Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Multilingual Learning: What is ‘Verbal Hygiene’?

In this article, we define the term 'verbal hygiene' and explore some practices and examples

‘Verbal hygiene’ is a term coined by sociolinguist Deborah Cameron in the first edition of her book, which was published in 1995.

As Cameron (2012) defines it, verbal hygiene refers to the “[…] motley collection of discourses and practices through which people attempt to ‘clean up’ language and make its structure or its use conform more closely to their ideals of beauty, truth, efficiency, logic, correctness and civility” (p. vii). Central to Cameron’s discussion is the idea that, behind the ostensible desire to regulate language and ensure standards, verbal hygiene practices hide a range of deeper social, moral and political anxieties.

Verbal hygiene practices, argues Cameron, are inevitable and common to all language users. Whether these practices are carried out to criticise deviant or incorrect language forms and to impose standard, or to argue against any form of interference with ‘natural’ changes, both linguists and laypeople have strong ideas about how a specific language should sound, work and look. “Our norms and values differ” argues Cameron, but “what remains constant is that we have norms and values” (p. 9). This “urge to meddle in matters of language” (p. xix) is a consequence of the fact that humans do not just use language, but also observe and reflect on the language they use. Linguists may engage in verbal hygiene practices to prescribe how language should work, or to describe how it works. In both cases, however, they are engaging in a struggle to control language by defining its nature as either a man-made product to be controlled or a natural entity to be observed.

Defining standards of language use is one of the very few (if not the only) remaining domains of social interaction where norms are not seen as arbitrary but as natural and inevitable. Advocating for particular language uses, argues Cameron, raises questions about who prescribes for whom, what they prescribe, how they prescribe, and for what purposes. Engaging with these questions means engaging with the linguistics and politics of verbal hygiene, which carry with them issues of authority, identity and agency. Who has the right to impose specific standards and why; what the language we speak reveals about us, and how it contributes to shape our identity; which linguistic changes are acceptable and which are to be discouraged (and why) are all questions that relate to the ideological function of verbal hygiene. Thinking about these questions means uncovering the concerns that hide behind so many apparently innocuous – but often surprisingly heated – debates

Languages and (dis)integration: a particular case of verbal hygiene

Cameron notes that “[…] complaints about language changes are usually symbolic expressions of anxieties about larger social changes” (p. 238). This is particularly evident in Cameron’s example of the criticism levelled at Jamaican’s influences on the English spoken by youth growing up in ethnically diverse, working-class, inner-city neighbourhoods. In the wake of the August 2011 riots, some media commentators directly correlated this variety of English to social breakdown. The white youth who took part in the riots were said to speak the variety of English more commonly associated with black youth of Caribbean descent. This association, argues Cameron, is conspicuously a discourse about race, one according to which Black culture is inherently alien and hostile, revealing a perceived correspondence between linguistic and moral standards.

The threat that foreign intruders and their languages are perceived to pose to social cohesion is also evident in the increasing popular disquiet about immigration and the rejection of multiculturalism and multilingualism. “Speaking English has become a touchstone in discussions of what it now referred to as social ‘cohesion’, ‘integration’ or ‘inclusion’. Essentially these terms are code for ‘assimilation’: both new immigrants and settled minorities must demonstrate their allegiance to British culture and values” (p. 240). This allegiance is demonstrated primarily through knowledge of the English language, and speaking a language other than English has, in recent years, become a sign of ‘separatism’ and fragmentation.

Applicants for UK citizenship are required to pass a ‘Life in the UK’ test which can be taken only in English. The effect of this has been to give a clear advantage to people originally from Anglophone countries or countries where English is an official language and who are, incidentally, in greater proportion white. The tendency for politicians to trace back any conflict involving members of minority communities to their assumed lack of integration is often directly linked, in public discourse, to their lack of English. Not speaking (fluent) English has become a powerful symbol of lack of integration and division: an impending threat to social cohesion.

The implicit connection between shared ways of speaking and shared ways of thinking this view champions is also demonstrated by some of the reports that followed the 7/7 London bombings. Some comments expressed surprise at the fact that the men connected with these attacks spoke English with a strong Yorkshire accent. This reveals a belief that English is not only a useful language to facilitate communication, but that it is a carrier of enlightened values, such as openness, tolerance, pragmatism and individual liberty. “The other side of this discursive coin”, notes Cameron, “is a xenophobic representation of other languages as natural vehicles for extremist ideas” (p. 242). Suggesting that English, or a particular form of English, is a necessary or sufficient condition for social cohesion, cultural unity and shared values of democracy and freedom, is an act of verbal hygiene that has profoundly racist premises, and one which is increasingly common not just at the level of popular narratives, but also at a policy and political level.

To learn more on this specific topic, see Deborah Cameron’s 2012 talk at the University of Arizona.

The above article is a summary of Cameron, D. (2012, 2nd ed). Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Read the articles below with these questions in mind

  • Can you see verbal hygiene practices are at work in these articles? How are they similar or different?
  • What are the language issues discussed symbolic of?
  • What are the power relations at work in these instances of verbal hygiene?
This article is from the free online

Multilingual Learning for a Globalised World

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now