For my first sentence of my first post, I would first like to thank these kind gentlemen for letting a girl (as Blimpish put it, ‘a real, live one!’) into their midst. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m frightfully flattered to have been asked up for coffee and I promise to put the loo seat back up before I leave.
With the worldwide elevation of the ‘couch potato’ story from ‘and finallyÃ¢â‚¬Â¦’ to actual news, I thought IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d talk a little about language and politics, and I’m afraid it’s a long one. You see, from a descriptive linguistÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s position, even if the British Potato Council is successful, there is something fundamentally pointless about changing a word in a dictionary.
Dictionaries exist to describe, in a snapshot, an ever-changing, inconstant world of language: how the standard version of a given language looks at the time of publishing. They are generally a snapshot of a language that has already moved on long ago, as they tend not to include words until theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve stuck it out for a while, such as ‘blog.’ A change in a dictionary as officious and stodgy as the OED is, therefore, not going to change how people talk, because people already use a massive variety of words on a daily basis which would not be found there. How many times a day do you hear the word ‘woot’?
The efforts of the potato lobby are, from that point of view, wasted. People donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t use the word ‘couch potato’ because they found it in the OED, they use it because other people use it. A dictionary is not a prescriptive tool. You canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t legislate people into using the language you think they should, right?
I was in Alsace at the weekend, a.k.a. the heart of Europe, and my companionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s guidebook included this little anecdote that pointed to the many coronaries in that regionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s history. Over a couple of hundred years, one prominent family, named Ã¢â‚¬ËœLagarde,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ were forced to change it to German for Ã¢â‚¬ËœguardÃ¢â‚¬â„¢: Ã¢â‚¬ËœWache.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ When the French took over again, it was francophoneticised (I made that word up…) to Ã¢â‚¬ËœVache,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ meaning Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcow,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ and when the Germans came marching in they changed yet again to Ã¢â‚¬ËœKuh,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ the German word for Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcow.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ When the French took over the last time, the family decided that the French pronunciation of this was too close to Ã¢â‚¬ËœculÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ (meaning Ã¢â‚¬ËœarseÃ¢â‚¬â„¢) and received permission to switch back to Ã¢â‚¬ËœLagarde.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢
The moral of this story is that the conquering armies of both sides understood the power of language as a conduit for national identity. Behind the amusing name changes are generations separated by the language they had to learn in school. So, imagine IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m an Alsatian (no dog puns please) and learned to speak French, but my granny grew up speaking German. If the authorities decided to deport all the Germans in the area, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s granny gone, simply because she did as the government ordered and learned the language of those in power at the time.
In North Carolina there is a tribe of Native Americans called Lumbees. Like a lot of Native Americans on the East Coast you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t tell by looking whether someone is a part of the tribe, they might be just ‘black’ or ‘white’ to the untrained eye. In fact, you can only tell someone is Lumbee by how they speak. But they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t speak their own language, oh no. As the first colonised, the East Coast tribes were the most assimilated. They were the ones that unlearned their language to get along in this brave New World.
Note that the U.S. does not have an official language, for the same reason that there is no official religion: the founding fathers said so. Every now and then someone proposes a bill as a knee-jerk reaction against the latest round of immigrants, but it has not been and will not be successful. However, to get on in America, you had better learn English: it is the code of power that will make you mobile in the land of opportunity. So the Lumbees were trying to please the settlers by abandoning their now lost language. However, when America realised what it had done and granted land rights, casino rights and suchlike to the tribes, their criteria for identification as a tribe was to have a languageÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Lumbees are concentrated in and around Lumberton, Robeson County, a poor area were folks are begging for a casino even if they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hold with gambling. But because they did as they were told and relinquished their national identity in the form of a language, they arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t entitled to anything. The most harmed, and least compensated, Lumbees now speak their own dialect of Southern English to mark themselves out from others. Walt Wolfram at NC State works very closely with Robeson County schools and community groups, and even he says that the markers are so inconsistent across the Lumbee community that anyone who self-identifies as Lumbee is accepted as being so.
More recently (1994), here in France, a law was passed, nicknamed the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœtout bonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ law, a pun on its authorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s name (Toubon) and a dig at the panglossian approach to language that it represented.
France has a long history of legislating language, making French the official language of France in 1539 (‘lÃ‚Â´Ordonnance de Villers-Cotteret’), thought by some to have the effect of outlawing regional dialects older than standard Frankish and stamping on them until they uttered a short, quiescent Ã¢â‚¬Ëœoui.Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ They still exist, but only in the way Gaelic exists in Scotland: alongside a standard, national, language. In 1635 the ‘Academie Francaise’ was established. It is basically a lot of distinguished intellectuals (read: old farts) in green jackets and it is responsible for pronouncing on high whether kids should say Ã¢â‚¬ËœhambourgeoisÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ instead of Ã¢â‚¬ËœhamburgerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ and Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcourrier electroniqueÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ instead of Ã¢â‚¬ËœemailÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ and failing miserably to stop the encroachment of English into French, especially in technology and business. French national language policy is therefore subject to planning of both the status (the ‘ordonnance’) and the corpus (the ‘academie’.)
The Ã¢â‚¬ËœLoi ToubonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ was supposed to arrest the precipitous descent of the natural language of diplomacy. It mandated that a certain percentage of all films shown at any given cinema must be in French, and likewise for a certain percentage of music on the airwaves. Aside from being a massive boon for Canadian filmmakers and musicians, this was embraced openly by the French artistic establishment. Was French cinema and French music better for this? Not necessarily, but it was more prominent, and better funded, and therefore perceived publicly as better by the simple virtue of being in FrenchÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Politicians know that the power of language is how it changes public perception. Leaving aside Mr. BlairÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s use of Tory buzzwords such as Ã¢â‚¬ËœchoiceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ and Ã¢â‚¬ËœprivateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ for a moment (although I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t resist mentioning his Old Labour parapraxis on election night: Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcomrades have fallenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢), letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s talk about my fellow woman in a world dominated by men: Hilary Clinton.
Hilary knows she will have no trouble being nominated by the Democratic Party in 2007. Her problem is November 2008 and the republicans. I mean the small Ã¢â‚¬ËœrÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ republicans, the middle Americans that voted her husband in. The people who know that sometimes women need abortions, if theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re victims of rape or in physical danger, but other than extreme circumstances theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d rather nobody were allowed to do it ever.
In January, William Saletan wrote an article in Slate on HilaryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s semantic field when talking about abortion, and how it essentially showed her positioning her party to win the abortion debate. I defer to his eloquence:
‘Does not ever have to be exercised.’ I searched Google and Nexis for parts of that sentence tonight and got no hits. Is the press corps asleep? Hillary Clinton just endorsed a goal I’ve never heard a pro-choice leader endorse. Not safe, legal, and rare. Safe, legal, and never. Once you embrace that truthÃ¢â‚¬â€that the ideal number of abortions is zeroÃ¢â‚¬â€voters open their ears.
So, from the heart of Europe, to the swamps of North Carolina, to the heights of French intellectual society, to the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, we see that while people will speak any way they please, language is so bound up with identity and thought that politics necessarily encroaches on it, often with adverse, or at least unintended, effects.
Now back to the humble British spud. It in entirely likely that nobody who uses the phrase Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcouch potatoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ actually consciously thinks of starchy tubers. However, thanks to the entirely linguistically futile, yet widely publicised, efforts of the British Potato Council to get the term banned, nobody will ever use the term again without thinking of the British Potato Council! Genius.
Think I’m wrong? Another potato-based bill, to rename French fries ‘freedom fries’ was a joke and was never going to pass, but people still talk about it, years on, as a symbol of everything that went wrong with the relationship between France and the U.S.
So watch your mouth. Or youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be talking out of your ars.