The Spanish have a word for it ...

The purpose of language is the expression of ideas. And the expression of ideas can be a very dangerous thing. That's why despotic rulers crack down on freedom of speech. The lexicon of a language therefore delimits thinking, political or otherwise. For instance the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" or WMDs never became current until Bush and Blair desperately needed a casus belli to go to war with Iraq.

Eskimos have twenty-three different words for snow. The reason is pretty obvious; eskimos spend a lot of time hoop-la-ing in the snow, it means a helluva lot to them so that's what they want to talk about. To an eskimo our word snow probably seems awfully generic.

There's an opposite side to the equation too. Some concepts that aren't represented in certain languages. There's an account that a frustrated EU anti-corruption commissioner reckoned there was no word for integrity in Bulgarian, the veracity of this is questionable but the anecdote can still be used to demonstrate something about Bulgarians.  There's the Amazonian Piraha tribe who don't have numbers, but then they only have 300 or so speakers. Of course the need in Piraha society has never evolved to require numbers, they have 'few' 'many' and 'enough' doesn't that sound idyllic?

Now I'm lucky to have the world's most influential language as my mother tongue and I've noticed that it is curiously descriptive-poor in accounting for it's influence. The influence is down to our American cousins and I'm lamenting the fact that the english language has never given them a word all to themselves. Weve all become used to the word American or american but it has more meanings than can properly be said to be useful. It can mean a language or a people or used as an adjective, either for the continent of America or more usually the country of the United States. There is no distinction between all these meanings in english. Our language wrongfully suggests the whole continent were colonized by anglophones too. According to wikipedia George Washington even came out with this bizarre statement in his farewell address "The name of American, [...] belongs to you in your national capacity". Washington was famous for many things and being a freemason was one of them, could this linguistic anachronism be masonic?

Even the phrase United States is not specific enough. There is of course a United States of Mexico. So when ahem americans like to say their country is The United States of America I like to correct them, it is A United States of America. Doesn't quite sound so grand does it?

The spanish speaking world has none of this nonsense and why should they? Most nations of the continent of America have actually adopted an iberian tongue as their official language. So the word 'American' to refer to someone from north of the Rio Grande and south of the 49th parallel is too generic. The spanish have the wonderful word 'estadounidense' for this. It simply means of or from the United States. Why can't we have such a word? I'd like to propose it now : Unitedstatesian, I don't care how it's spelled or pronounced, it may sound odd at first but we'll all get used to it. If someone would like to coin a better word to describe this concept be my guest, but until some word any word to describe the United States is inserted into the lexicon english will be curiously descriptive-poor in this regard.

I'm inspired by George Orwell's excellent essay "Politics and the english language" . Orwell says "But if thought can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thought" . It's a recurring theme of the great man. What I think he was saying was that language can viewed as the chains of a kind of mental slavery, but the key to emancipation is in there somewhere too.

No comments:

Post a Comment