DEI in Speech-Language Pathology – Viewing the World Through Different Language Lenses

Sweetgrass basket image courtesy of straussington on

I tried to find a royalty-free image of sweetgrass to use with this post, but was unable to find one. Sweetgrass is a grass that is indigenous to North America. The grass is used by many Native Americans to make baskets and clothing and is used in many ceremonies.

Here’s an interesting fact about sweetgrass. The plant generally produces infertile seeds. Sweet grass can grows best where the ground is not broken – meaning sweetgrass thrives where the underground rhizomes are able to grow underground. However, that’s not the end of the story. Research into indigenous ways of agriculture have shown that sweetgrass does best when the ground is left unbroken and when the blades are harvested on a consistent basis, generally by humans.

Writing these paragraphs about sweetgrass without using the pronoun “it” was challenging. I’ll explain further below.

I have been reading a lot of writing from a wide variety of Native American authors recently. One point made in the book, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, is that our worldview often is shaped by the language(s) we speak and the pronouns within those languages. The form of the language helps shape our worldview in turn. In other words, there is a reciprocal relationship between how beings are referred to within and language and how those beings are viewed within societal relationships.

What does this have to do with the English pronoun, “it”? A lot. As Black History Month 2023 draws to a close, did you know that slave owners and white plantation foremen referred to other, enslaved human beings as, “it”? Not as he, she, or them, but as “it.” When used in contexts like this, this one small pronoun – it – can be used to take away the humanity of another human being in a society where “it” can be owned as property.

This word – it – makes it easier to signify a designation of “lesser than” and when something is “lesser than” because it is not a he, she, you, us, or they, it can be owned, possessed, and manipulated. In English, we use the word “it” a lot. We refer to the planet as “it.” We refer to world outside our windows as “it.” Where I live, it’s been raining a lot lately. The way English is structured, there is no animacy in the way we express the precipitation phase of the water cycle – a cycle which is necessary to sustain life and which is under threat from the idea that human beings can control and possess the tangible elements that make up the cycle. In other languages, especially indigenous languages, the phases of the water cycle are referred to with verbs that reflect the animacy of the water cycle. For example, English’s “it’s raining” often is expressed in terms of the land receiving the gift of rain from the sky. In French, “it’s raining” is expressed as “il pleut” – literally “he rains”, adding animacy to the language that English lacks when discussing the weather.

I’d like you to try this challenge: choose a time to actively work on avoiding the English word “it” in your oral and written language. This is a bigger challenge than you might realize. But, try it and see how not using this one word – it – changes your perception of the situation you’re discussing.

Then, I’d like you to try another challenge in the same spirit of shifting our language use to shift our worldview. The next time you are with a client who has limited verbal communication skills, actively work to avoid talking about that person in the third person in their presence. Instead of using the pronouns “he” or “she” to discuss what happened in therapy with a caregiver, use only the pronoun “you” and look at your client while you discuss what happened in therapy with the caregiver. Imagine how you would feel if you were the person with limited verbal communication skills and people talked about you as if you weren’t even there! Shift your language from “he had a great session” or “she really worked hard today” to “we had a really great session and you were able to me about the trip you took last weekend” and see what happens to your own worldview when you do!

Just like sweetgrass, we all thrive when we are planted in the right conditions and given the right support. As the communication specialists, our role is to help our clients find the right conditions and provide them the support they need to flourish.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: