issue 191 - January 1989
Peter Stalker investigates
the dangerous world of words.
Slave traders packaged their wares carefully. They were not that concerned about the health of the merchandise; a certain amount of wastage was only to be expected. What worried them more was the survival of their ships: there was a real danger the captives might rebel and overpower the crew. Ankle leggings and nailed-down hatches performed most of the subjugation. But the intelligent trader took extra precautions.
'The safest Way,' (to avoid such rebellions) wrote William Smith in 1744, 'is to trade with different Nations, on either Side of the River, and having some of every Sort on board, there will be no more likelihood of their succeeding than of finishing the Tower of Babel.'1 If the captives could not speak the same language, reasoned the slavers, they were unlikely to organize effective opposition. The slavers knew what their slaves were about to discover - that language is a form of power. Without language human beings are cast adrift.
We all start out helpless. Babies are weak and vulnerable in the face of huge shapes and loud noises that they can only dimly perceive. The next 70 years or so are spent sorting out this confusion, deciding first what a face is and then putting a name to it in whatever language comes to hand - be it Thai or Zuni or Swahili or Spanish - or any of the other 4,000 odd languages that the world currently offers.
Human use of language is remarkably skilful. Here you are, absorbing the NI at around 14,000 words an hour. Pretty good going. Exactly how you manage it is still a matter of some dispute. Whether we get linguistic ability from our genes, or by imitating others or just from general intelligence is not known for sure. By the time we are old enough to be surprised at our own cleverness we have forgotten how we acquired it.
We certainly achieve more than other animals. A German researcher claims that the language of chickens makes use of 30 different phrases. But the average NI reader can manage more. Sometimes much more. You are likely to be using around 3,000 different words in daily speech and can probably recognize up to 50,000 others.2 Using these in different combinations the number of phrases you could cope with is almost limitless.
You will be reasonably happy with all this; you overtook even the most intelligent chickens some time ago and moved smoothly into top gear, taking a fluency in English for granted. It rarely lets you down. Every morning the world pops up and the names for everyday objects seem as suitable as ever bed, toothpaste, coffee, newspaper.
Yet language is nothing like as static as we think. It is alive and ever changing, constantly in a state of flux - and often flowing away from us. The vocabulary we have painstakingly acquired is steadily being eroded or expanded or taking on new and important meanings. Take the fairly harmless word 'job' (which used to mean a temporary task). It now has such favourable associations of secure wage-earning that we hardly bother to question it or look behind it. A proposal to increase the number of people poisoning our rivers or those producing carcinogenic substances would not be too popular. But a proposal to create jobs (in chemical or cigarette factories) causes us to shrug our shoulders and assent. And correspondingly, not to have a job is highly unfavourable so people outside paid work are considered inferior. It is almost as though the word job itself has acquired a life and purpose of its own over which we have lost control.
Some people however, are in danger of losing control not just of their words but their whole language. In recent years there have been language conflicts in Spain, Wales, India and South Africa and more recently in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia - as different ethnic groups have chosen the language they love as a rallying point. There is the potential for much more conflict. A study in 1971 found that of 132 political states only 12 were true nation-states in which everyone had the same native tongue. And in 39 of the states there was a relatively unstable position where the largest ethnic group comprised less than half the population.3
English-speakers are in a relatively privileged position - even if we do worry about the direction our language takes. There are now at least 350 million of us.4 And including second-language users as well as those less fluent there are at least a billion speakers worldwide. English is used as an official language in 60 countries and is the main language of international business - over three quarters of the world's mail is written in it.5 The only really significant inroad into the dominance of English in recent years has come from Spanish in the southern states of the US.
Much of this is a legacy of the British Empire. Many states created by colonization were left with administrative boundaries within which the colonizer's language was the only common tongue. In Africa, for example, probably only Somalia is linguistically homogeneous. However in the post-colonial era, the dominance of English has been more due to the commercial power of the United States.
Faced with mutual incomprehension on one hand and linguistic imperialism on the other, there have been many attempts to introduce a standard world language. Several hundred have been produced since the 18th century explorers brought more foreign languages into contact - and friction. The most famous is Esperanto, the invention of a Pole, Ludwig Zamenhof who first published its principles in Russian in 1887. Esperanto is Esperanto for 'hopeful'. Estimates of the number of fluent speakers vary, but there may be no more than a few hundred thousand.6
The critical problem for Esperanto, as for any other artificial language, is that it is not really worth learning until a lot of people already speak it. If you want to widen your conversational circle by 700 million or so, Mandarin Chinese is a much better bet. And to understand airport signs in as many countries as possible then French is the best prospect. It has special status in thirty countries - with Spanish next on the list at twenty. Esperanto hasn't made it anywhere yet. Zamenhof himself anticipated the problem. He invited people to sign a declaration: 'I, the undersigned, promise to learn (it) if it appears that 10 million people have given the same promise.' Ingenious but unsuccessful to date.
Meanwhile English marches on. It is the most promising 'global language' candidate, or at least the most likely to permeate other languages so thoroughly as to amount to the same thing. English words, or words which English has adopted from other tongues, seem to be forming the basis of an international vocabulary. There are few places in the world where you will not be understood if your conversation depends on words like hotel, dollar, passport, music, menu, steak, cinema or football.
The result is likely to be cultural homogeneity. As languages disappear, so do their particular views of the world. And the most distinctive languages are often the most vulnerable - those of native peoples.
European languages chop the world up into small and manageable units - often into nouns. So work, which is a general aspect of life has become a thing - a job' and aspects of nature which in reality are continuous, like time and space, are named as a collection of small items like 'minutes' of time, or 'miles' of land. And even when logically there can be no individual item we are tempted to invent one. So we say that 'it is raining' when it is not at all clear what 'it' is, or 'the wind is blowing' when wind and blowing must necessarily be the same thing. The languages of native peoples by contrast tend to take a much more holistic view of the universe - a view with which our own relatively recent conversion to a greener outlook struggles to recreate with words like 'environment'.
Some of the early researchers took a pessimistic view of what we would lose with the disappearance of native languages. US linguists Sapir and Whorf who investigated the Hopi Indian language in the 1930s believed it to be so distinctive as to represent an entirely different thought process. They found, for example, that there were no forms in Hopi which corresponded to English tenses like past, present and future. The Hopi did not seem to need any sense of time as a dimension. The 'Sapir-Whorf" hypothesis was that the Hopi and an English-speaking physicist, say, would not be able to communicate because they were thinking in entirely different ways. But they could describe the problem in English, which tends to reduce the force of the argument. And it does always appear possible to translate from one language to another even if circumlocution is required.
Nevertheless the English language seems to find it easier to talk of events rather than processes - and that is the way that we tend to talk. But do we talk this way because it is the way we think? Or are thoughts shaped by words? The connection between language and thought is difficult to unravel - thinking about thinking has perplexed philosophers for millennia. But there are strands which it is possible to follow.
Certain mental processes do not seem to use language - the emotional reaction to music, say, or the beauty of a landscape. On the other hand we do quite frequently mutter to ourselves as we try to deduce something logically - or even if we don't make a sound we often use words in our head when trying to work out a complex problem.
Where do the words come from? Generally they are passed from one generation to another. But as individuals we develop our own language as we go along. No two speakers of English (or any other language) have entirely the same vocabulary or the same pronunciation. And we will even have different sensitivities to the rules of grammar.7
And we continue to expand our vocabulary - in some cases with completely new words. A Dublin theatre manager called Daly made a bet back in 1791 that he could add a word to the language in one night. The next morning a mysterious piece of graffiti - the word 'quiz' - appeared all over the pavements and buildings of the city. Daly won his bet - and the answer to the first quiz was where the word had come from.8
Artificial names can also be applied to objects or even to countries. Pakistan, for example, is an acronym constructed from its component parts: P for the Punjab; A for Afghan border; K for Kashmir; S for Sind. The final 'istan' comes from Baluchistan.
But mostly we develop our language by analogy. Babies probably start by seeing everyone as an aspect of their mother and call them 'Mama' or something very like it. As adults we similarly cope with anything new by comparing it with something we already know about. Take the word 'shuttle'. Nowadays you are likely to think that this involves transport moving backwards and forwards. An 18th century mill-worker's wooden object zipping through a loom seems to have evolved into a vehicle of space travel.
This can hardly do much damage. No-one is likely to confuse a weaver with an astronaut. But there are many cases where the merging of meanings is subtle and we have to be on our guard. Take the word 'earn'. My dictionary has three different meanings for this. One is 'to merit through behaviour or action'. A second is 'to be paid for work or service'. A third is to be 'paid interest' on money. Two or more of these individual meanings tend, however, to be mixed whenever we use the word. Suppose you now read that 'The Chairman of General Motors earns $500,000 a year'. I would argue that the second meaning is the only appropriate one. 'Earn' in the sense of 'merit' can hardly apply for this sort of sum - yet that implication is built into the language whether we like it or not.
We are constantly faced with such hidden confusions in huge quantities. Millions of words are fired at us each day by politicians and journalists expressing their point of view, and by the advertising and public relations industries trying to sell us things. And although we might challenge their right to run our lives we often let them run our language without a murmur.
The renaming of most ministries of 'war' around the world to ministries of 'defence' is an obvious example. This has not removed the danger of war but it has certainly perverted the concept of defence - there are few defence systems which are not actually war machines. A similar loss has been the word 'peace' which is used by Eastern European countries in the most bizarre way. If you read propaganda from the German Democratic Republic the Berlin Wall is called the 'Wall of Peace'. 'Peace' is now just another kind of hostility and no-one has offered us a word for what peace used to mean. A similar fate seems to have befallen 'liberal' which in the US today is synonymous with 'left-wing' or even enemy.
When the British civil servant Sir Robert Armstrong struggled in the Spycatcher trial to deny that he had lied by claiming that he had been 'economical with the truth' he met with well-earned derision. There was an almost audible sigh of relief around the world that someone had been caught tampering with the dictionary. Most practitioners do it much more successfully.
The advertising industry is skilled in this kind of juggling. Have you tried to buy a 'small' packet of anything recently - one that was not actually marked 'standard' or 'regular' or (heaven help us) 'fun size'? We seem to be losing the word 'small' in any sense that is not pejorative. And advertisers regularly manipulate grammar as well as words. A familiar device is the floating comparative. Ford once advertised one of their cars as being '700 per cent quieter'. That sounds like a good thing. But wait a minute. 700 per cent quieter than what? Than all other cars? Than some other car? When pressed by the US Federal Trade Commission for an explanation they replied that it meant that the inside of the car was 700 per cent quieter than the outside.9
Slaves shipped to the New World lost their languages in one sudden blow. The disturbing picture on this month's front cover was taken in Haiti where the descendants of those slaves now speak a version of French.
But for most of us our native tongue is alive and constantly shifting. If your eyesight is good you might look closely at that Haitian face on the cover between the lip and the chin (just above Samuel Johnson). The phrase which begins 'WORDS' offers French writer Joseph Joubert's view of the responsibility we all share for the language we use.
1 Language - the loaded weapon, Dwight Bolinger, Longman 1980.
2 Native tongues, Charles Berlitz, Panther 1982.
3 The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, David Crystal, Cambridge University Press 1987.
4 UNESCO Statistical Yearbook 1987.
5 Crystal, op Cit.
6 The Artificial Language Movement, Andrew Large, Blackwell 1987.
7 Modern Linguistics, Neil Smith and Deirdre Wilson, Penguin 1979.
8 Berlitz, op cit.
9 Bolinger, op cit.
This special report appeared in the say write scream - language lives issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.