TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. September 2010

Sektion 2.2. Identity, Authenticity, Locality, Urbanity and Speech Community: A New Sociolinguistic Perspective | Identität, Authentizität, lokale- und städtische Veränderungen und Sprachgemeinschaften: Eine neue soziolinguistische Perspektive
Sektionsleiter | Section Chairs: Meryem Şen (Kocaeli University, Turkey), İmran Karabağ

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

New communication code – political correctness in the changing world

Irina Perianova (University of National and World Economy, Sofia) [BIO]



My presentation is based on an evaluative analysis of post-modernist and post-communist discourse and focuses on one of the most important phenomena of the 20th century - political correctness (pc) which may be viewed as a communicative code of globalization with its denial of hierarchy, its emphasis on a culturally pluralistic and interconnected global society lacking any single dominant center of political power, communication, or intellectual production. Thus pc  takes on the function of an ethical language and may be described as Mouth Wide Shut phenomenon. The transformation of society brought about a gradual emergence of pc in post-communist space - the adoption of new rules and of interculturalism  in the wake of Bulgarian accession to the EU. Political correctness which embraces not only language but also the entire attitude of equality and positive feedback is new in post-communist discourse, while what is described as socialist pc is often the language of inequality, rather than equality. The rationale of pc involves H.Giles’ adaptation theory known as CAT, the principle of ex-nomination put forward by R.Barthes, the process of semantic bleaching and the concept of trust.


Political correctness (pc) is one of the most important phenomena of the 20th century and one of the present-day buzz words. Googling pc produces millions of entries referring to its history, philosophy and description. Sometimes political correctness is traced back to the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany, or to the communist Russia with its double sets of terms for what was good “for us” and “for them”. Pc is such a common term that it means everything and nothing: in one of the on-line entries Bob Dylan was described as no longer pc – meaning not popular. On the other hand, recycling is now praised as politically correct; the same goes for other material objects, such as some foods which are/ or are not described as politically correct  depending on how their formatting in modern life. This is why Prince Charles is staging a campaign for healthier, more politically correct snacks in school vending machines – fruits and nuts, rather than candy and chips – and exemplifies Brussels sprouts and leeks, as pc vegetables.

According to Michel Foucault, in a society such as ours we all know the rules of exclusion, the most obvious and familiar of these concerns being what is prohibited. “We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like and where we like; not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything.” (Foucault, 1970:231) In the same paper Foucault also lists several types of prohibitions. Thus the subjects and the rules of exclusion and avoidance are a matter of both theory and practice. Undoubtedly, political correctness comes under the general definition of the language of avoidance. However while  political correctness is a hyponym of avoidance language, the former inhabits a separate niche, with its specificity and its own areas of use, and its origin is not a totalitarian state but a land of equal opportunities. The first point I would like to make is that the use of avoidance language is universal, and like any speech behaviour it is governed by social norms and by social contexts. Significantly, there are culture-specific rules relating to taboo subjects. Thus, death, sex, even foods, may or may not be taboo in certain cultures, yet these taboos are not the same in every single cultural community and will reflect on a diversity of manifestations – from everyday rhetoric to advertising. For example, condom advertising, which is widespread in most parts of Europe, is taboo in Vietnam and other parts of Asia. Death and death talk may be taboo in many cultures, but not in Georgia, where it is very much a part of everyday life. In general, unpleasant subjects call for special groups of euphemisms (see for example, Perianova, 2002)

In all probability, pc euphemisms originated in the US. The term politically correct is defined as ‘marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving esp. race, gender, sexual affinity, or ecology’ (RHWCD). According to the views of some scholars working in the field of anthropology, sociology and intercultural communication different cultures are viewed and assessed in terms of so-called cultural dimensions. According to one of the topmost gurus of the new approach Geert Hofstede, (see, for example, 1997) the US scores very high on individualism and has a very low power distance.(1) For this reason one of main features of North American culture is equality. In fact, equality “should be considered an assumption of American culture, social conventions tend to be more informal and social reciprocities are much less clearly defined (.Stewart et al., 1998: 161). Hierarchy, inequality in power and influence, are seen as man-made (Storti, 2001).  The following ironical congratulation I received for the holidays may be described as the quintessence of pc:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes  for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress,  non-addictive, gender neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practised within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practise religious or secular traditions at all; plus a financially successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions have so enriched our society, and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, choice of computer platform or sexual orientation of  the wisher.

The greeting features the two most important characteristics of pc – a) positive feed-back and b) equality: cf. a): environmentally conscious, socially responsible, practised within the most enjoyable traditions; financially successful, personally fulfilling.  At the same time the greeting signally avoids any offence – purportedly accepting everybody’s right to have a different opinion, attitude, way of life, etc, i.e. supporting equality in every area of life: cf. b):non-addictive, gender neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday (rather than a Christian religious holiday, practised within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practise religious or secular traditions at all, the onset of the generally accepted calendar year, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions have so enriched our society,  without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, choice of computer platform or sexual orientation of the wisher.

Unlike avoidance language in general, which is universal although governed by culture-specific social norms and contexts, pc is undoubtedly a product of globalization and, in my opinion, it should be viewed as its communicative code. The area of pc which embraces not only language but also the entire attitude of equality is new in post-communist discourse, while what is described as socialist pc was often the language of inequality, rather than equality. In the present-day context it is quite apparent that avoidance is relative and depends on one’s social and linguistic community and identification. Thus, pre-rich as a euphemism for ‘poor’ could only have originated in the USA.

Due to such core values of globalization as denial of hierarchy and an emphasis on a culturally pluralistic and interconnected global society lacking any single dominant center of political power, communication, or intellectual production, pc has turned into new behaviour codification, and has taken on the function of a new commodified language which, at least on the surface, aims to discontinue any form of Otherisation. Cf. the following definition of political correctness: “[…] correct according to a set of liberal opinions, e.g. that black people and women should have equal chances to get jobs, education, etc.” (LDELC) According to the rules of pc we are all supposed to be treated as equal. The urge to endorse equality has permeated all spheres of life .Even some forms of address are suspect: dear and darling, for example, are banned in the National Opera in London because they may be classified as sexual harassment. In many cases overzealousness in the pursuit of what is regarded as political correctness is likely to hurt the feelings of a majority group. Thus, according to online sources, a store in Sydney was once banned from displaying a traditional Christmas nativity scene because the managers considered it was politically incorrect to push any one religious belief. Fortunately, after a public outcry, sanity prevailed.

Most pc language has to do with race, rank, ethnic background, gender, age, or appearance. The ab/users of un/pc terms are accused of sexism, chauvinism, rankism, and ageism. The pc trademark is real or perceived equality. The epitome of PC is the term affirmative action which is “the practice or principle, when choosing people for a job or an education course, of favouring people who are often treated unfairly especially because of their sex or race; positive discrimination.” (LDELC)  By definition, any kind of hierarchy is to be avoided as not pc. For this reason certain low-status jobs have been made to sound grand to avoid rankism. Thus in American English “garbage collector” was replaced by “garbologist,” “bootblack” - by “bootblack maintenance engineer,” and “dogcatcher” by “animal welfare officer” (Pei, 1973: 142). According to some scholars, elitism is probably the dirtiest word in present-day American parlance (Berman, 2001: 29). Its UK use is also marked as derogatory in contemporary dictionaries. Political correctness as defined in this way was unknown as recently as early and mid-20th century. To argue the case one only needs to look at the titles of the books written by anthropologists in early and mid- 20th century, e.g. The Savage Mind (1962) by Claude Levi Strauss or The Sexual Life of Savages (1929) by Bronislaw Malinowski. These volumes abound with such terms as primitive languages, uncivilized tribes, natives, savages, etc. which are, currently, most emphatically considered un-pc.


Race PC

According to Mario Pei, at a certain stage there was a whole list of “UN-condemned words,” which have to do with race, including “backward, pagan, native, primitive, underdeveloped race, savage, colored (Pei, 1973: 145). “Colored” used to be the American euphemism for “black” when one didn’t want to say “Negro.” It is used differently in South Africa, to refer to groups that are neither white, nor black, like the numerous East Indians. The accepted term now seems to be “a person of color” or “African American”.  Race pc language is so wide-spread that the famous novel by Agatha Christie Ten Little Niggers, known also as Ten Little Indians was published in Germany as And Then There Were None. Even the expressions like “a Dutch treat,” “a French letter” or “WASPs” are sometimes included on the “proscribed” list. Racial taboo words in North American society are contrasted with other words that have lost at least part of their taboo content. Thus “First Nations” is now officially used in Canada instead of “native Americans”.


Gender PC

Gender PC is characterized by the absence of any emphasis of gender – making it seem irrelevant: “they,” “he or she”, or a neutral expression is to be preferred: e.g. “chair person.” Gender inequality crops up in language making it necessary to overstate the affirmative action approach at the expense of the sense of humor.

A case in point is the following item in The New York Times Sunday column “Metropolitan Diary”:

“Dear Diary,

Visiting an editor at Random House, I stepped into a crowded elevator and found myself pressed close to the control panel.
“Has everybody got their floors?” I asked.
After a moment’s silence, a young female voice from the rear said, “His or her.”
“I beg your pardon? “, I said,
“His or her. It’s “Has everybody got his or her floors?” Your pronouns don’t agree.”
“And shouldn’t it be “his or her floor,” not “floors,” a young man piped up. “Each of us gets off at only one floor.”
“And wouldn’t it be better to say “Does everybody have?” rather than “Has everybody got?” a third voice chimed in.
I stood corrected – and red faced. But I was glad to know that good grammar is alive and well.”(Quoted by Lakoff, 2001:78)


Age, disability, appearance PC

The pc term for those who used to be “old people” is “senior citizens”, “mature”, “third age”. “Differently-abled” or “challenged” are commonly used instead of “physically and mentally disabled,” - e.g. “visually challenged” for “blind,” “vertically challenged” – for “shorter or taller than average”, horizontally challenged” or differently-sized for “fat,” “follicularly challenged” for “bald,” and even “morally challenged” for “corrupt,” “special needs children” for “handicapped children.” (OPCDH) Along these lines, note also this announcement at the KLM airline counter during boarding: “Will passengers needing assistance please come to the counter first.”


Education PC

Another peculiarity of pc words involves positive feed-back – no implied criticism is permitted. This is especially important in academia, and it gives rise to many euphemisms. It has been noted by critics of the American educational system that for many reasons, more specifically because tuition in the US is mostly funded by students or their parents, certain terms are avoided and a new type of so-called school pc has emerged: e.g. “co-learners” instead of students,” temporally challenged” for “chronically late,” and “alternatively schooled” for “uneducated” (Berman, 2000: 124-125). “As brought out by the author of Up the Down Staircase, Bel Kaufman, ‘Let it be a challenge to you’ means ‘You’re stuck with it’; ‘It has come to my attention’ means ‘You are in trouble’; ‘interpersonal relationships’ is translated as a ‘fight between kids’; and ‘ancillary civic agencies for supportive discipline’ is, in effect, ‘Call the cops!’” (Quoted by Pei, 1973: 64)  Note also this example from a reader’s letter:

“Have you noticed how teachers never disparage children any more? My son had a note on his report that he was “very adept in the creative use of visual aids for learning.” I telephoned his teacher and asked: “What does that mean – the creative use of visual aids for learning?” She answered, “He copies from the child in the next seat.” (Reader’s Digest, June, 1982) See more examples of similar euphemisms in Perianova (2002).

The importance of pc cannot be overstated: it has become a practical matter – crucial for the success at work and as such an integral part of many textbooks. The following list is indicative of the tendency:  (Outhart et al, 2000:340)

Don’t say    Say instead
A cripple disabled person
Invalid disabled person
Handicapped      disabled
Mentally retarded/handicapped person with learning difficulties
Deaf aid  hearing aid
The disabled people with impaired mobility/a disability
Spastic person with cerebral palsy
Confined to a wheelchair
wheelchair bound
wheelchair user
Deaf and dumb   profoundly deaf
Disabled toilet accessible toilet


Pc and new democracies

Pc is a relatively new phenomenon in the newly emerging markets and the reason for its appearance is the fact that Eastern Europe became part of the globalizing society. Its snowballing effect in post-Communist society may be evidenced, to a different extent, in the printed matter and on-line sources.  In his seminal book Anthony Giddens refers to consumer capitalism and its efforts to standardize consumption and to shape tastes through advertising and “new ‘paternalism’ in which experts of all types minister to the needs of the lay population” (1994: 172-174) I should add that political correctness is a way of shaping attitudes within the context of this new ‘paternalism’ which can only be achieved provided a degree of trust is generated in the ‘lay population’

Significantly, the emergence of pc in the post-communist world matches B.Fay’s non-essentialist view of cultures as open systems: i.e. “cultures are ideational entities, as such they are permeable, susceptible to influence from other cultures.” (Fay, 1996: 59) Grotesque, rude and inconsiderate Sacha Barron Cohen’s film Borat may arguably be, but it does mirror certain innocence apparent in the official approach to all kinds of minorities during the communist regimes. Retarded, invalids, cripples – all these words were used in Russia, Bulgaria and other socialist countries indiscriminately, without fear that they may cause offence. Thus there is a lot to be said for new political correctness.

At the same time, it should be noted that in post-communist countries such as Bulgaria, pc doesn’t embrace all the subjects referred to above in the same degree, i.e. fewer objects and concepts are un-pc. A case in point: the global reality is post-modern and anti-elitist. As opposed to North America, in Bulgarian parlance elite is a very positive word and not only schools are described as ‘elite’ but such unlikely products as doors and window frames. It should also be stressed that the otherisation of some signally unequal groups is still prominent. The objects of in/equality may coincide with or differ from those in other countries. Race pc, for example is prominent Bulgaria: цигани (gypsies) is a new taboo, still alien to many people. In a radio interview the author of a nostalgic new novel called When Romas Were Gypsies claims not to be anti-gypsy (or anti-roma); however he insists on the old label and voices his dislike of the new one. At the same time, a Bulgarian gypsy ranger who claims to be assimilated says in another radio interview: “I do not mind being called a gypsy, but I’d rather be referred to by a more international term” (i.e. “roma” – IP).(2)  Racial slurs, especially those targeting gypsies, abound in Bulgarian: cf. the gradation циганин – ром – мангал –мангасар, and even the borrowing джипси. The expression като бял човек (as a white man/person) is also very common, and it implies the kind of praise which would be considered racist in US or Europe. There are many other expressions in Bulgarian reflecting some kind of national inferiority complex, cf. “хубава работа, ама българска” (a nice thing/job, etc. but the way it happens in Bulgaria, i.e. it is bad or faulty).

Conversely, the category which has made a lot of progress in Bulgaria is gender pc, as evidenced by a change in addresses due to a greater awareness of the likelihood of an offence, as well as in advertising strategies: for instance, the macho beer advertising of Zagorka beer: – What does a man need – a good house, a good car, a good woman …  good beer  - is now safely relegated to the past because of a successful court case won by  a businesswoman from Stara  Zagora, the seat of the brewery.

While rankism and the resulting pc are common in Bulgaria, ageism pc is currently not very prominent. There are, however, many examples of rankism pc in Bulgaria: инспекторка (“female inspector”) instead of секретарка (“secretary”), хигиенисткa (“hygiene worker”) instead of чистачка (“cleaning woman.”)

A typically Bulgarian pc example may be traced back to the time of socialism when Sofia, the capital, was opposed to other towns and villages, the “provinces,” and was viewed as “more equal” than other places. There is a still perceived inequality between Sofia universities and “provincial” universities. In the age of globalization, however, diversity and variety, as well as the absence of just one centre becomes a core value. This is why a professor from the University of Veliko Tarnovo in Central Bulgaria urged colleagues from the University of Sofia at a meeting to be politically correct and not to talk about Sofia University and other universities.  Significantly, nothing similar exists e.g. in the UK where the opposition “urban-rural” is not based on the principle of equality, and even “urban-suburban” (in the meaning of “narrow-minded”, “boring”) is not a pc area.

Our “situated identities” and projections differ in different settings, most prominently in the public space and the private space. Thus pc is linked to trust and intimacy: the more intimate the relationship the less pc.  PC stops at home, which cannot but testify to its use as some kind of behavioural regulator. My survey has shown that political correctness is only used in the public space: for example, at home hardly anybody uses the phrase хорасувреждания (“handicapped,” “challenged”) but rather the equivalent of the word cripple or invalid. Out of 55 Bulgarians polled only two said they used the pc word ромorромка (“romani”) at home. 

In my view, the rationale of political correctness is Roland Barthes’ concept of ex-nomination. If one is a member of the dominant group that group’s attributes are invisible as one’s role in making things the way they are is not noticeable. This process is called ex-nomination. Roland Barthes discusses the bourgeoisie as an ex-nominated group: “As an ideological fact the bourgeoisie completely disappears: the bourgeoisie has obliterated its name in passing from reality to representation.” Ex-nominated groups, says Barthes, become “normalized,” they become apolitical and non-ideological. They just are. Their rules become “the rules.” (Barthes, 1972, 138-140) The same claims may be made of white middle-class males in contemporary America. In fact, “whites sometimes feel as if they have been ex-nominated into oblivion” (Lakoff, 2001:54). As a consequence, there are attempts at what may be called re-nomination, e.g. the formation of white studies departments at some American universities (Ibid). Another example: young black males in the US may call themselves “nigger” which is a taboo word for white Americans (personal communication). Since the culture of the West is a victorious culture in our part of Europe, we are using the western pc code as a means of control and accommodation to the patterns of the perceived winner, in line with the Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) developed by Howard Giles (see for example, Giles and Smith, 1979). This theory represents a broad set of linguistic and extra-linguistic signals which enable us to adapt our communicative acts to those of our partners, shifting them along a convergent or divergent direction in the sequence of exchange.

However, there is a logical objection to the use of pc as a one-way street phenomenon:  if a “women only” meeting, for example, would be viewed as okay, a “men only” meeting would not be acceptable and regarded as un-pc.

Hence, using pc language is a Catch-22 situation – if you do it, it means by implication that you are painfully aware of the differences between you and the pc-ed concept and either disapprove or pretend to disapprove. And if you don’t, you are a racist, a rankist, or a male chauvinist. At the same time, it is always a moot point, whether you say what you think, pretend to do so, or are keen to pretend nothing is wrong. Overuse often dilutes political correctness statements, thus conjuring up Baudrillard’s view that the meaning is eroded via its excess. Moreover, political correctness may be regarded in terms of a transition from representation to indexation and back to representation due to the process of semantic bleaching. According to Widdowson (1986: 150-152), indexation is dependent on a context to provide it with something to point to (as in deixis - IP). On the other hand, representation -the symbol and the icon- are context-free and preserve their meaning in all cases. For many people political correctness implies reference to the past usage. The new pc icons fail to survive as such and turn into vestiges of old use.

As recipients and developers of the new code we in Eastern Europe, are supposed to trust the new shared discourse which reflects standardized and globalized language. The world of the market is full of the “language of lies” and to get to the meaning behind this language of lies we need a new grammar of communication. Pc is an essential part of it. Since expertise and transaction are the determinants of the modern world which is increasingly becoming professional (Moscovici), and expert-oriented (Giddens) – the new code makes the minds easier to control.

Pc is a strategy used to preserve personal images mutually, achieve symmetry within relationships by hiding (revealingly) any real or perceived inequality. It is an essential part of a new grammar of communication with its underlying structure of wishful thinking; a new post-modernist discourse, poly-semic in the Bakhtinian sense – it both reveals and hides one’s ideology simultaneously, i.e. it is the Mouth Wide Shut phenomenon. As a new type of discourse for many communities it is creating new users. To paraphrase Eva Hoffman (1989) who, in her popular and penetrating book Lost in Translation, describes how English was inventing her question we are facing, is whether we have been able to invent new us through the language of pc.  The answer is obvious: some have succeeded, others are –challenged





  Geert Hofstede outlines several sets of cultural dimensions: power distance, individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity /femininity, etc. See, for example, Hofstede, 1997. On the other hand, Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden Turner (1998) outline their own sets of cultural dimensions, some of them commensurate with Hofstede’s.
Cf. LDELC: most gypsies prefer to be called romanies.

2.2. Identity, Authenticity, Locality, Urbanity and Speech Community: A New Sociolinguistic Perspective | Identität, Authentizität, lokale- und städtische Veränderungen und Sprachgemeinschaften: Eine neue soziolinguistische Perspektive

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For quotation purposes:
Irina Perianova: New communication code – political correctness in the changing world – In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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