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What Is Speciesist Language And How Can We Change It

A blog by Laura Buchenlicht

A black sign on a wall with white neon light letters spelling "blah blah blah"

As vegans very well know, speciesism is everywhere – most people don’t seem to be able to go through a day without contributing to animal harm.

But it’s not just in our actions, but also in our words. Most notable to vegans perhaps, is that we have special carnist words to make animals invisible: We speak of meat instead of flesh, leather instead of skin, wool instead of hair, beef instead of cow, and pork instead of pig.

All to make you forget that we are dealing with persons, and not with objects.

And have you ever noticed just how many proverbs there are that use animal cruelty as a metaphor?

From “Killing two birds with one stone” to “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”, there’s no shortage of them. And of course, it’s the same with figures of speech, such as the metaphorical guinea pig or red herring.

The fact that our culture is build around animal exploitation is clearly documented in our language. As with all forms of oppression, there needs to be an ideology of the victims’ inferiority in order to justify the abuse.

This is why we also have so many insults that unfairly describe different animal species as stupid, dirty, and unrefined. These tend to be those species that have been enslaved longest by humans, such as cows, pigs, chicken, goats, sheeps, and dogs.

To call someone a “beast” or “animal” is equivalent with calling them a monster. This is a typical form of gaslighting, which means to accuse a victim of what the abuser is. In this case, humans have turned reality upside down, so as to make animals seem cruel, violent, and insensitive.

Unsurprisingly this linguistic abuse of animals is also used to oppress other social groups: People of colour have been called “animals” by white people for centuries (and still are), and it’s not a coincidence that so many animal insults are specifically female (such as the metaphorical bitch or “stupid” cow).

Of course all of this is not just true for English, but rather is a trait that belongs to all languages from cultures that enslave animals.

Wooden Scrabble tiles with letters are arranged to spell "Choose your words"

As speciesism in general, language is something that’s just handed down to us, and we use it without thinking. But as part of transitioning to veganism, many vegans become aware of their linguistic speciesism as well.

How we speak and the words we use can make an impact on how we think and ultimately, act. Language can be a powerful tool for oppression, but it just as much can be for liberation.

Just think of how the term “gay” used to be nothing but an insult used to shame homosexual men. Until they started to appropriate the word and use it for their own identification, so that nowadays it’s a neutral term, which everyone uses.

As vegans, we can easily use language to make others aware of speciesism. By changing proverbs and metaphors into animal-friendly versions, we make a point.

It’s fun to ask other vegans about this. I once saw a forum thread, where everyone was posting their personal twist on speciesist proverbs. A popular one was “Feeding two birds with one bread.”

Another example is to make it a point to talk of fishes and sheeps, instead of fish and sheep. Those collectives are objectifying, making the animals in question seem more like a lifeless resource, rather than individuals with unique personalities.

It can be something hard to do when everyone else around you uses the official vocabulary – after all language is first and foremost a way of communicating, which means we all are highly driven to speak in the way which is most understandable to others.

Changing habits is always hard, but if we can transition to veganism, we can also transition to a vegan language. And it’s not like people wouldn’t understand you any more if you added the plural s to sheep.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a vegan friend or family member, it will be a lot easier and more fun to change your language. It could start as a game, until it becomes the norm.

But even on your own, it’s definitely not impossible. Thinking and writing in this way, for example, serve as great training too. The trick is to actively use new expressions, so that new neural pathways are created in your brain.

How would you “veganise” proverbs? In German we have “To beat two flies with one clap”, which I always veganise to “To save two flies in one go”.

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