Ars Linguae/Ars Politica

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. I’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 finally…’ to actual news, I thought I’d talk a little about language and politics, and I’m afraid it’s a long one. You see, from a descriptive linguist’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 they’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 don’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 can’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 companion’s guidebook included this little anecdote that pointed to the many coronaries in that region’s history. Over a couple of hundred years, one prominent family, named ‘Lagarde,’ were forced to change it to German for ‘guard’: ‘Wache.’ When the French took over again, it was francophoneticised (I made that word up…) to ‘Vache,’ meaning ‘cow,’ and when the Germans came marching in they changed yet again to ‘Kuh,’ the German word for ‘cow.’ When the French took over the last time, the family decided that the French pronunciation of this was too close to ‘cul’ (meaning ‘arse’) and received permission to switch back to ‘Lagarde.’

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 I’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, that’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 can’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 don’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 language…

Lumbees are concentrated in and around Lumberton, Robeson County, a poor area were folks are begging for a casino even if they don’t hold with gambling. But because they did as they were told and relinquished their national identity in the form of a language, they aren’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 ‘tout bon’ law, a pun on its author’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 (‘l´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 ‘oui.’ 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 ‘hambourgeois’ instead of ‘hamburger’ and ‘courrier electronique’ instead of ‘email’ 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 ‘Loi Toubon’ 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 French…

Politicians know that the power of language is how it changes public perception. Leaving aside Mr. Blair’s use of Tory buzzwords such as ‘choice’ and ‘private’ for a moment (although I can’t resist mentioning his Old Labour parapraxis on election night: ‘comrades have fallen’), let’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 ‘r’ republicans, the middle Americans that voted her husband in. The people who know that sometimes women need abortions, if they’re victims of rape or in physical danger, but other than extreme circumstances they’d rather nobody were allowed to do it ever.

In January, William Saletan wrote an article in Slate on Hilary’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 truth—that the ideal number of abortions is zero—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 ‘couch potato’ 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 you’ll be talking out of your ars.

  1. neil said:

    Surely the Lagarde family would have had to make all those changes to its name within the space of about 75 years – from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/1 to 1945 they’d have changed nationality four times.
    Interestingly, the Alsace was traditionally a Germanic-speaking region, although its German dialect – Elsässerditsch – which is still spoken by about half the population is dying out rapidly – with the generation that learnt it before WW2.

  2. Katie said:

    Thanks. I was quoting the guidebook (which is not mine but my companion’s) from memory and had indeed fudged the dates a bit.

    The linguistics of dialects vs standard languages aside, the political questions is, how does France cope with that decline you mention? Do they fund education programmes that teach the young some alsation? Well, they can’t, because it’s not French, and French is the official language of France. Do they expect Germany to fund the preservation (if not rejuventation), as it is a form of German? Or the franco-german TV channel arte?

    Should government even be interfering? If a language is declining, it means people don’t want to speak it anymore, for whatever reasons. That can be changed (look at the efforts of the Maori) but it’s rare….should government stop natural deaths of language? What if government created the circumstances for that death?

    Or does the EU come riding in on a white horse? And if it does, how many other regional languages out there are dying? Can you save them all? And if you try to, how many “dialects” will appear that are just accents, or group identifiers, looking for a piece of the language money pie?

    It’s difficult. You can’t walk a fine line with national language policy, it has to be all or nothing. As a descriptive linguist, I say, document the language throughly, so that when there is a resurgence of alsation pride, there is a corpus and a grammar ready to be mined. Aslation (and Breton, and Provencal, and Piedmontese, and Basque etc.) must be reborn because the locals want it to be, it can’t be imposed artifically from outside.

    Of course, the locals may have specific political aims in pressing for a resurgence, but let’s deal with that another day eh?

  3. Phil said:

    how many other regional languages out there are dying? Can you save them all? And if you try to, how many “dialects” will appear that are just accents, or group identifiers, looking for a piece of the language money pie? It’s difficult. You can’t walk a fine line with national language policy, it has to be all or nothing.

    I don’t know about the ‘all or nothing’. I think it’s worth trying (i.e. trying is a good use of public money), even with the awareness that some ‘languages’ will come to light that would be better described as ‘clump of neighbouring dialects with a line arbitrarily drawn around them by actual or would-be Community Leaders’. Even, indeed, with the awareness that (at the same time) some languages with a better claim to attention will remain un- or under-documented.

    My day job at the moment consists in part of documenting surveys. One survey, carried out in Northern Ireland, included a question about speaking Ulster Scots. At one stage the question was taken out, as the previous ‘sweep’ of the survey had found precisely nobody who claimed to speak Ulster Scots. At the next sweep, however, the question was reinstated – they’d realised that the fact that (statistically) nobody at all thinks of themself as speaking Ulster Scots is itself significant, particularly given the resources that are devoted to keeping the ‘language’ alive.

    Then again, I’ve met British Romani speakers, and I’ve never seen a question about *that* on any survey.

    How many times a day do you hear the word ‘woot’?

    I think you’ll find it’s spelt ‘w00t’. HTH.

  4. Katie said:

    Or ‘w007’…I am so not l337. I’m just waiting for someone to correct the Latin – very doubtful about my title..

  5. neil said:

    Katie, as far as I’m aware much hope is being pinned upon the Alsace being a region of Europe (on a language border where bilinguality should be encouraged), as opposed to a region of France (bear in mind I’m receiving the German point of view on this). The deliberate French policy introduced in 1945 gave way by the late 1960s and from 1972 German was taught from the 4th schoolyear onwards in Alsatian schools. And there are now apparently over 300 completely bilingual schools, but the German taught is, of course, Hochdeutsch, not Elsässerditsch – which is increasingly spoken only in the countryside. I’m not sure whether Elsässerditsch as a distinct, German dialect in France can or will survive – German will certainly continue to be spoken there, either bilingually or as a first or second language, but whether it will be Alsatian as opposed to a more standard German is much more questionable.

  6. Monjo said:

    Time they all spoke Ingleesh. I think after: space, women/sex, religion and money, language has caused more problems and wars in the world than anything else.
    if we’re going to being back dead languages we may as well bring back dead religions and dead countries. Heck with modern science we can soon clone dead people and maybe even bring back the dinosaurs.

  7. katherine said:

    Several things:
    A) how fitting that you used latin in your title, as the roman expansion is the most fitting example of language as a source of national identity. while the romans were relatively tolerant of existing religions & customs, the language of the empire was carried with equal importance to its citizenship. afterall, if the predecessors of the current french people had been so stoggy, there would be no french langauge as they would all still be speaking in latin.
    B) of note, the school now called unc-pembroke was started as an institution of higher education for the lumbees. when it was still the college of pembroke, my father graduated from there. no, my father is not a lumbee. have you heard the theory that they may be the descendants of the lost colony survivors?
    C) on abortion. it is so asinine to think in black and white. being pro-choice is exactly that, pro-choice, not pro-abortion. i can personally find it an unsuitable decision while still believing that there are circumstances other than my own in which it might be wise. that is something that pro-lifers have never understood.

  8. Katie said:

    Phil – I dunno, I’d like to see people in good schools and making a living wage before I really care what language they are being taught. Money can be put to better use. Don’t tell my thesis advisor that though.

    Neil – I share you fears.

    Monjo – True. Lots of wars. But lots of treaties too eh?

    Katherine – a) that was one of the reasons I used latin. incidentally, I say that some consider the effect of the ordonnance was to stamp out regional french languages, its INTENTION was to stamp out the use of Latin as the “standard” (read:prestige) dialect of France.
    b) I knew about pembroke. My point is, if your dad wanted, he could say he was lumbee, pick up a few words, and he’d be welcomed into their midst. I have heard that theory, but about six other unique language communities claim that too. People just want to be special I guess.
    c) My comment was not on the abortion debate but on the way language and sophistry is increasing used to influence voters to think what you want them to think by using what they already think. That was a bit rumsfeldian eh?

  9. David Beattie said:

    Can’t help but think that the French are the only country ( not area but country as a whole) who are determined to keep their traditions, language etc etc as clear as possible from cross-contamination.For example, in the UK now, the so called “British Citizenship” test you have to take does not include any history, tradition or anything else, but simply a test on your “rights” to claim benefit, complain about Police harrassment and so on.
    Being British is quite different, in my view, as the Brits (NOT the lager louts) are known for being the silent majority, who, when you step on THEIR toes by mistake, will cast their eyes down and mutter “sorry”

  10. Language-wise, I can’t recommend Nicholas Ostler’s “Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World” highly enough. Superb stuff – basically showing how apeshit mentally illogical the rise and fall of various languages from Sumerian/Hittite etc. to the present has been.

  11. David B: do you mean questions like this…

    1. “The origins of our Parliament were in the early Middle Ages. In 1215 the great barons forced rights from a tyrannical King John”. What is that document called?

    2. “Life in the UK” [the citizenship guide] explains what to do if you spill someone’s pint in the pub (we’re not making this up). What, according to the book, usually happens next?

    3. There are four national saints’ days in the UK, one for each nation. Which order do they fall in the calendar?

    4. The British are a nation of animal lovers, says “Life in the UK”. What must dog owners do?

    Couldn’t find any questions about your “rights” to claim benefit or police harassment, though. What a surprise.

  12. dearieme said:

    “The origins of our Parliament were in the early Middle Ages. In 1215 the great barons forced rights from a tyrannical King John”. A bit of confusion here. The oldest continuing parliament in these islands (but outside the UK) is that of the Isle of Man, I’d guess. The first gathering of a King’s advisers (in these islands) actually called “Parliament” was Scottish, not English. The great barons referred to were English barons, which means that they were all French (in 1215). Do such intricacies get explained to our new citizens or is it all at this Primary-school-England-only level of muddle?

  13. Katie said:

    David – The lager louts are British too. Any pretense otherwise is pure snobbery. I don’t like the lager louts, I complain constantly about the lager louts, hell, I partly live abroad because of the society the lager louts have made, but they’re British too, and it’s still my country, and they’re still my compatriots. Some of my best friends are lager louts.

    Jarndyce – I’m curious about question 4…What *are* we supposed to do?

    Nosemonkey – Yes, I’ve been reading every review of that work and it is on the Christmas list. I am in a position where I have to wait for books to make it to the library I am afraid.

    Historical linguistics is, as you say, apeshit, not nice little chronological, systematic, trees. The history of language is like a tiny room full of really messed up teenagers, with all the different bits growing at different rates and some bits being more pronounced and well, hairy, than others. But from where we’re looking, at the latest stages of the growing process, all the painful, awkward, messy stages look like like they were destined to become the relatively normal people standing in front of you today, rich and varied and identifiable. Of course, they’re about to change all over again, but once they have we’ll see why and how, although we could never have predicted it before. Bit like, ooh, wait, what’s that word, tip of my tongue? evolution?

  14. KathyF said:

    Wow, they should let women blog here more often. It really improves the discourse.

    While I’ve got an actual linguist on the line, what’s your take on the flap over the meaning of the word “fixed” in the Downing Street Memo? I just read that on a MSNBC special on the memo yet another apologist for the administration is maintaining the Brits interpret it differently, as did Condi Rice the other day. This is rapidly becoming the party line. Any thoughts?

  15. Katherine, regarding your point about Latin: it became the day-to-day language in the western half of the Empire, but in the east it didn’t rreplace Greek, which persists to this day. I wonder why not?

  16. Katie said:

    Phil – Like the New Yorkers and Bostonians imitating the British accent, could it be because, despite kicking their butt, the Romans continued to have an (imaginary) chip on their shoulder about how culturally superior the Greeks were. A British accent still takes you far in American society. Maybe the ability to speak Greek was still considered “classy”? I am just guessing though.

    Kathyf – DSM, as my friends in the States call it, has indeed caused a flap in America, but also in the British community over there. I know the office of the house judiciary committee had a ton of phone calls from Brits in the States saying, ‘yeah “fixed around” in British english, we’d call that “sexed up.”‘ Justin over at Chicken Yoghurt is quite rightly asking why Brits in Britain aren’t more worked up about it. Low expectations of our leaders (and of ourselves) to blame.

    I have been asked to caveat that Hilary’s nomination will be difficult, because the Dem party knows she is the anti-christ to the GOP, and the centrists that nominated Kerry still hold sway, insisting that moving to the centre, not the left, is the key to winning in 2008. I knew this (and disagree), but the article was quite long enough already and one sentence is better than three.

    I have also been told that I could have said the whole thing in one paragraph if I had a good editor. To that I say, according to Tim’s theory I could have said it in two sentences. So here goes:

    1) Language defines who we are
    2) Until someone decides to use it to manipulate you. And then they define who you are.

    But then, I’m a blogger and a frightful egomaniac. “Bleeding edge of vanity publishing” and all that.

  17. Monjo said:

    So there’s a Katie, a KathyF and a Katherine all in one thread, no wonder there’s great discourse.

    “Discourse is great.”, said the Caribbean man.
    “And so is diss one.”, replied his wife tucking into her roast duck.

    Katie/Phil: Greek/Latin. It was not just the Greek language that survived but also a distinct European divide between Orthodox and Catholic Christianity. Whilst Western European languages use the Latin alphabet, the actual language never spread as it was essentially reserved for the Church. Which is why Latin is about as dead as the dodo.

  18. KathyF said:

    I’ve been wondering that too, (why Brits aren’t more worked up about it) but on the other hand, people here are more worked up about Africa. Most Americans still think it’s one country.

    Maybe there’s only one working-up allowed at a time.

  19. Phil E said:

    I’ve been wondering that too, (why Brits aren’t more worked up about it)

    The Downing Street Memo? I think the main reason is that the election’s over. Some equally damning stuff came out in the run-up to the election & got a lot of people very worked up indeed. But we’ve made the point now (i.e. Labour’s got a much smaller majority) and the government’s listened and learnt (i.e. the majority’s still big enough for them to ignore us completely), so we’ve wound up Moving On and Drawing A Line. Unfortunately.

    Incidentally, “fixed around the policy” seems pretty clear to me – but then, I’m English. I’d paraphrase as ‘rigged/doctored/massaged to fit the policy’.

  20. Katie said:

    Actually, if we’re talking about political language, I would like to recommend a book, called “The Future Dictionary of America” * written by a bunch of hip young leftie writers, edited at awesome, awesome McSweeneys, and cover art by the superlative Chris Ware.

    Whether you agree with their world view or not, it is very amusing. It projects what words will have appeared in English in the future, not a precise date, more something between 2010 and 2070. All the proceeds are donated to MoveOn though, which is surely some kind of statement on the inextricability of language and political action.

    *Of course, I don’t actually own a copy, I just lurk in the back of WH Smiths (yes, there’s one in Paris) and thumb through their copy, giggling maniacally, like an underage pervert behind the red velvet curtain in the local video shop.