How Language Is Used in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

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Language helps to shape how we view the world. Different phrases can represent the same object or item in a completely different light – it’;s the difference between ‘;the woman’;, ‘;the nice lady’; and ‘;the bitch’;. Our linguistic choices can be used to portray how we view the world, other people and our ideals. For that reason then I decided to research into how language is used when reporting on the topical issue of same-sex marriage. I did this by comparing how different websites reported the news of President Obama’;s endorsement of same-sex marriage last year. How did both sides of this argument use language to portray their view, and to try to influence the reader? And what language was used by those news site trying to appear as neutral as possible?

Marriage

First off, let’;s discuss the word ‘;marriage’;. By introducing the concept of same-sex marriage the very definition of the word ‘;marriage’; is changing. Anti-gay articles have a tendency to use quotation marks (i.e same-sex “marriage”) when discussing the issue. Something so simple but so effective. That one piece of punctuation tells us everything they’;re trying to say: that same-sex marriage isn’;t actually marriage to them because to them marriage means one man and one woman. The idea that ‘;marriage’; as the concept of one man and one woman is something to be protected is easily shown in the naming of those campaign groups set up to oppose same-sex marriage. America’;s National Organization for Marriage and Britain’;s Coalition for Marriage are both organizations against same-sex marriage. By saying they are ‘;for marriage’; they are saying that they do not view same-sex marriage as marriage. It is a simple but effective way of showing their ideology. 

But the fact that phrases such as ‘;same-sex marriage’; or similar are used on both sides of the debate shows that we are not yet at the point yet where just the word ‘;marriage’; on its own instantly brings to mind both heterosexual and same-sex marriage. For now we still need a way to distinguish that we are talking about same-sex marriage as opposed to heterosexual marriage.

This can also be covered by a linguistic theory called ‘;markedness’;: where in a pair of opposites one word is the unmarked term, it can cover both meanings, whilst the other is the marked term, it only has one meaning. For example, ‘;how high is it?’; can be used whether something is high or low, ‘;high’; is the unmarked term, whilst ‘;how low is it?’; can only refer to something low down, ‘;low’; is the marked term. In this analogy then ‘;marriage’; is the unmarked term whilst ‘;same-sex marriage’; is marked. But again for marriage to be the unmarked term we have to reach a point where people automatically associate it with both heterosexual and same-sex marriage.

An alternative to ‘;same-sex marriage’; is ‘;marriage between two people’;, wherein the difference in syntax makes it sound like ‘;marriage’; is a concept between two people and we are just clarifying who those two people are. However, this is not a common phrase but economy is probably the bigger factor in explaining why rather than ideology. Typing out ‘;marriage between two people of the same-sex’; is not only time consuming but the end results look clunky too.

Same-sex, gay or equal?

Listed above are the three main choices used by LGBT and news reporting (by this I mean large international news sites) articles. ‘;Same-sex’; is the most popular of all for the news reporting articles and that is because it would appear to be the least political charged. No matter what bias (either way) the news reporting site may have, they still need to write articles that don’;t make it too obvious or they run the risk of being called up on it. ‘;Gay marriage’; on the other hand seems less certain ground. One of the news reporting sites flipped between the two phrases indiscriminately, suggesting they were viewed as similar phrases. But whilst one of the LGBT articles used the phrase ‘;gay marriage’;, the fact that many twitter users ripped into a BBC news report for saying ‘;gay marriage’; instead of ‘;equal’; certainly suggests that not all members of the LGBT community are happy with the phrase. (Though the LGBT article was American and the BBC watchers British so maybe it instead displays a different viewpoint of the two countries’; LGBT communities on the phrase.) Though this anger may be less annoyance at the phrase ‘;gay marriage’; and more that the phrase ‘;equal marriage’; is seen as preferable. It is easy to see why. Use of the word ‘;equal’; gives the impression of the main argument in support of same-sex marriage – that it is only fair for same-sex couples to be allowed to marry. That the current set up is not equal and only by allowing same-sex marriage will  the LGBT community take another step towards the goal of equality. In this then we see how the LGBT community are using language to portray same-sex marriage in a positive light. ‘;Equal marriage’; also has the benefit of not making it sound like a seperate form of marriage as mentioned in the previous section above. Though ‘;equal marriage’; is used when discussing the concept of same-sex marriage it gives the suggestion of it being an addition to the idea of marriage rather than a different concept. That by introducing same-sex marriage we are making marriage equal across the board.

But ‘;gay marriage’; and especially ‘;same-sex marriage’; seem to be the norm in news reporting. They are the choices that give the least indication of bias or viewpoint, and therefore are the most neutral sounding phrases.

Homosexual

You may have noticed I have not yet used the word ‘;homosexual’; through out this article, even when saying heterosexual. That is because in my research I have that it is quite common practise to avoid the word when trying to be neutral or positive about same-sex marriage. This may seem odd considering it is the official scientific word but it has been argued that it has negative connotations due to the association with when homosexuality was considered a disease. I would further argue that evidence suggests it is because it the word of choice for those who are trying to oppose gay rights. Or at least the word of choice when writing news articles, which need an at least on the surface acceptable word. And so it is in the anti-gay articles that we find mention of ‘;homosexual marriage’; with or without the quotations marks. The negativity ascribed to the word is only heightened due to the inclusion of other phrases such as ‘;homosexual agenda’;. This is a linguistic device known as semantic prosody, the idea that if words are used in conjunction together enough, we will begin to associate the connotations in one word (in this case the negativity of agenda) with being reflected in the use of the other. Though as mentioned homosexual was starting from negative connotations to begin with, so were words such as ‘;gay’; and though homosexual isn’;t a bad word per se amongst the LGBT community, the fact that they talk of ‘;gay marriage’; and not ‘;homosexual marriage’; is a sign that its negative connotations are understood. The LGBT community have embraced words such as ‘;gay’; and ‘;queer’; and this has left ‘;homosexual’; to become the choice of word for those opposing same-sex marriage and therefore it continues picking up negative connotations.

So what does this all mean then?

It shows how linguistic choices are used to show the different viewpoints on the same-sex debate and how these choices reflect what the user believes, or in the case of ‘;same-sex marriage’; what is considered politically correct. It is an interesting reflection on how language shapes how we view the world, and how we use language to represent our viewpoint and ideology. That simple linguistic choices can speak volumes for our belief. That you can fight ‘;for marriage’; and be on two very different sides.

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