Only German in Bavaria

In the news this week, we found out that the Christian Sociailst Union, which has been running Bavaria for decades, proposed a resolution to impose the use of the German language, in public and in the home, for all foreigners settled in the region. Their congress is being held this week in Nuremberg, I imagine in part to further discuss and possibly vote on this bizarre resolution.

The rest of Germany has by the looks as if it largely been rolling its eyes at these news, with the General Secreraty of the Social Democrat party stating that “it would be hilarious if it weren’t also highly dangerous”. What’s more, this region of Germany speaks in their very own variation of German, often largely incomprehensible to speakers from other regions.

So two questions raise themselves – are the CSU right in their belief that imposing the use of a particular language on people can also force their integration within a society? And if so, how on earth do they intend on enforcing this idea? Listening devices in foreigners’ homes? Spies outside the school gates?

Sadly (or not, depending on your point of view), history has shown that enforcing the use of a particular language, and punishing the use of another, has often resulted in accelerated acculturation. It can also result in the loss of the speakers’ original language and to some extent cultural knowledge within a generation (although the loss is not irreversable). Think of the punishments imposed in schools for the use of local languages like Breton, or the disintegration of certain cultural transmission in communities such as the Australian aborigines or the Native populations of Alaska, when English was imposed on children.

When this worked however, it generally involved the physical removal of children from their parents, sending them to English-language boarding schools for example, with or without the approval of the families. What these children gained in integration they lost in historical and cultural identity. Speaking one language in the home and another in school encourages bilingualism and the creation of a new generation at ease in both worlds, acting as a bridge between them.

What’s more, enforcing the use of a foreign language upon immigrants can be traumatic. Imagine being told that you were no longer allowed to use your mother tongue, that you had to get by and communicate even with your nearest and dearest in a foreign language. It would amount for many to a limitation on free speech and self-expression and would harldy encourages positive feelings towards the new homeland. Not to mention that to enforce anything similar would involve either isolating and seperating speakers of a foreign language, or the creation of a totalitarian 1984-like state.

So if this information is indeed correct, let’s at least hope that the CSU has a long and hard debate about this resolution before coming out in public with such absurd propositions again.


Moroccan Debates

I was chatting to a guy working in a Moroccan ministry the other day over lunch, and we ended up spending about an hour talking about language (as often seems to happen with me). The whole situation in many Arab-speaking countries is not something to which I had given much thought in the past, but it’s certainly noteworthy.

You may already know, or you may not, that there is a ‘classical’, old Arabic, the Arabic of the Koran, which is still used today in writing and for official purposes, whilst the Arabic spoken everyday by the population differs from region to region. What people speak are essentially dialects, they have never had a written form, and although they are often mutually comprehensible, the further away you go, the less likely you are to understand another Arab speaker.

So someone from Morocco has little trouble chatting with an Algerian, but far more problems communicating with a Palestinian. Of course they can revert to the classical form to understand each other, but from what I gather this feel weird to them, overly formal, and often badly adapted for every-day conversation. It is the language of Presidential speeches and university exams rather than of commerce and play.

So what I asked my Moroccan acquaintance was when this classical Arabic was taught to children, and it turns out that they basically start learning it as a sort of foreign language as soon as they start primary school. It’s not a language they would hear at home or in the street, but it’s nevertheless the language in which they will have to sit all their oral exams, the one they will have to use for formal occasions and when filling in admin (unless it’s in French, often still the administrative language in this part of the world).

It’s not so different from the local dialect known as Darija, but it’s still not the same. I started thinking how this seemed like a strange linguistic situation to be in until I remembered that a vast proportion of the American population find themselves in exactly the same situation. The African-American dialect has rhythms, vocab, syntax, and grammer all of its own. It is spoken at home and in the street by millions of people but it has never had a written form, and for official purposes, African-Americans will “switch” to SAE (Standard American English). We’re not so different after all.

But interestingly, Darija is slowly gaining ground in Morocco. A few magazines are being published in it, which basically means reinventing a writing system to match the needs of the dialect. I’ve been told it takes some getting used to. In the media and advertising it is already widely used. And now in politics too, the idea that the spoken Arabic should be used more widely in the public sphere is becoming a divisive issue. One of the problems here would be defining which spoken Arabic to use since the dialects differ from town to town. Using classical Arabic avoids the problem of discrimination.

As always, however, the youth is paying little attention to these endless debates and creating a form of communication all of their own. Already they use a mix of French and Arabic in speech, and this particular style has now developped into a written form used for virtual communication. More and more it’s also being taken up by advertisers aiming their products at the youth market. Since teens often use the latin alphabet to phonetically spell out words in Arabic (makes it quicker to text I imagine), they have also started substituting numbers for sounds which only exist in Arabic, as these mimic the letters of the Arab alphabet.  Some gutteral sounds are now represented in text chat by the numbers 7 and 9, which when laid down on their side look a little like the Arabic letters used for those sounds.

I do love the inventiveness and creativity of the young, but if you’re interested in the heated politics behind it all, you can read more about it here on Aljezeera. In any case it’s a linguistic developement worth keeping an eye on in the coming years.

The language of dehumanisation

An excellent article in The Guardian this week by George Monbiot brought to the fore once again the beurocratic and politicised language used to dehumanise the objects (i.e. people) under consideration. He talks of the recent alleged use of the word “stock” by the British government to describe disabled people in the context of public work programmes. Other terms like “benefit units” to mean families, or “biomass” to refer to people on a medical waiting list (in Norway this time) are also shown in their true light as dehumanising jargon freeing beurocrats of pestering feelings of guilt or immorality.

By now we’re familiar with the American military terminology used to dehumanise the enemy – “collateral damage” or “enhanced interrogation” – so familiar in fact that these euphemisms, and their general acceptance by the mainstream media, have become somewhat of a joke to certain sectors of the population.  There’s even an NYT torture euphemism generator you can go play around with.

This infographic from highlights the main media culprits in the persistant avoidance of the use of the word “torture”.

torture graphic 1 web

But it’s not only “the other” drowning unseen in this torpid pool of jargon and euphemism. As Monbiot points out in his article, we are all concerned, whether we happen to be “stock”, “biomass”, or part of a “benefit unit”. The terms we use to refer to physical and psychlogical processes endured by individuals strongly dictates how they are perceived in society. Are you just plain crazy or do you have a mental illness?

As George Carlin brilliantly declines in his sketch on euphemisms (check it out to lighten the mood), whether you suffered from shell shock, battle fatigue, operational exhaustion or PTSD depended on which war you faught (the different terms refer to essentially the same condition). The more the century progressed, the more the condition’s traumatic and human nature seemed to evaporate, lost to a babble of syllables and medical terminology.

From the CIA to the HR department, language is used to hide behind, a veil of seeming complexity carefully and thoughtfully applied to confuse and obfuscate reality. Or as George Carlin puts it: “Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins.”

Translators in wartime

If you’re unfamiliar with John Oliver I strongly suggest you get acquainted, and to get you started here’s a clip from the most recent show on Last Week Tonight  about the importance of translators in conflict situations and the injustice at how they’re being repaid for their service and selflessness.

The interview with Mohammad, the Afghan translator, ends poignantly with these remarks:

John Oliver: “Is there a word in Pashto to convey deep gratitude for someone’s service but also profound shame at how they’ve been treated?”

Mohammad: “Not really”

John Oliver: “There isn’t really in English either”

Class and terminology

I was always pretty confused growing up in Scotland as to what exactly people meant by ‘tea’ or ‘supper’, whether there was any difference when it came to ‘dinner’ and at what time exactly you were supposed to have ‘lunch’. I had put all this bemusement behind me until I stumbled upon a class-based explanation in Kate Fox’s book ‘Watching the English’.

It turns out, you see, that I must have had friends and acquaintances from quite a variety of social backgrounds to have come across all of these linguistic variations. ‘Tea’, when it is the evening meal taken at around 6.30pm, is very much an affair of working class origin, especially when referred to as ‘my tea’ or ‘your tea’. To everyone else ‘tea’ is what you have around 4pm, and is it, well, typically tea, accompanied with some light snack – scones, biscuits, small sandwiches, that kind of thing. The working classes tend to refer to this particular snack-time as ‘afternoon tea’, distinguishing it from the evening ‘tea’.

Referring to your evening meal as ‘dinner’, and having it around 7pm designates you as lower-middle or middle-middle class. Apparently it was only in my house that this meal was often called ‘lunch’, a leftover appropriation of a term from a whole nother culture. For everybody else in the UK, ‘lunch’ is eaten at midday, only the working classes would call this meal ‘dinner’ and refer to the evening ‘dinner’ as ‘tea’.

Stil following me?

Then there’s the ‘dinner’ of the upper-middle and upper-classes, which is still an evening meal but a rather more formal affair typically taking place much later in the evening with guests and fancy silverware. The more informal, daily family meals would in this case be referred to as ‘supper’, and eaten a little later than the middle-class ‘dinner’, around 7.30pm.

But the tea/dinner/supper variation is of course not the only British class indicator. When it comes to speech, it could take a whole book to go into the details of pronunciation across class and region, but the thing I always find more interesting is vocabulary. Did you know for example (and I had no idea), that certain words are veritable taboos amongs the upper classes and immediately designate one as a pleb?

So for example, when you can’t quite hear what the other person said, if you retort with ‘pardon?’, this assuredly puts a lower-class stamp on your person, regardless of how you might be dressed or how well you may have perfected your posh accent. If you say ‘sorry?’, you are probably middle class, and ‘what?’ designated you as a member of the gentry. Then again, if you hear ‘wha’?’ with the swallowed ‘t’ you’re probably dealing with a less-than-polite member of the working class. All a bit complicated, isn’t it?

There’s also saying ‘toilet’ (lower class if you don’t pronounce the ‘t’, probably lower-middle if you do) instead of ‘loo’ or ‘lavatory’, the more ‘proper’ form. The middle-middles will have a whole variety of other terms as well – ladies, powder room, facilities, privy etc. You will also be looked down upon if you say ‘serviette’ instead of ‘napkin’, ‘settee’ instead of ‘sofa’ and ‘lounge’ istead of ‘sitting room’ or ‘drawing room’.

And I wasn’t even aware that I was navigating such a sea of class-based terminology. Of coures this all comes from ‘Watching the English’, and I’m sure the Scots have a whole set of regional additions to these rules for which I should probably keep an ear out next time I cross the border.

Judging language in court

In the news these past weeks, the trial following the tragic and race-motivated killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year. His friend Rachel Jeantel has been talking before the judge, talking in African American English that is, a fact which has won her much mockery and a rather rude questioning from the defence lawyer regarding her ability to understand English (even though she was born and raised in Miami), to which she replied: “I don’t understand you, I do understand English”. 

While some criticised her ‘poor grammar’ and others tried to justify her language by the influence of her mother’s native Haitian creole, Jeantel merely represents a huge section of the American population who grow up speaking a non-standard dialect of English in their homes and communities, only to be told when entering public institutions that the language they speak is somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘ungrammatical’. 

It is neither, it is simply not the same as Standard American. If she says to the defence lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you”, she is simply using the preterite “had” in a perfectly acceptable way which would be familiar to millions of other African-Americans across the country. They would also be able to tell you that “I don’t be listening that much” is the correct form, and that “I ain’t be listening that much” doesn’t work.

As I’ve mentioned this before in this blog, there are multitudes of linguistic variation across the USA, only this one holds particular stigma. Linguists like John McWorther who wrote on this subject for Time openly caution against this type of linguistic prescription – not only prescribing rules that govern language which do not reflect the way that people really use it, but by doing so reinforcing an elite class and stigmatising an entire population because of the way they speak.

The linguistic prescription which results in the categorical repudiation of African American English has social ramifications akin to  racial profiling. From school to the job interview to the witness box in a court-room, every institutional environment operates with an assumption about your intelligence and trustworthiness based on the way you speak English. The current situation in the USA is hardly the first or the last of such cases through history, but is perhaps all the more surprising for occurring in what is supposed to be a wealthy western democracy proud of its grounding in the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. As it turns out, the dialect you speak, perhaps as much as the colour of your skin, is a discriminating factor in social integration. If we hope to realise Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” then surely Rachel Jeantel’s testimony should be judged not by the form of her grammar but by the content of her words.

The racist literacy test

At the end of civil war in America a number of tests appeared which the poor and little educated had to pass in order to be able to vote. Although supposedly for all those who could not prove their level of education, these were overwhelmingly administered to the coloured population. Most were some form of ‘citizenship’ test composed of US trivia, but this one from Louisiana in 1963-4 is a literacy test, designed to do, well, we’re not really sure; probably designed to get as many people to fail as possible (one mistake and you’re out – no right to vote). It was supposed to be administered to anyone who couldn’t prove a 5th-grade level of education, but in practice almost all blacks were forced to take it even if they had a college degree while whites were often excused from taking it regardless of education level.

So here’s an example of how seemingly simple words can be put together to jargogle your brain. The following questions are taken straight out of the ‘literacy’ test:

Q1. Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence.
Q5. Circle the first, first letter of the alphabet in this line.
Q15. In the space below, write the word “noise” backwards and place a dot over what would be its second letter should it have been written forward.
Q20. Spell backwards, forwards.
Q21. Print the word vote upside down, but in the correct order.
Q27. Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.
Q29. Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line, (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalize the fifth word that you write.

Are you confused? I sure am.

Determination of who “passed” and who “failed” was entirely up to the whim of the Registrar of Voters — all of whom were white. Strangely enough, whites almost always “passed” no matter how many questions they missed, and Blacks almost always “failed” by getting a question wrong.

Here’s an example of how the questions could be judged:

E.g. Q27 “Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.” If a Black person were to print the answer, he/she would be failed because it says “write” so cursive writing was required. Not so for white people. If a Black person were to write “right” he/she would be failed. Why? Because, the registrar would say, you’re supposed to write “right from the left to the right”. If a Black person were to write “right from the left to the right”, he/she would be failed. Why? Because, the registrar would say, you’re supposed to write “right from the left to the right as you see it here.” But not for white applicants; for them, any answer would be accepted.

So in the summer of 1964, a bunch of students at Ohio State University decided to administer this ‘literacy’ test to fellow students, but this time “failing” all the white students and giving them a complementary ‘I’m illiterate‘ badge to wear as a sign of demonstration against this overt racism.  This led to a voting rights march on campus to urge our U.S. senators to vote for the Voting Rights bill which became law in 1965 and outlawed discriminatory voting practices.

I’d love to find one of these badges somewhere, what a great little piece of history to have on your lapel.

Euphemism of the year: Disposition Matrix

(A slight political digression form the regular ‘word of the week’ feature, but I thought it was worth it…)

DISPOSITION MATRIX   (or how to hide behind fancy words)

The term has probable been around for a few years, but was only really brought to public attention through a series of articles in the Washington Post last October. It may sound new-agey and somewhat futuristic, and indeed it partly is both those things, but it is also a deadly, morally controversial and highly criticised American military strategy.

What the ‘Disposition Matrix’ amounts to is a kill list accompanied by a capability for tracking, capturing, rendering, or killing terrorism suspect. ‘Matrix’ because it is essentially a complex database, ‘Disposition’ because it aims to dispose of enemies. Really just one step up from the previous top euphemism: ‘enhanced interrogation’. A next generation target list obscured behind policy speak, and, as Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald called it, creepily Orwellian.