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Communications of the ACM


Words Matter

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Suppose you moved into a new neighborhood during the pandemic. After it was safe, you decided to throw a party to meet your new neighbors. As you want everyone to attend, you would want to write the invitation carefully so as not to accidentally offend anyone. Beyond good manners and not wanting to make a bad first impression, cognitive scientists have collected data that gives another reason for choosing your words discreetly: The language you use shapes the way you think. While the topic has been debated for thousands of years, the clarifying data comes from recent experiments involving people who speak different languages. Given myriad human languages, there is a lot of data to mine. For example, suppose people watch a scene where a man bumps a table, which results in a vase falling and breaking. In English it would probably be described as "he broke the vase," even if it was an accident. It would likely be summarized as "the vase broke" or more likely "the vase broke itself" in Spanish. English speakers are more likely than Spanish speakers to remember who broke the vase, and are more likely to blame and punish the man, than Spanish speakers. Apparently, bilingual people might even behave differently depending on which language they used!

Such studies have led to a relatively recent "Words Matter" movement, where people in many fields point out the problems in their jargon that can be offensive to newcomers and unintentionally shape the thoughts of practitioners. Let's pick two from computing:


J. Angel Velazquez-Iturbide

I sympathize with your concern on diversity, equity and inclusions, although I think that many of your concerns are specific to the culture and social structure of the United States.

My comment here is about a surprising sentence: "The good news is that English is the lingua franca of computing". When I read this sentence I did feel offended. Do you really think that other languages are unable to address diversity, equity and inclusion, or even informatics? Not a very inclusive conclusion!

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