War of the Words: Aliens, Immigrants, Citizens, and the Language of Exclusion
46 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2014 Last revised: 1 Sep 2020
Date Written: January 1, 2014
Words communicate more than their ordinary dictionary meaning. Words tell us about individuals' and communities' conscious and subconscious perceptions. The words we use are evidence of how we think, which, in turn, ultimately determines what we do. In this paper, I examine and compare the usage of the words "immigrant," "alien," and "citizen" to make observations on the nature of membership and belonging in the United States. While it is perhaps intuitive that these words carry very different connotations, here I use corpus linguistics to explore those connotations. I rely on the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a database of natural spoken and written American English from a variety of sources, including newspapers, television programs, literary magazines, and movie scripts, to examine these terms' usage. By comparing the words most exclusively and closely associated with "immigrant," "alien," and "citizen," I highlight the connotations of these terms in modern American usage. Ultimately, I conclude that current usage of these terms suggests a hierarchical and status-based narrative of membership in which "aliens are criminals and outsiders," "immigrants are weak and vulnerable," and "citizens are noble and contributing." This narrative, I argue, contributes to a stratified notion of membership that engenders discriminatory perceptions of and facilitates the denial of rights to noncitizens.
Keywords: alien, citizen, immigrant, immigration, citizenship, corpus linguistics, linguistics
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