language and politics
We should watch our gun language. The New York Times has an article today, “In Gun Debate, Even Language Is Loaded,” documenting the pervasive gun references in our language. I speak six languages, and in thinking about each, I believe the article is correct — we have far more expressions, verbs, and nouns which come from gun culture than other languages do. It would be interesting to compare American English to British English and other World Englishes in this regard, too.
The parents from Newtown made the statement yesterday that they were in the gun debate for the long haul. Legislation can help, but the bigger changes have to come from the bottom up. There has to be a cultural change before this violence begins to subside. Just as we changed our language regarding race and gender, we might begin to change the national obsession with guns by changing our language. The first step to doing that is to increase our awareness of how often we use military and gun terms in our everyday speech.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa has sponsored an English-only bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s a dumb bill with unstated pernicious goals of racism and exclusion, but leave that aside for the moment. Rep. King said, “A common language is the most powerful unifying force known throughout history, throughout all humanity and all time. If (people) can’t communicate, they’re bound to separate.” The people in India, China, many African nations, the Quechua-Spanish nations of South America, Indonesia, and numerous other countries which have multiple languages might disagree on that statement. It is, at the very least, not a statement based on fact. Language differences might sow disunity, as Rep. King is doing in the U.S., but these nations have not been “bound to separate.” (The U.S. came close to separation without any linguistic involvement except perhaps the stigmatizing of peoples’ accents.)
More disturbing than that statement was his use of China as an example of linguistic unity “throughout history.” His report on the history of the “Chinese language” is riddled with the sorts of logical fallacies which result from not knowing what you are talking about. First of all, there is no language called “Chinese.” A person from Beijing cannot easily understand someone from Canton, Taiwan, or even Szechuan. There are also many tribal languages spoken in China. My Chinese friends tell me that the variances between, say, Beijing Mandarin and the languages spoken elsewhere are much greater than the languages of Texas and New York. In America, it is a matter of accent, but the differences are more pervasive in China. Any broad brush analogy between China and America, and ancient China with modern America, is bound to be fallacious. One has to be careful when comparing even England with America.
The Chinese alphabet is indeed a cleverly devised unifying tool unlike anything we have in the Western world. It is perhaps analogous to the sign language which Native America tribes used to communicate, since they could not understand each others’ languages. In our Western alphabets, a person must memorize the words house, casa, maison, spiti, and so on, in order to communicate the idea of “house” or “home.” Two Chinese citizens who cannot understand each other verbally can communicate through the symbol for house. The Google translation for “house” contains multiple entries, but one of them is 名词. A Frenchman and an American can say to each other over and over again “House,” “Maison” “House” “Maison” and never understand each other, but two Chinese can write down 名词 and communicate immediately.
I once asked several Chinese students to come to the board and write the symbols for various words. The rest of the Chinese students in the class enjoyed the display even more than the rest of us. The Taiwanese student used an extra slash or line to write her symbols, and the Beijing student had a different slant or a different interior relationship of strokes. They said in explanation that the Taiwanese student wrote with an “accent.” They could detect where the student was from by analyzing the symbolic depiction of certain concepts. This is an entertainment which no Western student could participate in. Writing “maison” instead of “house” does not provide any laughs at all.
I was amused by Rep. King’s turning to China as a template for the U.S. to follow. There are few Republicans indeed who would use a Communist government which dictates policy, including language policy, as our model.
Our ignorance of things Chinese is so great that politicians can grab onto fragments of truth and include them in their speeches unchallenged, because neither they nor their audiences know what the truth is. I stipulate right here that my knowledge of Chinese is very limited, but compared to Rep. King, I’m an encyclopedia.
So who has the upper hand in the world today? The Chinese or the Americans? I recently met Yen, a young Chinese woman who is beginning high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She will be living with 15 other young Chinese students. (They will soften the transition to the U.S. by employing a Taiwanese chef to cook their meals. It is very difficult for a Chinese person to become accustomed to the American kitchen.) She already speaks good English and, if the family plan is accomplished, will finish both high school and college in the U.S. There are tens of thousands of Chinese students like Yen studying in the U.S. today, and each will take back to China a bit of knowledge to share with their families, acquaintances, and colleagues. We, in the meantime, are entertaining each other with false stories about Chinese history and language, without the slightest clue what China is like.
One of my students once wrote an essay in which she claimed that if we limited the ability of ordinary citizens to purchase guns we would be “just like China.” I had no idea what being “just like China” would entail, so I asked her in what ways they would be similar. “Do you know a lot about China?” I asked her. She sheepishly cast her eyes down. She barely knew where it was. Such foolish bromides about gun control had become second nature in her family and her community (she was home schooled), and had the ring of truth to them. As my father remarked about one family’s annual reunions, “They get together once a year to increase their ignorance.”
We live awash in such ignorance at our peril.
There has been a debate among linguists about the language used by the rioters who shook up England recently — they are using slang and “bad grammar.”
I’m not British, so I’m making some assumptions here, but it seems to me that the very thing that these young people want to do is to overthrow a corrupt and worn out system. Why wouldn’t their rebellion extend to their language use? Language sleeps nightly with politics, and this is one of their children. Reacting to crises like wars or political breakdowns is one of the ways in which language changes quickly, otherwise it usually changes gradually.
The young rioters’ lives have been degraded by a powerful cadre of people who have ignored their needs and wishes and become rich beyond imagining in doing so. Why would they want to talk like them?
Language shock is one way of revolting without destruction, while at the same time annoying the heck out of the people they want to throw out of office and out of influence.
See link: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23978523-ghetto-grammar-robs-the-young-of-a-proper-voice.do
Exercise: This article would be a good base for an essay. Perhaps the focus could be the purpose of slang.