Posts Tagged ‘language’

When you hear about a linguist writing a book on a distasteful word, you might think it’s going to be a certain kind of book. Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-word (2012) is as much about crude language, as it about the concept, or the modern phenomenon it stands for, and the values it expresses. Nunberg has been coy about using the word on the cover of his book (he is a lot more forward in the text), and I am going to take his lead and not use the word in question (we all know what it is).

Nunberg says, that far from being a vague vulgarity, the A-word has a very precise meaning, albeit one that has shifted in past few decades. The word first gained popularity during World War II, GI-speak for pompous superiors, and later became part of working-class vernacular to represent its contempt for middle-class pretentiousness. In the late 60s and throughout the 70s, the word was appropriated by the feminists to represent a man, a self-involved man who expertly exploited women. Today, it is…

a basic category of our everyday existence, our reflexive remonstrance for people who behave thoughtlessly or arrogantly on the job, in personal relationships, or just circulating in public.

The common denominator in its various shades of meanings is the notion of self-importance, a deluded sense of entitlement, and obtuseness. Such a person is by definition inconsiderate and insensitive. You might encounter him (or her) in the parking lot, while in line waiting for coffee (or a restroom cubicle), or in that thoughtless birder who steps in front of your binoculars to get his (or her) view. You might vocalize your feelings, sometimes by using sanitized versions of the A-word, or not. You might never have used the word yourself. But, as Nunberg puts it, “it’s one thing to refuse to let a word pass by your lips and another to exclude the concept it stands for from your mental life”. We know the concept, alright.

And what a useful concept it is.

“It sometimes seems as if every corner of our public discourse is riddled with people depicting one another as a******* and treating them accordingly, whether or not they actually use the word.”

So you’re either one of them or not. And if we ever encounter one, it is often the word of choice used to call them out. Ironic, that the very word we use to censure inconsiderate behavior is an indecent word with a vulgar meaning. Hardly considerate and well-mannered. Society imposes on each of us certain obligations to extend basic courtesy to most others. Does society give us the right to respond discourteously to people who disregard these obligations? Do we…

“have a right to treat a****** as a******* because the a******* have it coming”?

With shifts in lifestyle, unwritten social rules about using profanities, obscenities and vulgarities (in adult company) change every few years, as do the words themselves. Reading Nunberg has certainly conditioned me to be more aware of their usage – recently, while watching Foyle’s War, I was just a little bit shaken when DCS Foyle uttered the word ‘Goddamn’. To be clear, he was repeating another character in his characteristic deadpan manner. But, I wondered, were there any social sanctions imposed on users of profanities in the 1940s? Did ‘Goddamn’ figure in popular vocabulary? ‘Damn’ certainly wasn’t acceptable just a few years earlier.Officially, that is. Nunberg reports that David Selznick paid a $5,000 fine to include that memorable closing line in Gone with the Wind (1939), “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

Nunberg is a fine writer, and I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. Ascent of the A-word has a lot of political and cultural references, some from half a century ago, and while I won’t pretend that I got every single one of them, I’ll say that I found this book on insults rather educational.


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I must admit, somewhat shamefully, that in the past I have been woefully mistaken about diversity in the United States. What I pictured in my mind was a more or less homogeneous sea of blonde-haired, fair-skinned people. Later, I realized that darker-skinned people also called it home. I had, of course, also seen some other people in movies – people with long braided hair, wearing colorful feathered headpieces. I knew these people as Red Indians (which I later realized was politically incorrect – at that time I thought it rather odd, since these Red Indians looked neither red nor Indian) and never gave a thought to who they really were or what became of them. To my credit, I was only a child and grew up on the other side of the world much before Facebook and Google were born.

Coming from a part of the world where mono-ethnicity is the norm, I can understand why we thought that other countries were the same. We all looked more or less alike, so why should things be different elsewhere? Many, many years later, I experienced a blast of diversity – cultural, ethnic, racial, lifestyle-related, you name it – when I lived/worked in Honolulu and New York City. But not too long ago, I got food for thought when someone (who has never been out of their home country before) asked me if the dark-haired woman sitting in front of us was American. “Why, yes”, I said. “But, aren’t Americans blonde?”. In that moment, I realized my own ignorance – I had witnessed but a drop in the ocean of diversity, as Elizabeth Little proves in her road trip, Trip of the Tongue: Cross-country travels in search of America’s languages (2012).

A self-confessed language fanatic, Little drives over 25,000 miles pursuing answers to linguistic mysteries:

Why do some languages last while others fade away?…How, ultimately, has the language experience affected the American experience?…why language communities in the United States have, again and again and again, eventually yielded to the seemingly implacable preeminence of English.

What is the language experience in America like? To say that the language of America is English, is a bit like saying Americans are blonde. American language, American English if you will, is the result of the co-mingling of different tongues, that happened (and is continuing to happen) at various phases in the nation’s history. European colonization of America brought into contact European languages with Native languages; slavery added African languages to the mix; and immigration, past and recent, is continuing to add more into the pool. Little’s cross-country travels look at each of these phenomena, their influence on American English, as well as the fate of these other languages and the mechanisms of language loss, death and preservation.

Colonization and the native peoples

…it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that American English owes much of its distinctiveness to words it has acquired in the New World.

Firstly, “all Native peoples are not, in fact, part of one big, homogenous culture”, and all Native personal names are not “of the verb-preposition-animal variety”. Sources suggest, says Little, that anywhere between 250 to over 400 languages were spoken in the pre-contact population of North America, and around 175 indigenous languages are spoken in the United States. That, however, doesn’t mean that these surviving languages are in any way mainstream, or are spoken by substantial numbers of people. I am not sure I have heard a conversation in even one of them. What contributed to the decline of these languages?

Plantation life

The institution of slavery brought African languages into the continent, traces of which can be found in  creoles around the nation. Creoles are contact languages born when two groups, speaking different languages, need to communicate with each other, but are either unwilling or unable to learn each other’s language. Creoles are also a tool to understand the socio-cultural milieu of the time of their conception. They are…

a linguistic encapsulation of the power dynamics of colonization and cultural exchange.

…[an] indication of the relative social, political, and economic power of each language group. The more power one group has, the more accommodating the other group will tend to be. ..Indeed, most creoles are based on the languages of the major colonial powers.

Speaking of creole languages, which are frequent byproducts of colonization, I began to wonder about such languages existing in India. I found that several Portuguese-based creole languages did indeed exist in India’s east and west coasts. Many of these languages are now extinct. I am not quite sure why or how colonial contact around the same period should have such different outcomes – with its people learning one language (English) to eventually become a mostly bilingual nation on the one hand, while also resulting in creole languages (Portuguese) on the other. Clearly, the mechanisms of language adoption and creation are hardly simple.


“Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment and thought; customs and habits are moulded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble  would have been gradually obliterated.”

An 1868 report quoted in Trip of the Tongue

Native and creole languages have more or less disappeared from the nation’s landscape, surviving only in pockets. Geographic isolation (such as, when some languages are spoken in less-known islands), and insulation from cultural and economic interactions that normally lead to assimilation, have facilitated the preservation of these languages in some parts. Others are in the midst of revivals, aided by determined individuals and communities. Some are struggling, and possible more are dying.

In the 19th century, a systematic campaign of forced assimilation and linguistic humiliation led to the loss of many native and creole languages. Under the pretext of civilizing the peoples, the government adopted a policy of mandatory English language instruction in schools, at the same time disparaging indigenous and creole languages, and punishing their usage. With children learning to despise their native tongues, and with parents fearing the consequences of teaching or even speaking in the language, generational language transfer ceased.

Creoles, particularly, continue to “routinely face prejudice and derision born of the mistaken assumption that their languages reflect some combination of simplicity and stupidity”. The very existence of creole languages is evidence of inequalities, and continuing to regard these languages as inferior or degenerate is a sure sign that these inequalities continue to exist in our society.

Prestige language

“…the language associated with access to power, status, respect, prestige, and economic benefits in both professional and personal life.”

Deborah House, quoted in Trip of the Tongue

The advantages of knowing English, indeed, the necessity of knowing English, has/have contributed in no small amount to the decline of these languages. Apart from its obvious economic advantages, English has evolved into a prestige language. Fluency in English is often correlated with intelligence, and poor or limited proficiency in the language is looked down upon. Such linguistic prejudice is quite common in bilingual countries, such as India (where I’m from).


Ironically, “the exploration and colonization of the Americas precipitated a rapid decline in indegenous language diversity…[and] also ushered in a new era of European language diversity”. Later immigration from Asia, and Central and South America, have only added to the diversity. A ride in the subway alone can offer you a glimpse of just how many languages are spoken in this country.

In the course of her road trip, Little finds Basque, Norwegian, Crow, Navajo, Makah, Spanish (many dialects of it), Louisiana Creole, Haitian Creole and Gullah, all in various stages of decline/revival/preservation. While she acknowledges the indispensability of English, she makes a case for the preservation of these, and other languages – these invaluable cultural artifacts.

The survival, death and dominance of languages is ultimately about privileges and inequalities.

A person’s language is necessarily a reflection of his or her own political environement, of the social and economic forces that influence survival and success. The languages of prestige are the languages of power.

Little certainly has a way with words, and combines trivia of the Jeopardy kind, with a thought-provoking commentary on the history of languages in the United States. What does the future hold for these languages? Of personal relevance to me is Little’s exploration of ethnic communities in the United States.

As ethnic communities welcome steady flows of immigrants, the usual process of language shift – limited English in the first generation, bilingual in the second generation, monolingual English in the third – is obscured, at least on the surface

Although, I see plenty of evidence of this phenomenon, a part of me was definitely saddened to imagine the loss of my native tongue in future generations (if I continue to live outside of my homeland).

Elizabeth Little is a talented writer, and I also hope to read her first book, Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (2007).

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