October 14th, 2008

The language litmus

Today I read a somewhat simplistic, but nonetheless sensible statement in a local newspaper, found in the user submitted comments on an article about the Austrian far-right politician Jörg Haider, who was killed last week in a one-sided car accident (read: overtaking another car at 90 mph in fog, where 45 was allowed). It is a bit hard to translate, but I’ll do my best.

A person using words like “the people”, “own identity”, “nation” and “nationalism”, “adapt” and “full” (y-t: immigration context)…, someone like that should be regarded with healthy mistrust. That is somebody looking for power. For him that is, not for you.

He does not strive for a healthy, cooperative future. He wants destruction, trouble and misery. People using those words in public speaches deserve your sceptism. It is allowed, needed. They are messing with fire.

Those people reveal themselves through their use of language. Language is important, it tells us more than we think (..) It is your ability to understand the usage of language that matters, and your right to choose. Ignore these people. It is allowed, needed. It doesn’t require rocket science.

I am sure we see the connections here.

June 29th, 2007

The ugly phrase

Ugly Phrase Conceals an Uglier Truth
Behind the US Government’s corruption of language lies a far greater perversion
by Salman Rushdie
January 9, 2006

Beyond any shadow of a doubt, the ugliest phrase to enter the English language last year was “extraordinary rendition”. To those of us who love words, this phrase’s brutalisation of meaning is an infallible signal of its intent to deceive.

“Extraordinary” is an ordinary enough adjective, but its sense is being stretched here to include more sinister meanings that your dictionary will not provide: secret; ruthless; and extrajudicial.

As for “rendition”, the English language permits four meanings: a performance; a translation; a surrender – this meaning is now considered archaic; or an “act of rendering”; which leads us to the verb “to render” among whose 17 possible meanings you will not find “to kidnap and covertly deliver an individual or individuals for interrogation to an undisclosed address in an unspecified country where torture is permitted”.

Language, too, has laws, and those laws tell us this new American usage is improper – a crime against the word. Every so often the habitual newspeak of politics throws up a term whose calculated blandness makes us shiver with fear – yes, and loathing.

“Clean words can mask dirty deeds,” The New York Times columnist William Safire wrote in 1993, in response to the arrival of another such phrase, “ethnic cleansing”.

“Final solution” is a further, even more horrible locution of this Orwellian, double-plus-ungood type. “Mortality response”, a euphemism for death by killing that I first heard during the Vietnam War, is another. This is not a pedigree of which any newborn usage should be proud.

People use such phrases to avoid using others whose meaning would be problematically over-apparent. “Ethnic cleansing” and “final solution” were ways of avoiding the word “genocide”, and to say “extraordinary rendition” is to reveal one’s squeamishness about saying “the export of torture”. However, as Cecily remarks in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, “When I see a spade, I call it a spade”, and what we have here is not simply a spade, it’s a shovel – and it’s shovelling a good deal of ordure.

Salmon Rushdie is the writer who got himself a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini, because of his book The Satanic Verses.

April 7th, 2007

The stupidity of politicians

I have written about language and about our national airport before. And about politicians. Yesterday it all came together pretty nicely (not). Background: Amsterdam Schiphol Airport is one of the largest and busiest airports in Europe. The Netherlands is one of the smallest countries. Question: What sort of travellers come to Schiphol. Let me see, dificult one, argh, 1+1=?. Ah, 2, right. Transit passengers. Bingo. A local politician from the CDA party (largest party, christian right wing) complained about the airport running their signs in some places in English only. In current populistic timeframe “we should be proud of our language”.
Mind you, we are not talking about the “Keep your passport ready” signs (those are bi-langual), but things like “Toilets” (“Toiletten” in Dutch), “Traintickets” (“Treinkaartes”, I admit, tough one),  “buses” (“Bussen”) and “Parking” (“Parkeren”). All have the internationally standardized icons to it.

Schiphol management laughed him away. They did research after complaints about lettering and it has dramatically improved since they made it all cleaner, read got rid over a lot of double indicators. Now he stated he is sorry he got into a trench-war-argument.

You gotta laugh over these guys. Until the moment you realize we pay them with our tax money and they “represent us”. Jeez.