Applying Linguistic Relativism to Honour Killings

By Aavisa Butt

Our words matter. From compiling carefully drafted sentences in wills to a parent encouraging their baby to say anything not only reinforces their presence, but their power, too. The theory of linguistic relativity states that the speaker is influenced by the structure of language, which, in turn, influences the meaning of language. The seminatical differences can vary between cultures and they must be accounted for because language can ultimately impair or abet access to justice.

One would hope to not have to account for culture and linguistic labels towards murders. However, when it pertains to the term “honour killing,” the application of the linguistic relativism principle will further aid to not only denounce these crimes, but reform the way in which they are referred to, as well. The term honour killing is derogatory to those who have been killed, it is celebratory to the perpetrators’ views, and further confuses Canadian society of its evil nature. By changing the term honour killing to “shame killing,” Canada will better understand the context of these murders.

Reported in the last decade, there have been an estimated 10-15 honour killing cases in Canada. A 16-year-old girl was strangled to death by her older brother for not wanting to wear a headscarf. A 17-year-old girl was stabbed multiple times by her father for being romantically involved with a boy. These are called honour killings. But there is nothing honourable about them.

This linguistic label, rather than separating the two terms, harmonizes them, instead. Benjamin Lee Whorf, a linguist and observer of the theory of linguistic relativism, conducted a study on the Hopi, an Indigenous tribe residing in Northeastern Arizona. Whorf discovered the Hopi had no words for time; no indicator of past and future. The Hopi did not and could not conceive time was Whorf’s argument. However, it failed because many countered him by stating that merely because of a lack of word regarding a topic, the total dismissal of it was not valid. Whorf did remain adamant in the assertion that cultures have different interpretations for the same topics.

But what about honour killings, where an aspect of them is sought to be validated by culture, arguably, but condemned by another?

It is a global human rights issue and to continue to label it with the term “honour” does not mean that any culture will interpret it honorably at all. Now, one would suggest the term honour to be removed as the dismissal of it would not be the dismissal of the murders, according to the counter-argument against Whorf. But that is also unreliable as it now provides no space of speculation on the violence against women as it is not simply domestic, hence rejecting the need for structural awareness and reformation at all, rendering it invisible.

Those accused state their motive, and if they do not, know of it. Their community knows it. Yet when the Crown, again, states their crime in front of media outlets and courtrooms, it honours and passes judgment on the perpetrators in the same sentence, semantically and literally. Honour, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is, “a quality that combines respect, being proud, and honesty.” When a perpetrator who is convicted of rape is sentenced, they are never sentenced on a quality involving respect. When a perpetrator is convicted of child abuse, they are never sentenced on a quality involving being proud. When a perpetrator is convicted of theft, they are never sentenced on a quality of being honest. The linguistic relativism principle implicates here that the structure of the harmonized term honour killing acts not only as a positive indicator of the perpetrator, but also suggests an obstructive and misinformed view for society.

Canadian society is individualistic. From practising the art of self-reliance in the corporate world to understanding the “American Dream” of the neighbouring country in the south, individualism is clearly emphasized over collectivism. However, Canadian society is also multicultural. In 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was implemented to enhance cultural diversity, establishing Canada as the first country in the world to pass a national multiculturalism law. Yet when a more collective view is preferred in one culture, in a country of many cultures, that same harmony can become disrupted.

Section 3.1 of the Multiculturalism Act vows to recognize and appreciate the diverse cultures, whilst also promoting the reflection of them in society. The law is a medium of facts. It is for the promotion or reflection of facts. When culture is brought into the legal jurisprudence, it needs to be regarded for what is, not for what it could be. Hence, the ambiguity of terms, for the Crown, judge and defence, revolving around culture, is dangerous to the overall promotion of society. The term honour killing, according to s. 3.1 of the Act, should not be the promotion and reflection. By changing the two terms, the Multiculturalism Act will be better rectified in both the courtrooms and general public due to the disambiguation whilst promoting the coexistence of all cultures.

So-called honour killings should be referred to as shame killings. The usage of the term honour describes a value that is part of many cultures, regardless of them being collective or individualistic. By having the light on the perpetrator remain, as the problem lies in them, never the victim, all sentences, semantically and legally, should revolve around the shame of the accused. It will remain difficult to support a term that does not consist of any morals or immorals as the stories revolve around the understanding of the terms’ context.

All words can create stories, but not all stories contain words. Too often a sentence will remain unwritten, a voice unspoken, simply because of the absence of the right words. The lives lost and lives to be lost because of shame killings need words. The Hopi do not have words for time, but that does not mean they do not experience it. Yet those who will suffer and have suffered from shame killings need this word. They experience it. And they will speak of it.

This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (www.thelawyersdaily.ca), part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

Aavisa Butt is the founder of HuesReview magazine. She studies English Literature and Human Rights at the University of Waterloo.