"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Language Police–Keep ‘Blog’ Out Of German

In an article in the New York Times (9.26.13), Anna Sauerbrey writes that the German dictionary Duden – the equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary and the accepted arbiter of what is German and what isn’t – has recently included 5000 new English words or words of English origin. This is a good thing, she says:

We Germans owe the English language a debt of gratitude. If English didn’t lend us one or two little words every once in a while, we would probably call blogs “digitale Netztagebücher” and apps “Anwendungen für mobile Endgeräte.” Even for German speakers, those don’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Not all Germans are happy, however, and many see these new Anglophone words as unwelcome intrusions and erosions of their language and culture.  Sauerbrey suggests many reasons why her countrymen are so unhappy, surprising in an age of internationalization where a multi-language environment is the rule rather than the exception and where English has become the lingua franca which unites countries as different as Poland and France.  It is this very internationalization, says Sauerbrey, which angers many older Germans, and their obstinate refusal to introduce English words is a cultural battlement.  German socio-cultural heritage is being threatened.   The implication is unspoken, but presumably the Old Guard hopes that eventually Germany will rise far beyond de facto European leadership and primus inter pares status in the EU and will rise once again to its historical supremacy - .Deutschland über alles" without National Socialism.

Worse yet, says Sauerbrey, older Germans are resentful of the younger generation who throw English words around as a status symbol.  They are prattlers and braggarts who show off their cosmopolitanism with an airy, hipster casualness. In so doing, say the Crusties, they cheapen all language, bastardize it, and pollute its purity. German will soon become a mongrel, a pound dog language with no links to the country’s historical past.

The Germans are no different than the French who have taken linguistic xenophobia to the extreme.  The French government has mandated that radio stations must devote a certain percentage of air time to French music; and that cinemas cannot show only foreign offerings.  This is as much a attempt to resist the assault of English as it is to keep out creeping American sleaze; and France has realized perhaps more than any other country, the unbreakable link between language and culture.  Whereas French language policy seems like the arrogant, defensive posturing of a second-rate power which once ruled the universe with its language and culture, it really is a defense of French history. 

A simple linguistic example illustrates the dilemma. The English word ‘software’ is a particularly American conception. It is practical, based on engineering, and is the antonym of ‘hardware’.  The French term, at least for now, is ‘logiciel’ which refers to logic, intelligence, and meaning.  In other words, the French have looked for a deeper and more sophisticated and complex meaning of the concept rather than rely on meaningless, American Silicon Valley shorthand.

The English word ‘computer’ is similarly derived from practical engineering.  The computer is the grandchild of the calculator which computed numbers.  The fact that today’s PCs and tablets rarely compute is of no consequence.  The French term for computer is ‘ordinateur’ a term which ignores engineering and practicality and reflects and understanding of the instrument as an organizational tool.  The computer no longer computes, but organizes vast amounts of data, trillions of bits and bytes into a usable system. By refusing ‘computer’ and ‘software’ the French Academy has not taken a political decision to keep America at bay, but a cultural one.  Given French intellectual history, and especially the contributions of the supreme logician, Descartes, it is not surprising that French lexicographers have used logic to search for appropriate terms and have chosen words which reflect French intellectual tradition.

Language in France is no simple matter.  It is not, as it is in America, a simple, necessary tool for communication, but a cultural expression; and defense of the French language has been the role of the State since Louis XIII.

L'Académie française is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution, it was restored in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the oldest of the five académies of the Institut de France. (Wikipedia)

                             L’Institut de France building

It is bad enough that the Germans have had to suffer the onslaughts of English.  After all, despite the efforts of the Nazis, German has never been a world language, and Germans have had to speak French and English to make themselves understood.  In the 19th century, however, France reigned supreme, and all diplomatic affairs were conducted in French.  The country enjoyed a political and cultural supremacy. The adoption of English as the world’s international language is a particularly hard pill to swallow.  Not only are the beauties, intricacies, and subtleties of French lost to the world, but the ascendancy of English means the descent of France.

France’s fight for the international linguistic equality of French (even the Institut de France has given up on supremacy)  is nothing compared to its battle for cultural and linguistic purity within its borders.  Like it or not, France is becoming more and more like America – a nation of immigrants; but unlike America, France is resisting multi-culturalism and is fighting tooth and nail to keep French pure and to homogenize all African and Arab newcomers.  There is no way to keep out Arabic, Berber, Bambara, and Wolof words just as there is no way to prevent the veil, burqa, headscarf, or niqab. Resistance is futile.

The French living in the Old Guard arrondissements of the 7th and 16th still refuse to accept the influx of immigrants and try to ignore them.  Avoid the Gare du Nord if you can, they say, the transit point for Africans coming from the Northern ‘suburbs’ (ghettos); but more and more Metro stops are filled with Algerians, Moroccans, and Malians. Eventually French will be a polyglot language, with thousands of borrowed African words.  For now, France has only to deal with English because it is a power language – the language of movies, business, finance, and politics. Africanisms may creep in via retail trade, but for now, little more. In a few decades, however, the language may be very different.

I have always felt that a country should never resist calling a foreign thing what its makers call it.  Most computing, IT, social media, and telecommunications originated in the United States, so there is no reason not to use ‘software’, ‘blog’, or ‘app’ any more than there is to create a new word for ‘pizza’, ‘pasta’, or ‘rigatoni’.

However, the French do have a point about language being the portal to cultural history.  I oppose ‘simplifying’ English spelling as George Bernard Shaw once tried to do.  English is a perversely complicated language to spell – so many homonyms, homophones, and homographs! It would be easy to spell ‘enough’ ‘enuf’; but in so doing we would lose its distant Germanic and Old English roots. Etymology is history, and once we make English a phonetic language, we lose all traces of the Norman Conquest, the influence of the Frisians, Danes, and Dutch; and the outposts of Empire.

The Chinese took a big step under Mao when it simplified its characters. Since ideographs are really gestalt images which convey complex meaning, when bits and pieces are lopped off to make them easier to remember, history and philosophy are changed.

Language has always been a socio-cultural and political affair.  I once worked in Cameroon which has French-speaking and English-speaking provinces. The lingua franca of the country is pidgin, and everyone speaks and understands it. When I suggested to the Ministry of Information that the media campaign which I was designing should be broadcast in pidgin, the suggestion was dismissed with disdain.  “Pidgin is not a language’, the Minister said, and that was that.  We had to spend ten times as much on developing programs in French, English, and five national languages.

Language is at the center of current ethnic disputes because it is the most obvious external expression of culture.  The defense of language is a defense of history and tradition.

The lesson of history, however, is that power determines language, whether it is military or economic.  Almost one billion people are native speakers of Romance languages, thanks to the Romans with tens of millions more speaking them as a second language. Right now America and English are ascendant because the US still is the world’s economic engine; but what will happen in 100 years when China is the world power and more and more transactions are carried out in Mandarin? English will not disappear, but it will no longer be the lingua franca of commerce and diplomacy.

It is probably a good thing that in two millennia all the world’s population will speak one language, for such unity will signify economic, political, and cultural parity.  But in this one-dimensional linguistic world, the most important, current, and accessible link to the past will be gone.  

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