Sunday 04 May 2003

Linguistic imperialism?

In 1972, after teaching science in a private high school for a couple of years, I wangled a job as a chemistry teacher in the state technical education system (TAFE), which was a far more congenial environment since the students were older and highly motivated. Better still, night classes counted as time and a half in one’s teaching load and the other staff members hated teaching at night, so I was able to compress my “full time” job into three calendar days (including ample time for preparation). A steady income to spend on cameras, tons of free time to take pictures: I was on my way to becoming a photographer.

On my first day at Sydney Technical College, the staff and students assembled in the auditorium to hear speeches of welcome from the principal, the Student Union president, and the registrar. Only one part of one speech made any impact on me. The registrar, after noting the high proportion of Asian students at the college and drawing attention to the fact that the university entrance exams would all be written in English, forbade the use of any language other than English in the classrooms, laboratories, library, cafeteria, corridors, and elevators. Students who disobeyed this rule faced disciplinary action. I was gobsmacked. How could you deny people the freedom to speak their own language? I later asked one of my colleagues. He laughed and said, Welcome to TAFE, pal!

I recount this anecdote as a way of indicating an awareness of linguistic injustice and, simultaneously, my inability to do much about it. Should I have approached the registrar to express my disapproval? Possibly. Would that have accomplished anything? Almost certainly not. What did I do, practically? Encouraged my students to speak English during class and lab time and made it clear that the rest of the time they could speak any language they chose.

The registrar’s speech came to mind when I read Baldur Bjarnason’s response to the wide-ranging discussion inspired by Stavros’ essay Linguistic Relativism and Korean:

Culture forms language. Language is a symptom, not a cause.

There has been an interesting discussion on linguistic relativism on several weblogs recently.

The discussion fails to recognise that language is a cultural product.

A Weapon.

Linguistic relativism is the equivalent of staring down the barrel of a gun while ignore the person whose finger is on the trigger.

Language, linguistic dominance, are the cannons of cultural warfare. Without a language, a culture is defenseless.

The linguistic relativists might be right in all of their observations, but they are simply staring at the bullet and mistaking it for the lock, stock, barrel and sniper all rolled into one convenient lump of lead.

Language is wielded, formed—your arms and armour.

It kills. Just ask the Welsh, Kenyans, Native Americans or South-American Natives.

Linguistic relativism is a nice idea to those who belong to a dominant, still imperialistic culture (and this applies to the English, Japanese, Koreans and Germans, all cultures that are strong and on the offensive in the war of globalisation).

But there is nothing relative about a bullet in the head.

Or fighting for the survival of your nation and culture.

The odds are stacked against us, in your favour.

Baldur’s first and third sentences—straddling his sardonic reference to our “interesting” discussion—are merely assertions, quite capable of rephrasing so that their meanings are reversed:

Language forms culture. Culture is a symptom, not a cause…

The counter-argument fails to recognise that culture is a linguistic product.

Baldur admits as much when he writes: “linguistic relativists might be right in all of their observations.” However, his essential argument is not just that “without a language, a culture is defenseless” but also that:

Linguistic relativism is a nice idea to those who belong to a dominant, still imperialistic culture (and this applies to the English, Japanese, Koreans and Germans, all cultures that are strong and on the offensive in the war of globalisation).

In other words, it’s all very well for you English, Japanese, Korean, and German speakers to conduct a pleasant academic discourse about linguistic relativism but, in doing so, you are ignoring the fate of other languages, which are succumbing to the linguistic assault being mounted by your respective cultures.

[Stavros and I must be classed as serial offenders by virtue(?) of our being native speakers of one imperialistic language (English) and enthusiastic students of another (Korean in Stavros’s case, Japanese in mine). Language Hat’s status as a linguistic imperialist would seem to depend on whether or not his command of the languages of dominant cultures is balanced by his fluency in languages under threat.]

Why the flippancy? It’s not that I disagree with Baldur since it’s almost self-evident that “without a language, a culture is defenseless.” And when I quoted Heidegger (“Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells.”) and Wittgenstein (“The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world.”), there wasn’t even the most tenuous implication that that “language” meant English, Japanese, Korean, German, or any other “dominant” language.

Nor is it that I’m disinclined to listen to a disapproving lecture delivered from a moral high-horse when I basically agree with the key argument.

I guess it’s that I can’t see a way to put Baldur’s ideas to use. On the one hand there’s a vague accusation of indifference towards the gradual extinction of precious linguistic resources. On the other there’s no hint of a suggestion as to how I might assist in preserving these endangered languages.

Should I abandon my study of Japanese and turn my attention to Gikuyu or Icelandic? Hardly. I love the Japanese language: the sound of it, how it looks, the feelings it evokes, its obliqueness, its lack of subjects or agents, its tendency to “view the world as a natural state or a change brought about by some force.”

Even if I were to become a language activist, I’d devote my energy to fighting on behalf of English, given that language can be threatened internal as well as external enemies. As Baldur rightly observed:

The English are lazy when it comes to their own language. They treat it like a ten dollar hooker with no self-respect and a high tolerance for having the shit beaten out of her.

AKMA alluded to the problem when he cited Orwell’s 1984:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

I don’t know whether AKMA had in mind Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Language Police, How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, when he quoted Orwell but reviews in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times CalendarLive (links via Arts & Letters Daily) leave little doubt that left-wing and right-wing pressure groups have nearly succeeded in turning Orwell’s imaginary Newspeak into a reality by organizing the banning of a whole range of words from the textbooks or test questions used in American schools:

Among those rejected by the “bias and sensitivity” panel was a passage about the patchwork quilts made by 19th century frontier women: “The reviewers objected to the portrayal of women as people who stitch and sew, and who were concerned about preparing for marriage.” The fact that the passage was historically accurate was considered no defense for its “stereotypical” image of women and girls.

Another story about two young African American girls, one an athlete, the other a math whiz, who help each other learn new skills, was red-flagged for stereotyping blacks as athletic (even though one of the girls was not an athlete but a mathlete).

A passage on the uses and nutritional values of peanuts was rejected because some students are allergic to peanuts. Stranger still, a story about a heroic blind youth who climbed to the top of Mt. McKinley was rejected, not only because of its implicit suggestion that blind people might have a harder time than people with sight, but also because it was alleged to contain “regional bias”: According to the panel’s bizarre way of thinking, students who lived in non-mountainous areas would theoretically be at a “disadvantage” in comprehending a story about mountain climbing. Stories set in deserts, cold climates, tropical climates or by the seaside, Ravitch learned, are similarly verboten as test topics, since not all students have had personal experience of these regions.

Also forbidden: owls (the animals are taboo for Navajos), Mt. Rushmore (offensive to Lakotas), dinosaurs (suggestive of evolution, hence offensive to creationists), dolphins (regionally offensive because they live in the sea) and Mary McLeod Bethune (this early 20th century civil rights pioneer had the lack of foresight to use the no-longer-fashionable word “negro” in the school she founded).

Denis Dutton’s “review” of the Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing offers an even more dispiriting glimpse into the world of the Bias Persons and their attempts to sanitize the English language. The astonishing thing is that this censorship has not been directly imposed by governments. Rather, book publishers have voluntarily adopted “bias and sensitivity” guidelines which reflect the sensitivities of anyone who cares to complain about anything.

What these groups on both the right and left have in common, Ms. Ravitch notes, is that they all “demand that publishers shield children from words and ideas that contain what they deem the ‘wrong’ models for living.” Both sides “believe that reality follows language usage,” that if they “can stop people from ever seeing offensive words and ideas, they can prevent them from having the thought or committing the act that the words imply.”

(“In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”)

The results of a similar process are evident in conversations with young Japanese who know next to nothing about Japan’s colonization of Manchuria and Korea, the rape of Nanking, the inhumane treatment of Allied POWs, and war crimes in countries under Japanese occupation, let alone the biological warfare experiments by Unit 731 on Chinese prisoners and villagers.

Why are they so ignorant? Why do so many Japanese believe that, because of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were the greatest victims of the Pacific War? Because they learned history from sanitized textbooks.

So, ultimately, as much as I sympathize with the disappeared languages of the Welsh, Kenyans, Native Americans or South-American Natives, I suspect that every language is under threat—from linguistic imperialism, from benign or malicious neglect, from Language Police acting out of the “best” intentions. And I can’t help but believe that reading and discussing Heidegger and Wittgenstein form at least part of an acceptable response to the problem.

Permalink | Technorati

Comments

Well, you are certainly more gracious and patient than I, Jonathon (which is something I knew already, of course). I read Baldur's post and just assumed (as I still do) that he didn't actually understand what's meant by the phrase 'linguistic relativism' (or 'determinism', depending on who's talking about it) and went back to watching another episode of Bottom.

Posted by wonderchicken on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Stavros has gotten there fustest with the bestest, as usual, leaving me not much to say but: what the wonderchicken clucked. I too am pretty sure Baldur doesn't understand what's being discussed and just went off half-cocked about how small languages are being oppressed. Well, who could disagree, but what does that have to do with the discussion? I like his blog in general, but this just made no sense.

Posted by language hat on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I would have thought that one of the basic certainties of language is that they change. A language is alive and thriving one day and dead as a doornail the next.

It appears to me, now that I live in "red-neck land," that the preservation of some languages is of more interest to the preservers than to the thoses facing the loss.

Perhaps it's really only an issue until the PhD thesis has been accepted...

Posted by victor echo zulu on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I should just clarify there that it was *me* that went back to watching Bottom.

Posted by wonderchicken on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Hmm. As I said on another blog recently, I think that language is best seen as a kind of meta-medium, the basic codec (or one layer of codec, at least) in which most primary concrete and literal forms of public discourse are couched. If that's so, then there's no need for philosophers; this issue was essentially "solved" with McLuhan's "The Medium is the Message" -- itself a reflection of Harold Innis' "The medium is the culture" and Henri Bergson's "the medium is the mind."

Posted by boyhowdy on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

While facts are important and language is necessary to express them, if a language has no words to express a particular idea then other words will be pressed into service or new words/word combinations will be created. This has happened on a fairly constant basis throughout history.

The Japanese example is not one where the language has been changed to remove the expression of negative Japanese acts, but one where the history books fail to express the actions - a very different kind of revisionism.

As to the comments regarding English, I view the fact that the English language doesn't remain at all pure to be a fantastic thing. An American politician once complained that "The Russians have no word for detente.", thus demonstrating that English includes by default any word that an English speaker may find useful. This, to me, makes it altogether more useful and magical a language than one which is strictly defined and thus dead.

As James Nicoll once said "We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

Posted by Andrew Ducker on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"if a language has no words to express a particular idea then other words will be pressed into service or new words/word combinations will be created. This has happened on a fairly constant basis throughout history."

This focus on nouns was precisely what I was trying to push back against in my original post. Most people who've heard of the concepts involved, as soon as they hear mention of them again, immediately think "50 eskimo words for snow, what bullshit" and rightly so.

There's a much more important and nuanced argument to be made, though, I think, about deeper structures and parts of language that govern relationships between words.

(This in context with the 'as-ness' Heideggerian discussion David Weinberger recently offered...hammer is only hammer as hammer in relation to nails and timber and so on. The interesting part here is not the nouns/concepts in question, but what relates them (and in my mind) the language that enables that relationship and serves as a substrate for their 'as-ness'. Or something like that.)

Screw nouns! as I shouted at my bemused colleague the other day.

Heh.


Posted by wonderchicken on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm just wondering why you assumed I meant just nouns. Any part of the language is subject to the same kinds of changes. And that includes the underlying structure of the language (although that changes to be less flexible in some ways - and totally ignored in others).

Posted by Andrew Ducker on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

My bad. Must have been the beer talking again. I see that you didn't in fact mention anything about nouns.

(Although it is pretty much a given that borrow-words and neologisms, which if I understood correctly, you *were* talking about, predominantly tend to be nouns.)

Posted by wonderchicken on 5 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The school's policy sounds disturbingly similar to one branch of the many-pronged approach the Canadian government took to erasing the culture of the aboriginal students interred at residential schools throughout most of the last century. Where beatings broke the will, silencing the native tongue killed the spirit.

Posted by Matthew Frederick Davis Hemming on 6 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Hrugh-hum, and other throat-clearing noises. I just thought I should mention that reports of the death of Welsh and Gikuyu have been exaggerated.

Posted by qB on 7 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Well, who needs puny languages that can't defend themselves, anyway?!! As for ideas that when the last speaker of a language dies out, a unique way of seeing the world goes with them - well, were they about to share their secrets with you or anyone else, anyway? (...If, indeed, they actually did see the world in a different way, which I doubt.)

I used to mourn the loss of languages. I even felt sad about the loss of purity in English. One day, though, I realised that the variations of "Old English" had had their day. People had gradually stopped speaking them - or, rather, they'd changed according to the needs of their speakers. Nowadays I get increasingly worried by people showing great interest in endangered languages. In my mind, they're not too far from seeking an equivalent of Aryan purity and ethnic cleansing. Oh dear...

By the way, languages don't "do" things. English doesn't "attack" other languages, for instance. It's people who do things. It's people who commit crimes against humanity. And it's people who move from speaking one language to another, from one variation to another, etc. And if there are casualties along the way, then so be it. They'll happen with or without the language. Even one of the main tenets of linguistic imperialism, the idea that in developing countries only those who speak English well can advance, leaving the others far behind, is surely wrong: people would find ways of moving on from their neighbours come what may. Language can never be more than a red herring, an excuse for other motivation.

The real beauty of language is that it allows us to communicate. To extend a part of who we are into the world, to test the water and compare ourselves to other people and to give them something of ourselves or attempt to persuade them of the value of our existence. The actual language, tongue, parole, dialect, accent, variation (blah blah blah) that we use is irrelevant. If - and this is a big "if" - it alters our perception of how we see the world, then I'd like to leave you with two questions: (1) Does that mean that I see the world in the same way as everyone else in my country? And (2) If the world is seen in a radically different way by different people, then how are we able to communicate with each other at all?

Posted by David (TEFL Smiler) on 9 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"... my inability to do anything about it ...": You lose me right from the start. If that's the case, what of any interest could you possibly have to SAY about it, or about "linguistic relativism," having experienced it only through your vague sense of liberal guilt and powerlessness? You could actually learn a foreign language, you know, ... ;-)

Posted by blogal villager on 9 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Crikey, blogal villager, why the hostility? We're supposed to be on the same team.

My post made it perfectly clear that I have learned a foreign language. As in:

"Stavros and I must be classed as serial offenders by virtue(?) of our being native speakers of one imperialistic language (English) and enthusiastic students of another (Korean in Stavros’s case, Japanese in mine)."

And:

"Should I abandon my study of Japanese and turn my attention to Gikuyu or Icelandic? Hardly. I love the Japanese language: the sound of it, how it looks, the feelings it evokes, its obliqueness, its lack of subjects or agents, its tendency to 'view the world as a natural state or a change brought about by some force.'"

But I guess you didn't read that far.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 9 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour