April 10, 2014

Policing the language, German style

Filed under: Europe, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:24

Matthias Heitmann on the odd things that happen to avoid any hint of Nazi contamination in allowable letter combinations on license plates and to mandate equal gender presence in job titles and place names:

In Germany today, you see, there is a palpable desire to cleanse society of views officially deemed unacceptable or politically incorrect. This is most obvious when it comes to words or views associated with fascism or the far right. It’s likely that even the most liberal of Germans would oppose the right of members of the right-wing National Democratic Party to voice their strange views in public. Indeed, having embarrassingly failed to ban the party in 2003, the federal government is currently trying to outlaw the party once again. Anyone attempting to defend free speech or freedom of association in this context will find themselves accused of being a fascist sympathiser, an apologist or, even worse, disrespecting victims of the Holocaust and their descendants.

The popular fear of being accused of being a Nazi sympathiser has resulted in some strange regulations. Since the 1980s, for instance, the letter combinations ‘NS’, ‘KZ’, ‘SS’, ‘SA’ or ‘HJ’, which all potentially allude to fascist symbols or institutions, have been banned from use on car licence plates. In the past few months, there has been a heated debate about whether letter or number combinations like ‘HH’ or ‘88’ (which both allude to ‘Heil Hitler’), ‘18’ (meaning ‘Adolf Hitler’), 204 (meaning Hitler’s birthday) or even ‘GV’ (which is short for sexual intercourse) should be banned from licence plates, too. This poses something of a problem for Hamburg car owners, whose licence plates all start with ‘HH’.


It’s not only on the traditional minefield of racism and fascism that free speech has suffered in Germany. Free speech has also been knocked about by feminists, too, with their determination to impose new language and behaviour regulations. Last summer, for instance, the University of Leipzig announced plans to address its staff using only the feminine forms of words. ‘Professorin’ is due to replace older formulations like ‘Professorinnen und Professoren’ or ‘Professor/innen’. Schröder, meanwhile, admitted during a recent interview that not even the Bible is immune from linguistic tinkering. When talking to girls, for instance, the masculine ‘der Gott’ could simply become the neutral ‘das Gott’.

Interestingly, when feminist language control clashes with anti-fascist dogma, feminism seems to prevail. In the German capital, Berlin, a local parliament, heavily dominated by green and left-wing politicians, voted against naming a square in front of the Jewish Museum after the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. This decision was made on the grounds that as Mendelssohn was a man, he would break the rule established in 2005 to only name streets and squares after women. This was deemed necessary in order to achieve sexual equality on the city map. As a compromise, the local parliament used Mendelssohn wife’s name alongside his own, creating ‘Moses-und-Fromet-Mendelssohn-Platz’. Although Fromet wasn’t a historic figure, she at least was a woman.

March 22, 2014

The “narrative”

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:10

Wilfred McClay noticed the increasing use of the term “narrative” over the last few years:

We have this term now in circulation: “the narrative.” It is one of those somewhat pretentious academic terms that has wormed its way into common speech, like “gender” or “significant other,” bringing hidden freight along with it. Everywhere you look, you find it being used, and by all kinds of people. Elite journalists, who are likely to be products of university life rather than years of shoe-leather reporting, are perhaps the most likely to employ it, as a way of indicating their intellectual sophistication. But conservative populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as likely to use it too. Why is that so? What does this development mean?

I think the answer is clear. The ever more common use of “narrative” signifies the widespread and growing skepticism about any and all of the general accounts of events that have been, and are being, provided to us. We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief — nothing so robust as relativism, but instead something more like a sustained “whatever” — and the word “narrative” provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth. Narratives are understood to be “constructed,” and it is assumed that their construction involves conscious or unconscious elements of selectivity — acts of suppression, inflation, and substitution, all meant to fashion the sequencing and coloration of events into an instrument that conveys what the narrator wants us to see and believe.

These days, even your garage mechanic is likely to speak of the White House narrative, the mainstream-media narrative, and indicate an awareness that political leaders try to influence the interpretation of events at a given time, or seek to “change the narrative” when things are not turning out so well for them and there is a strongly felt need to change the subject. The language of “narrative” has become a common way of talking about such things.

One can regret the corrosive side effects of such skepticism, but there are good reasons for it. Halfway through the first quarter of the 21st century, we find ourselves saddled with accounts of our nation’s past, and of the trajectory of American history, that are demonstrably suspect, and disabling in their effects. There is a view of America as an exceptionally guilty nation, the product of a poisonous mixture of territorial rapacity emboldened by racism, violence, and chauvinistic religious conviction, an exploiter of natural resources and despoiler of natural beauty and order such as the planet has never seen. Coexisting with that dire view is a similarly exaggerated Whiggish progressivism, in which all of history is seen as a struggle toward the greater and greater liberation of the individual, and the greater and greater integration of all governance in larger and larger units, administered by cadres of experts actuated by the public interest and by a highly developed sense of justice. The arc of history bends toward the latter view, although its progress is impeded by the malign effects of the former one.

March 20, 2014

My mondegreens make more sense than your lyrics

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:59

Kevin Dettmar discusses the best form of mondegreen: the kind that makes more sense (to the listener anyway) than the actual lyrics being slurred or mumbled or bellowed by the lead singer:

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the important role that misunderstood lyrics play in the way rock music works. The problem is especially pointed in the case of the post-punk Gang of Four because they saw much of their music as a political intervention in the events of their day (the late 70s through the early 80s). But how can rock really “rage against the machine” if no one’s quite sure what it’s saying? What can it mean that a band that put a great deal of emphasis on its songwriting — pop songs as political theory — actively resisted making that theory more intelligible? Resisted to the degree that even smart and sympathetic critics have sometimes badly misread the work?

One answer involves taking the “mondegreen” seriously.

For better or worse, we seem to be stuck with the term that was coined in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, in a piece in Harper’s Magazine. That the word is about the same age as rock and roll itself is a fitting coincidence. In her mother’s recitation of the ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Murray,” Wright as a child misheard the phrase “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen” and wove a coherent narrative around the mistake, or “mondegreen.”


My mistake, trivial in itself, does suggest something important about the capacity of rock music (in which marginal intelligibility is not just an accident but rather a constitutive element) to do significant political work. For my misreading, I’d suggest, wasn’t random free association. In important, if largely subconscious and unconscious ways, what I understood of the lyrics, and the politics of the sound of the song itself, conditioned me to fill in the blanks in my understanding from among a fairly limited range of possibilities.

In music as powerful as this — and for a listener as powerfully in its thrall as I was, as I am — the mumbly bits actually provide moments where I can become co-creator of this aggressive, political music along with the band. And that, I would submit, is powerful political pedagogy. The songs on Entertainment! don’t teach me what to think: They teach me how to think. The proof is in my mondegreens.

My mishearing the line wasn’t simply an error, then — or if an error, it was a productive one. Sylvia Wright insisted that “the point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens … is that they are better than the original.” Dave Marsh maintains that his lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are better than Cobain’s. What I heard at the end of “Ether” may not have been what King and Gill meant; but having my interpretation revealed through my misreadings tells me something about where my mind prefers to go. And that is precisely the work of ideological critique. “Ether” taught me not, or not only, about Gang of Four’s politics: More powerfully, it also taught me about my own.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link. She also included a brilliant little music video to illustrate the point:

March 18, 2014

QotD: OED updated again

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

This month’s update to the Oxford Dictionary includes the words ‘c**ted’, ‘c**ting’, ‘c**tish’ and ‘c**ty’. The expletives now join the list of 750,000 English words defined by the dictionary. ‘Twerk’ and ‘Selfie’ were added at the last update.

Along with the ‘c**ty’, the words ‘Old Etonian’, ‘Rt. Hon.’ and ‘Right Honourable’ have also been included for the first time, although the choices are believed to be unrelated.

Andre Walker, “Official: Oxford Dictionary Says You Can Get ‘C**ted’ and ‘Twerk’”, Breitbart.com, 2014-03-17

March 14, 2014

Accented gibberish

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: — Nicholas Russon @ 12:56

H/T to Richard Gray who says “Unless you have a good grasp of languages, it can be hard to grasp the words when listening to someone from another country speak. But have you ever thought about how you might sound to them?”

February 27, 2014

OQLF now monitoring social media for language

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

No, not coarse language … the English language:

The agency in charge of enforcing the primacy of the French language in Quebec apparently has a new target — social media.

Eva Cooper, the owner of a small retail boutique in Chelsea, Que., has been notified by the language agency that if she doesn’t translate the shop’s Facebook page into French, she will face an injunction that will carry consequences such as a fine.

“Ultimately, to me, Facebook has nothing to do with Quebec,” said Cooper, who uses the social media site to inform customers of new products in her boutique north of Ottawa. The shop — Delilah in the Parc — has an all-bilingual staff of fewer than 10 people.

“I’m happy to mix it up, but I’m not going to do every post half in French, half in English. I think that that defeats the whole purpose of Facebook,” said Cooper, who has requested the agency send her their demands in English.

Cooper’s case represents a new frontier for the language agency, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF). The agency says probes of social media complaints, which started only recently, are “not frequent.”

February 26, 2014

Sometimes a direct translation fails to convey the exact meaning

Filed under: Britain, Business, Europe — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 17:42

Especially if the speaker is British and the listener is Dutch:

Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide

Facebook‘s 58th gender and the (in)flexibility of language

Filed under: Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:04

Chrissie Daz discusses the rise of the “third gender” (should that be 58th?) and earlier attempts to make language conform to an idealized view of how life should be, as opposed to how it is:

The legal recognition [in passports and other legal documents] of intersex people and others who cannot properly be said to be either male or female is probably a good idea, but this should not impact upon the vast majority of people who have no problem living in a binary-gendered world or using binary-gendered language.

History is replete with failed attempts to re-invent or modify language, from Esperanto to the feminist PC language of the Eighties. But this campaign to institute a third sex in language and law may well prove to be the most unstable project yet. The ever-changing and ever-expanding taxonomy of words and identities aimed at respecting difference among transsexuals, always seems to cause undue offence among transsexuals themselves. To use the word transsexual, for instance, as a noun (rather than as an adjective) is said, by some, to diminish a person’s identity down to a single trait. The very term transsexual has been replaced, first by transgendered (to assert that fact that it is about gender not sexuality) and now by Trans*. The capital ‘T’ is obligatory and the asterisk is meant to represent inclusivity. Apparently, to simply call someone ‘Trans’ implicitly denigrates the experiences of cross-dressers and gender-queer folk who are not intent upon making a full transition from one gender to the other.

Amid all the offence being taken over these linguistic acrobatics, the one thing trans campaigners, and now Facebook, fail to realise is that language does not respond well to being artificially manipulated. As Wittgenstein once remarked, language is like a toolbox, you use the best tool available for the job in hand. With general use, over time, words and their meanings change to reflect changing forms of social consciousness. It is not the other way around. Any attempt to force language to respond to the presumed delicate sensitivities of marginal groups not only underlines and reifies these presumed vulnerabilities, it also undermines the responsiveness of language to real experience.

February 25, 2014

QotD: The power of the right accent

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:57

We assign 20 extra IQ points to anyone who speaks with a British accent, redistributing them from the people who speak with Southern accents.

Dave Weigel, “Shut Up, Piers: Thank goodness Piers Morgan Live is dead. Finally.”, Slate, 2014-02-24

Next on Quebec’s language hit-list – getting rid of “Bonjour-Hi”

Filed under: Cancon, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:48

The Anglos in Quebec will be facing tougher language laws if (when) the Parti Québécois wins a majority in the next provincial election:

Speaking to business leaders, Diane De Courcy vowed to halt Quebec’s “unacceptable slide” into institutional bilingualism — in Montreal and across the province.

A PQ majority government would make it a priority to bring back Bill 14 and to stamp out examples of creeping bilingualism like sales staff who greet customers with “Bonjour-Hi,” she said at a day-long conference on francization programs held by the Conseil du patronat.

“Montreal is not a bilingual city. Quebec is not a bilingual Quebec,” De Courcy said to reporters after her speech.

Last year, the government decided not to push for adoption of Bill 14, strengthening Quebec’s French Language Charter, because of a lack of support from opposition parties. The wide-ranging bill would extend Bill 101 rules for large businesses to smaller companies with between 25 and 50 employees, and toughen up aspects of the language law on access to English education and bilingual municipalities.


Employees who deal with the public must be able to address customers correctly in French, “not like what we have right now in downtown Montreal, and not only in Montreal, which is ‘Bonjour-Hi,’” De Courcy said.

De Courcy said she thinks it’s great if individuals want to learn different languages like English, Spanish, Mandarin or Arabic in their private lives, but institutions and businesses must function strictly in French.

“There is a difference with what is institutional and it must be without mercy,” she said.

December 17, 2013

The purity of Quebec’s linguistic environment must be protected at all costs!

Filed under: Cancon, Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:29

How dare these linguistic wreckers think they can subvert the official language laws by speaking another language to each other?

Two Montreal hospital workers of Haitian origin who sometimes speak to each other in Creole — and not exclusively in French — have raised the ire of the Office québécois de la langue française.

On Dec. 3, the OQLF warned the Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies, an 88-bed psychiatric facility, to take action after an employee of the hospital complained to the French-language watchdog about the two workers.

The hospital was given until Dec. 20 to respond or face an investigation by an OQLF inspector and a fine of as much as $20,000. The two employees in question do speak French, and there appears to be no evidence that they refused to speak to patients or co-workers in French. But on occasion, they engaged in private conversations in Creole while on lunch or during some shifts in the presence of colleagues and patients.

On Dec. 10, the east-end hospital held a meeting of all the employees in the department where the two Creole-speaking workers are assigned, and reminded everyone that French is the official language of the workplace in Quebec, not Creole.


The Charter of the French Language, adopted in 1977, states that French is the sole official language of Quebec. What’s more, the charter enshrines the right of every Quebecer to be served in French, and that “workers have a right to carry on their activities in French.”

However, the law does not prohibit workers in the public sector from engaging in a private conversation other than French while on the job.

Even if a conversation between two public-sector employees “is related to work,” they can still speak in another language as long as their exchange does not involve colleagues who don’t understand what they’re saying, Le Blanc explained.

Gagnon, who is also the hospital’s liaison with the OQLF, said the government agency did not provide her with the precise circumstances of the complaint.

“We’re in a very difficult position,” she added. “It’s a very particular situation, because we don’t know the name of the person who made the complaint, we don’t know the circumstances, we don’t know the moment that the employees spoke to each other in Creole, but we have an obligation to act because we received a (letter) from the Office.

December 14, 2013

QotD: Defining “fairness”

Filed under: Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:50

Is there a way that we can explain supporting Medicare while cutting Medicaid, Social Security but not welfare checks, farm subsidies but not food stamps? For readers of Jonathan Haidt’s amazing book, The Righteous Mind, the answer should be “yes.” It lies in reciprocity. You’ll find an extensive discussion of this in my forthcoming book (she mentioned casually), but for now let’s concentrate on Haidt.

Jonathan Haidt’s original research led him to divide our moral intuitions into five groups, one of which was “fairness.” But when he wrote that liberals cared more about fairness than conservatives, he received an outpouring of vitriol from conservatives. They cared a lot about fairness, they protested — and they thought it was very unfair for people to be able to live without working. Haidt realized he was dealing with two very different conceptions of fairness: one of which had to do with equality, and the other of which had to do with reciprocity. “Fair” is a complicated word that appears unique to English (for more on its dizzying strangeness, I suggest you read economist Bart Wilson’s piece, edited by me, from several years back). Different groups have invested it with very different meanings, which can make it hard to see how your political opponents can possibly believe what they do.

Megan McArdle, “How Republicans Justify Cutting Food Stamps While Boosting Farm Subsidies”, Bloomberg.com, 2013-09-23

November 23, 2013

The linguistic citadel under siege – Oxford and the selfie

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:12

Tom Slater thinks it’s time we had a quiet word with the good folks who produce the Oxford Dictionaries:

What this year’s Word of the Year — indeed, the mere existence of this nine-year-old award — reveals is something equally as toxic: the cult of relativism that is laying siege to modern culture.

In recent years, a sentiment has emerged that the concept of ‘proper’ English as something precious which needs to be upheld and protected is painfully old hat, if not vaguely authoritarian. Those who speak out about the youth’s poor grasp of grammar or increasing ineloquence are deemed snobby, elitist and unduly judgemental. Even as universities continue to complain about undergraduates’ increasingly feeble grasp of the English language, many academics have said we should just give up. ‘Either we go on beating ourselves and our students up over this problem or we simply give everyone a break’, argued one such professor.

The reluctance to defend the English language against the whims of slang and contemporary standards of literacy is always garbed as a freewheeling acceptance that language is always changing, and the idea that enforcing standards only replicates a kind of linguistic class divide: placing well-spoken aristocrats on one side and slang-spouting serfs on the other. But in truth, this relativism about English belies a crisis of judgement in an elite riddled with class guilt. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out previously on spiked, the outcome of all of this is that children, especially the poorest, are prohibited from mastering a language in its full richness, the mechanism by which they can best engage with society and, more importantly, change it.

Oxford Dictionaries’ celebration of a glorified slang word, that few people had even heard of a year ago, represents another strange development in this trend. Over the course of its nine-year run, the Word of the Year award itself has become little more than an exercise in dictionary compilers ingratiating themselves with the youth. The award seems to have begun life in the form of Susie Dent’s 2004 book, Larpers and Shroomers: The Language Report. Published by Oxford University Press, it offered a potted history of buzzwords, some of which had faded from use while others had established themselves in the everyday lexicon.

November 17, 2013

The Anglosphere

Filed under: Britain, History, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:27

In the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Hannan discusses exceptionalism and the Anglosphere:

We often use the word “Western” as a shorthand for liberal-democratic values, but we’re really being polite. What we mean is countries that have adopted the Anglo-American system of government. The spread of “Western” values was, in truth, a series of military victories by the Anglosphere.

I realize that all this might seem strange to American readers. Am I not diluting the uniqueness of the U.S., the world’s only propositional state, by lumping it in with the rest of the Anglosphere? Wasn’t the republic founded in a violent rejection of the British Empire? Didn’t Paul Revere rouse a nation with his cry of “the British are coming”?

Actually, no. That would have been a remarkably odd thing to yell at a Massachusetts population that had never considered itself anything other than British (what the plucky Boston silversmith actually shouted was “The regulars are coming out!”). The American Founders were arguing not for the rejection but for the assertion of what they took to be their birthright as Englishmen. They were revolutionaries in the 18th-century sense of the word, whereby a revolution was understood to be a complete turn of the wheel: a setting upright of that which had been placed on its head.


There was a fashion for florid prose in the 18th century, but the second American president, John Adams, wasn’t exaggerating when he identified the Anglosphere’s beautiful, anomalous legal system — which today covers most English-speaking countries plus Israel, almost an honorary member of the club, alongside the Netherlands and the Nordic countries — as the ultimate guarantor of freedom: “The liberty, the unalienable, indefeasible rights of men, the honor and dignity of human nature… and the universal happiness of individuals, were never so skillfully and successfully consulted as in that most excellent monument of human art, the common law of England.”

Freedom under the law is a portable commodity, passed on through intellectual exchange rather than gene flow. Anyone can benefit from constitutional liberty simply by adopting the right institutions and the cultural assumptions that go with them. The Anglosphere is why Bermuda is not Haiti, why Singapore is not Indonesia, why Hong Kong is not China — and, for that matter, not Macau. As the distinguished Indian writer Madhav Das Nalapat, holder of the Unesco Peace Chair, puts it, the Anglosphere is defined not by racial affinity but “by the blood of the mind.”

At a time when most countries defined citizenship by ancestry, Britain was unusual in developing a civil rather than an ethnic nationality. The U.S., as so often, distilled and intensified a tendency that had been present in Great Britain, explicitly defining itself as a creedal polity: Anyone can become American simply by signing up to the values inherent in the Constitution.

November 14, 2013

Scientific facts and theories

Filed under: Environment, Science, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

Christopher Taylor wants to help you avoid mis-using the word “fact” when you’re talking about “theories”:

These days, criticizing or questioning statements on science can get you called an idiot or even a heretic; science has become a matter of religious faith for some. If a scientist said it, they believe it, and that’s that. Yet the very nature about science is not to be an authoritative voice, but a method of inquiry; science is about asking questions and wondering if something is valid and factual, not a system of producing absolute statements of unquestioned truth.

It is true that people need that source of truth and it is true that we’re all inescapably religious creatures, so that will find an outlet somewhere. Science just isn’t the proper outlet for it.


The problem is that there’s no way to test or confirm this theory [plate tectonics]. You can make a model and see it work, you can check out types of rock and examine fault lines, and you can make measurements, but that’s only going to tell you small portions of information in very limited time frames. Because the earth is so huge, and because there are so very many different pressures and influences on everything on a planet, you can’t be sure without observation over time.

And since the theory posits that it would take millions of years to really demonstrate this to be true, humanity cannot test it enough to be certain. So all we’re left with is a scientific theory: a functional method of interpreting data. In other words, it cannot be properly or accurately describe as fact.

This is true about other areas. The word “fact” is thrown around so casually with science and is defended angrily by people who really ought to know better. Cosmology does this a lot. Its a fact that the universe is expanding from an unknown central explosive point (although there is a fair amount of data that’s throwing this into question). We can’t know because we can’t have enough data and there hasn’t been long enough to really test this.

Michael Crichton’s criticism of global warming was along these lines. He didn’t deny anything, he just said its too big and complex a system that we understand far too little about to even attempt to make any absolute or authoritative statements about it. Science has gotten us far beyond our ability to properly measure or interpret the data at hand, but some still keep trying to make absolute statements anyway.


And that’s the heart of a scientific theory. It isn’t like a geometric theorem (a statement or formula that can be deduced from the axioms of a formal system by means of its rules of inference), or a theory that Sherlock Holmes might develop (a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural). A scientific theory is a system of interpreting data (a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena). It’s a step beyond a hypothesis, which is simply speculation or a guess, but is not proven fact.

Confusing theory with fact is really not excusable for an educated person, but some theories are so wedded to worldviews and hopes that they become a matter of argument and even rage. Questioning that theory means you’re an idiot, uneducated, worthless. If you doubt this theory, you’re clearly someone who is wrong about everything and should be totally ignored in life, even showered with contempt.

For all its rich vocabulary, English fails to correctly differentiate among the various uses of the word “theory”, which allows propagandists and outright frauds to confuse the issues and obscure the difference between what science can say about an issue and what believers desperately want to be true.

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