Monthly Archives: November 2007

Language for Strategy or Culture?

In my last post, I was applauding the students of Bowdoin for asking for classes in Arabic (and also Swahili). This of course got me to thinking about “strategic” languages and sociolinguistics…which is always worthy of another post.
One group who is very much interested in Arabic language instruction is of course the U.S. defense forces and diplomatic corps. Yes folks, they DO want to (legally) spy on Middle Eastern terrorists and figure out what they are up to. I confess that I don’t have an ethical problem with this, but I do remember that in another forum, a colleague was objecting to the fact that the linguistic community would answer questions for someone in the military.
I think his concern was that the military is learning Arabic solely for the purpose of detecting and destroying terrorist cells and that they would miss learning about positive aspects of Arabic culture. Although I understand this point of view, I will be optimistic (rare for me) and say that when you learn another language, even if it’s for “defense” you will be forced to face the values and literature of that culture.
Based on what I’ve seen, learning a language for the military isn’t just about listening to terrorist activity. It’s also about negotiating with local leaders and learning to work with people willing to cooperate with your side. You have to understand the other culture to be a more effective negotiater. For some people, learning another language is also about living there, eating the local food, seeing the local architecture and learning the local literature. Most people who go to another country are usually positively affected by the local culture, even if they had no idea of what they were getting into in the first place.
So even though some people may be learning Arabic solely to “protect their country”, in the long run, these people may be the ones to help us bridge the gap for a truly peaceful co-existence. The worst thing the military could do is to force everyone to interact in English! Ironically, returning vets from another country have been the source cross-cultural pollination. The crusaders exposed Europe to a lot of Middle Eastern innovation and today’s interest in Japanese culture is partly based on what vets experienced in post-war Japan. Go figure.
P.S. From a purely strategic point of view, any language which has a large number of speakers, a politically volatile past or proximity to scarce resources (oil, nukes, diamonds, etc) is worth investing in…because you never know where the next hot spot will be. Back when Yugoslavia was still a country, an ROTC classmate chose to focus on Serbo-Croatian because it was a “strategic” language, yet the country was relatively “stable”. Of course, that all changed in the 90s, but it was a good thing the military did have some experts to call upon.

Bowdoin Students Demand Arabic Instruction

I’m not sure of the particulars, but it looks like the Bowdoin Student Government passed two resolutions asking the administration to begin Arabic language instructions. Part of one bill says, “it is the opinion of BSG that the Academic Affairs division of the College should address these requests for the teaching of Arabic.”
Obviously I’m impressed that the student body is pushing their administration in their desire to expand the range of languages taught. And no matter what your political views are, I would hope most people realize that knowledge of Arabic today is as important to U.S. policy as Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, French and other world languages.
And while we’re at it, we shouldn’t forget Persian (Iran), Kurdish (Northern Iraq) and Urdu (Pakistan) either – I think we really do want to try to understand what’s going on in these regions as well.

Spelling the “N-Bomb”

The Penn State Daily Collegian has a nice article on the new album by hip-hop artist Nas, titled, yes Nigger (now washing mouth with soap).
The use of the N-bomb in hip-hop is not news, but today I noticed am interesting trend in spelling. If you take a look at the album titles at the bottom, you’ll notice that the earliest ones in the 90’s are all spelled Nigga which is an approximation of the AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) pronunciation which drops final /r/. As we would say in the academic ‘hood, AAVE is a “non-rhotic” form like British English, Yew Yorker English and Southern English.
Apparently this -ga spelling was chosen as “less-threatening”, which I find amusing. Trust me, it’s the same word with or without the final /r/. But it shows the power of conventional spelling has over the minds of the speakers. Somehow changing the spelling (to one a little more phonetically accurate at that) makes the word “less real” or at least “less official.”
About the only true linguistic spin I can put on this is that the AAVE use of the term is not the same as the white usage. The former can be semi-affectionate while the white usage is pretty much 100% derogatory. But let me tell you…I think this one is stretch.
I’ll note that by 2000, we were able to accept standard English “nigger” (spitting mouth out again). The real choice NAS had was whether to use AAVE -ga or standard -ger. But is this truly a victory for proper spelling?
Beyond the issue of whether we are trapped by the N-bomb, I can definitively say we are still trapped by the fallacy that AAVE is not a valid language. It is only when the standard (white) pronunciation is used that we achieve full social outrage. The use of the phonetically accurate, but non-standard -ga form is not seen as fully legitimate (hence the slightly less outrage). So I leave this issue with a truly multi-layered sigh (accompanied by a good chuckle).


NAS and others have commented their usage of the word is an attempt to reclaim it and render it harmless by repeated exposure, and I can see their point. For instance, “Yankee” started out as an insult, but is now used with pride by modern Yankees. Although I had to point out to a foreigner that it was in fact a compliment these days, and not really all that derogatory anymore.
On the other hand, my earliest memories of the N-word are from rural Maryland where it was used by whites and was about as mean as you could make it (once there was a barking dog involved). I will always have this awful association, and I’m not even African American! You can’t blame people for getting riled up by this.

A Subjunctive in the Wild

I had a real grammar geek moment last week while I was listening to the Spanglish language Pacha Massive album (yes they really mix Spanish and English).
The moment was…I heard a Spanish subjunctive verb in the lyrics (dondequiera que estés) which rhymed with distrés. Unfortunately, my Spanish is still only good enough for picking up phrases, but I was still excited to hear that the subjunctive is still around somewhere.
The subjunctive is one of those verb forms that seem pretty arcane to most English speakers. For an English speaker, it seems odd that you have to learn yet another set of verb forms just to indicate “maybe or maybe not”. It doesn’t help that in many European languages including English, Welsh and others, the subjunctive is usually “dying out.”
But once you see or hear one of these exotic forms in a real-life context (i.e.”in the wild”), the form is instantly transformed from the exotic grammatical concept to a familiar “Oh that’s what they use that for.”
Interestingly, I think this is something that has to happen outside the classroom. I’m sure this song (or one of the songs called “Dondequiera que Estés”) may be played in a Spanish language classroom, but if students are cynical like me, they are probably convinced the instructor somehow “made it up”…just to demonstrate the subjunctive.
On the other hand, hearing the song straight out of my iTunes is convincing evidence that Spanish speakers really do use the subjunctive some of the time. Even with years of learning from dedicated Spanish language instructors using real-life examples that the subjunctive exists, I still was amazed to hear it in this song.
Instructors, it’s OK if you want to hit your head on a wall now.