We need to watch our language

'Grieving' ponies keep all-night roadside vigil after herd member killed by motorist

A sad tale of loss from a year ago in The Independent made me think about how the language used in this short article speaks volumes about our relationship with other animals.  Click HERE for the link to the story.


You only have to glance at this article to see the deeply problematic language we use when we talk about other animals. This is a language we ALL take part in, and it serves to reinforce our speciesism, that being the view that animals other than our own species are to be viewed as less than us. We all do it, and I don't pick specifically on this article, the writer, or those interviewed. I simply wanted to share this tragic, all too common story, and point out the realities we face in this struggle, trying to help people to see how the language we use informs our skewed view of the world and our place in it.


Even the headline, where the term grieving is given quotation marks, (known as “scare-quotes” when they are used thus, supposedly to draw attention to arguably inaccurate use) lends a derisive tone to the suggestion that other animals grieve. In fact this is upheld in the first paragraph, where it is stated that they only “appear to be” holding vigil for their dead companion, despite the fact that the writer quite rightly understands their status as family members. Just those four subtle little quote marks hold such heavy weight, and it is rare to see emotion in other animals described in the media without them there. They are like an iron barrier to the truth.


What follows in the article is a flow of the most commonly used language we use to separate ourselves from and claim ownership over others.


“The animal” - despite being aware that this was a pony, species of horse, from the genus equus, he or she has been downgraded into that group of homogeneous things we view collectively as other-than-human, though they are literally millions of diverse species strong. Whether you are a flea, a pony or a blue whale, you are seen as part of the 'animal kingdom', and as such you are outside the realms of consideration from the one species who have falsely proclaimed superiority over all of you - human animals.


“Owner”. It is ironic that despite the fact that these ponies roam freely for the majority of their lives, they are still deemed 'property' of a human. To be owned removes autonomy and places a notion of purposelessness on that individual, unless they be in service to humans. Similarly, that the ponies are “allowed” to roam freely further reinforces their owned status.


Although the person who found the pony obviously had empathy for them, her statement “...animals are basic “, again exposes our ingrained notion that every species in that vast group of “others”, is somehow lower than human animals in all the ways which matter, that there is some unwritten hierarchy where we sit at the top. ALL animals are complex and we are as diverse from them as we are similar. We have placed ourselves above all others and the language we use keeps us there.


“It” and “which” (the latter instead of 'who') both denote an inanimate object, though even dictionary definitions deem it acceptable to use this descriptively for animals other than human. We would never describe a human animal as 'it'. We would use he/she/they – and we need to start using those same terms with all other animals. A further irony here is that the pony was recognised to have a mother and a half-sister, clearly both gendered beings, suggesting familial ties every bit as valid as those in our own lives.



It is a challenge to change an ingrained pattern of behaviour and language. The more effectively that we can help others to adjust how they verbalise about those we share the planet with, the better we will all be.

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