capitalized no matter what sort of thing they name. I have an Ibanez guitar named Omar, an Ovation acoustic-electric named Selah, a keyboard named Vinnie, a fretless bass named Frank, and short-scale bass named Nimrod. (I guess I haven't named my djembe, my organ, or my Les Paul yet, though the latter was my brother's, and he might have had a name for it.) I once had a car named George and then one named Oscar (but no name for the current minivan). I capitalize those names.
I think students will talk about God and then think that they might not believe in him (or don't want to offend people with alternate conceptions of God), so they think somehow that means they shouldn't capitalize the name, since you don't capitalize the word 'god' when using it as a common noun. But it doesn't matter if God exists if you're using the term as a name. We capitalize the names of Spider-Man, Gandalf, and James T. Kirk, even though they don't exist. So even those who don't believe in God should capitalize his name.
[For the comment thread on the original location of this post, see the Wayback Machine Archive of the post,]
A couple weeks ago Volokh blogged about 'thee' and 'thou'. One thing he mentioned that I've known for a little while but seems so contrary to popular opinion is that 'thee' and 'thou' were the informal and more personal versions of the second person pronoun, and 'ye' and 'you' were reserved for more formal situations. The informal 'thee' and 'thou' eventually became archaic, and their association with old-fashionedness, which also somehow got associated with formality, led to the dominant myth that 'thee' and 'thou' are more formal.
Should people use these terms when praying? Should people prefer a Bible translation that uses them with respect to God? I've encountered a number of people who prefer them and some who insist on it. I've also encountered probably a much greater number who have preferred 'you', many of them insisting on it. The issues become quite complicated, simply because most people don't understand the history of their own language enough to know why these words were chosen in older translations (and the archaic on this matter NASB) when referring to God.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.