This study is a focused exploration of the emerging language that has become a part of daily conversation and ultimately changed the lives of the entire world during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The main participants in my study reside in Marseille, France, Los Angeles, California, Guanajuato, Mexico and various towns in Puerto Rico. Due to the current global shut down, quarantine and social distancing orders, it is impossible to do in–person fieldwork with participants. For this reason, my work was done strictly through the digital space. I created a questionnaire to inquire about the language that has become part of daily life during this pandemic and the impact it has on us I shared this questionnaire with my classmates, friends and family, who were all practicing social distancing and quarantine in different spaces all over the world.Through my study, I’d like to specially focus on the impact that language has on the concepts of identity, race and global community.
Common Language in COVID–19
France: Confinement, Attestation, Les Flics
Puerto Rico and Mexico: Cuarentena, Pandemia, Distanciamiento Social, Abrazos y besos virtuales
English-speaking countries: Social Distancing, Physical Distancing, Home office, Kakistocracy Curfew Supermarket Mask Online Class Isolation Alcohol
Home Video Call Love Appreciation Conscience Wanda
Hand Sanitizer Stay safe Facetime Staying at home
Shelter in place Zoom Remote Gloves COVID–19 Pandemic
Coronavirus Flatten the curve Ventilator 6–feet Work from home
WFH Breakout Curfew Disinfect Curb side pickup Cancel
Homemade Pick up Homeschool Emergency Number of cases
Exponential growth Public health crisis Uncertainty Germs Cough
Fever Breathing difficulties China Italy Toilet paper Big Rona
SARS-CoV-2 Chinese virus Bats
The list of new language that has been mass-produced and accelerated into the daily conversations of people all over the world is far vaster than this, however. In an interview with CBC, British linguist Tony Thorne talks about his collection of thousands of new words that have become part of people’s language ever since everything began. Thorne explains on the acceleration of the creation of language at a pace higher than the norm that “…whenever you have a big social upheaval—think of the recession, think of…Brexit, think of war time for example…the process of generating new language goes into acceleration, goes into overdrive” (Thorne, interview for CBC). A quote by Karen Russell on The New Yorker speaks directly to the kind of effect this sped generation of language can have on us:
“’Flatten the curve’ caused a paradigm shift for me; it taught me, in three words, to stop thinking of myself as a potential victim of covid-19 and to start thinking of myself as a vector for contagion. It alchemizes fear into action. The phrase is an injunction: it says, gently and urgently, that it is not too late for us to change the shape of this story”.
Russell’s thought reflects the way language shapes our lives and minds. Throughout my study of language, I came across the “social distancing” versus “physical distancing” debate. As the pandemic situation has evolved, the term “physical distancing” has come up as a more politically correct version of “social distancing”. The idea is that to say “social distancing” is to imply total isolation and loss of connection, which is not the entire situation we are in. Despite being physically separate, there are millions ways to socially connect with others during this health crisis. The term “physical distancing” is thus a more accurate descriptor of the situation. To Russell, the term “flatten the curve” is important because it suggests we have power in an otherwise seemingly powerless situation. On the other hand, words like “breakout”, “exponential growth”, “new cases”, and “pandemic” illicit very opposing feelings to the ones Russell describes. These two examples show the impact language can have on our perception of the world and the reasons why studying the language of COVID-19 is important.
What do these words mean to you? Some of my informants explained their views
· “It has changed my life in the sense of being aware how my actions can affect and provide support to others around me.”
· “They mean a new reality, being more aware of the news and more careful.”
· “This lock–down as definitely changed my life and that of my entire family. Specially not being able to hug, see and meet up with my family is what has most affected me.”
· Attestation: “We are only allowed out of our house to exercise for 1 hour within 1 kilometer, or to do necessary errands (food, doctor, essential work). If we go out for any reason, we must fill out an ‘attestation’ (at-tes-ta-see-oh). We ask each other about this ten times a day. ‘Do you have your attestation?’ ‘Did you fill out your attestation?’ ‘Honey, where is my attestation?’ ‘What time does your attestation expire?’ And when the ‘flics’ (the police) stop us, they say, "attestations, s'il vous plaît!’ This happened to us today. The ‘flics’ are patrolling, often in cars, sometimes on mopeds, occasionally on bikes, and they are sometimes undercover. When we go out of the house, we keep an eye out for them and we hope they don't stop us. Sometimes passers by will warn us, ‘les flics are up there, careful.’ ‘Did you see any flics on your way?’”
· “This words mean a change in my day to day. Not only did it made me stay in Mexico instead of going back to San Francisco after the holidays, I had to also change the way I take my classes at AAU (onsite to online), had to find a job here to pay for said classes (I teach game design at university level) which started onsite too but now is online like in the rest of the world (pretty much). These are not ‘bad’ changes, are more a nuisance to be honest, they broke my comfortable routine.”
· “Pandemic: Yes changed my life very much. I don't feel comfortable taking an airline flight with my Dad (I wouldn't leave him in California with the pandemic and having outside people take care of him right now), to visit my grandchildren on the East Coast, Physical Distancing: (has it changed your life?) Yes and no. Yes, in the sense I will not go into any store, any place of business in case I bring the virus home to my Dad. But, no, in the sense, I can take drives in my car (and use to take my Dad with me as he liked drives); and walk the neighborhood just slightly more distancing.”
Race and Covid in language
“Race is a system of group privilege. Racist practices exist when one ethnic or social group excludes, dominates, or seeks to eliminate another, based on human differences that are presumed to be inherited and unalterable.” Ever since the pandemic began, language has been used at various occasions to promote racist ideas that in turn result in discriminatory behavior. This has an incredible impact on different sectors of society as it may affect the level of health care that discriminated individuals receive in the midst of a pandemic.
Through COVID-19, the use of language such as “Chinese Virus” has direct implications on the identities of Chinese people and the ways they see themselves. In an article published in May 19th, 2020 on ADL.org, the following is reported:
Since January 2020, there have been a significant number of reports of AAPI individuals being threatened and harassed on the street. These incidents include being told to “Go back to China,” being blamed for “bringing the virus” to the United States, being referred to with racial slurs, spat on, or physically assaulted. Statements by public officials referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” “Kung Flu” or “Wu Flu” may be exacerbating the scapegoating and targeting of the AAPI community. Meanwhile, extremists continue to spread antisemitic and xenophobic conspiracies about COVID-19, blaming Jews and China for creating, spreading and profiting off the virus.
In the same article, more than thirty accounts of discrimination and harassment incidents were reported stretching from January to May all over the United States. This illustrates the effect that racially charged language can have and the lengths to which it can impact entire populations of people in negative ways.
Racially charged language surrounding the pandemic can have a large impact on the sense of identity of different cultural sectors, especially language like “the Chinese virus” or “the Asian virus”. This type of language can extend from the verbal to the visual.
In Puerto Rico there was a large controversy surrounding the publication of the Department of Health that was meant to inform about COVID–19 prevention. The publication was mostly an illustration that showed a sick woman of color surrounded by virus particles and then white man and child with a mask in good health far away from her. The message read, in Spanish: “Protect yourself from the virus. Avoid contact with infected people”. Many have stood up to condemn the dissemination of this message because it implicitly promotes racist and discriminatory practices. Further, this type of visual language makes up representations of different community sectors that affect the identity of their members.