Xenophobia and Babel
by Joe Palmer
[ opinion - january 11 ]
"The different languages are unequal, and correspond perfectly in relative merit to the races that use them." - Arthur Gobineau, Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines
Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816-82), French diplomat and scholar, wrote the basic bible of racism. His book, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853-55), elaborates the notion that all other races are innately unequal to the White Aryan race, which is not only the purest but also superior to all others. Some hold that his writings had a malignant, diabolic influence on the German Nazi theorists as justification for wholesale murder. Gobineau's take on race and language is still prevalent among the proud and defensive today, although unlike the general public he was personally neither ignorant nor anxious. He simply confused excellence, language, and race, a conflation that was easy to make in his day. The fact is that anyone can use any language, and does on occasion. The faults people show to others are not in their genes but in their cultures. They learned to do what they do from others like themselves. You can take the boy out of the country, and you can take the country out of the boy, even if it takes a while.
In 1853 Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, the million seller that brought on the American Civil War, according to President Lincoln, on her return from a book tour in England where she had collected some $60,000 for her anti-slavery and pro-feminist causes, found a letter for her containing one black human ear.
Matthew Arnold on Harriet Beecher Stowe: "The woman Stowe by her picture must be a Gorgon… she will never go far, I think."
In 1825 when the great Ira Aldridge, the Black American actor, played Othello in London, the pro-slavery lobby got the play closed down and the reviewer for the Times wrote, "Owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English."
In 2008 Darshini David's reading of the news on the BBC is annoying. She cannot talk plain. Educated at JAGS (James Allen's School) and Cambridge, she is a dark-complexioned woman whose parents came from Sri Lanka, as did my daughter-in-law Mangama Permauloo's parents. Darshini's speech is so plummy, so old-fashioned, posh, upper-class, lock-jawed and Received that she swallows her vowels and runs her phrases together, clipping and blending as if she had the Elgin Marbles in her mouth.
The chance connection between race and language is accidental and arbitrary. It is not inherited. Language is learned; it is not in the blood. The chance connection between race and civilization is the same. We learn a culture, folkways, customs, lifestyles, and prejudices, just as we learn languages, by living with others.
Gobineau held that we are, most of us, racially mixed, that the French are a mongrel race, but he did not question the very idea of a pure race and a pure language. He went to the Germans to find approval for his ideas among the Wagnerians at Bayreuth. They thought his ideas were great.
When Der Fuehrer says, "We ist der master race"
We HEIL! HEIL! Right in Der Fuehrer's face
Are we not the supermen
Aryan pure supermen
Ja we ist der supermen
Super-duper supermen - Spike Jones
Perhaps Gobineau suffered from unresolved Oedipal issues. His mother, Anna-Louise de Gercy, was a Creole from Santo Domingo. In regard to such people, he wrote in the Essay:
"...young mulattoes who have been educated in London or Paris may show a certain veneer of culture superior to that of some Southern Italian peoples, who are in point of merit infinitely higher; for once a mulatto, always a mulatto." [p191]
Take that, Barack Obama!
Gobineau's conclusions echo the general observation concerning race and language that was earlier prevalent. We look at the state of the world, observing and judging the people who lead and those who follow, classifying them according to their racial and linguistic similarity to us.
The fact that American Blacks all have American White cousins, accounts for the fact that American Blacks refer to white people as their 'cousins'. Ask Oprah Winfrey.
However, it does not take an acquaintance with higher mathematics to figure out that we are all of mixed race. We are all cousins whose relationship could be precisely shown if we could go far enough back in the exponential fan. How many parents to the nth degree do we have? All Americans are cousins, Black and White, and all others too. You all have only to look into the past to find the shared relatives.
People in the West want to believe that everything was once perfect, that we fell from the state of Grace, our original Edenic language becoming confused and separated into many languages, but since the Enlightenment we are back on the way to reclaiming perfection; with modern education we are improving English, and progressing towards the purity of the language of our lost Paradise, just as in every other way we are getting better and better and closer and closer to a new Garden of Eden, a New World Order, a scientific Utopia, a world without sorrow, or freedom, or dignity.
However, the way to a scientific heaven on earth is a rocky road full of ups and downs. After all, of what use can freedom possibly be to a Chinaman? Ask a Black African about his father, and he will talk about his mother's brothers, because biological fathers are not heads of families, and women are not chattel, in Black Africa. An Arab puts sugar in his milk, because at home his milk is often sour, and he will use your toothbrush if he wants to. Westernized Sunnis have spawned Al-Qa'ida, and Shi'ites have hit the fan in Dearbornistan.
Modern communication and transportation have thrown us all together. The ship of fools is now as big as the planet.
Our usual reaction to strangers, especially to those who are of a different race or who speak a foreign language, is a cautious distancing of them from us, based on fear and curiosity, an unconscious shield against possible threats passed on to us through millennia of living in small groups.
People confuse language with race, social class, and politics, not seeing that it is the man who does the digging, not the shovel. In our better world, it is not how a man speaks or appears but what he says and does that should be consequential and important.
Those who fear the encroachment of other languages, who for example revile the use of Spanish in the US and Urdu in the UK, understand perfectly well that languages work as the mirrors of society. You cannot see invisible people in a mirror. We pretend they are not there. We use foreign languages and dialects of our own language as markers to sort out everyoneand put them in their places as far as we are concerned. The best slave speaks only when spoken to, and then softly. The Colonel's lady and Rosie O'Grady may be sisters, but Rosie is the cleaning lady.
Those who decry the use of Mexican and Pakistani do not want to share their lives with strangers, because to them anyone from outside the native family, tribe, or clan must be regarded, at first, like the kind of animal we are allowed to hunt and to eat, not taboo, that is, treated like fair game, while anyone further removed from us, of a different race or language, must be avoided for being exotic and dangerous like a lion, a tiger, or John Kerry, who can speak a foreign language, French, like his polyglot wife Maria Teresa Thierstein Simões-Ferreira Heinz, who was a simultaneous translator at the United Nations.
John Kerry was not president of the United States because he is not a good ol' boy, a man having the right qualities characteristic of some working class white males like us, such as a relaxed and informal manner, and an apparently built-in anti-intellectual bias and intolerant point of view, like more successful politicians.
From our admiration of our nation, that is, from us admiring ourselves, comes the conviction that our language is superior to all others, and that our language determines every trait and practice that is peculiar to our nation. Our pride in our own identity is pride in our language, which is an inextricable part of our selves. We are like the Greeks who called speakers of other tongues "barbarians" who uttered nonsense, saying "Baa, Baa," like sheep. Pride in our language is also pride in our race, and disdain for others. According to this way of thinking, there is only one true and proper strain of people who exemplify our pure race, just as there is only one correct variety of our language, spoken by the best people.
How Americans reviled the head of British Petroleum, Tony Hayward, for speaking like a limey when he appeared before the congressional committee looking into the Gulf oil spill. Supercilious, lockjawed Brits!
Most people do not know any better today. As John Gray says, with perfect irony, in his book about our progressive, enlightened, utopian ideals, Black Mass, the Iraq catastrophe is not thought to be the fault of the Americans, who bring their best wishes and democracy: "The fault lies with the Iraqis, a lesser breed that has spurned the freedom it was nobly offered" (p37).
Modern linguistic and physical plumbing can help us flush away such folkways, mores, and taboos, so that we give the individual person, the foreigner, the immigrant, and the commoner his respect, dignity, and freedom, but prejudice is at first not apparent to its possessors. It has to be pointed out to them that they are bigots and racists.
Both race and language are statistical trends, collections of features as natural and complex as birds migrating. They migrate over and over, and it is never exactly the same twice. There exist no typical Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid, or Australoid persons. Read Carlton Coon's misguided books on race to see how good information can be turned into dangerous nonsense. For many reasons, scholars today dismiss race as a valid concept with which to classify biodiversity. No one can even define race in a scientific manner, and language is equally indefinable. The races of man are like the races of dog. Dogs bark. People speak. What dogs have in common is that they can make babies. It's the same with people. Just now this writer tried to make a joke about Mrs. Heinz-Kerry and the FJ Heinz Company slogan Heinz 57 [varieties] also meaning a mixed-breed dog, but good taste got the better of him. Two educated speakers of English, say, one from London, the other in Little Rock, understand each other very well. However, when technical assistance for computer users comes by telephone from India these days, we cannot understand it much of the time, nor can the technicians understand us, in English, mind you. Formerly, the differences among the dialects were more evident. They are growing less pronounced all the time (excuse the pun, please).
We talk and talk and never say the same thing in exactly the same way twice. The river we step in today is different from the one we stepped in yesterday. People's languages may be similar, but they are never absolutely identical. The traditions of categories of people and languages we absorbed on our mothers' laps are only partly true today.
Language is behavior; it is speech that may at any time be completely original. Language is what we talk. Writing is a kind of talking with the fingers, making permanent signs. Language is also what we share in our memory that allows us to talk and understand, which is all a mystery. For example: Eskimos and snow
In the Alaska Native Education Program, students are reminded that their language has words to describe how packed the snow is, whether the snow is good for, or has been used for, building shelters, whether the snow is on the surface or buried under other layers of snow, whether the snow has been shaped into something else, whether the snow is already on the ground or is falling, and whether or not it has been moved (blown by the wind, for instance). These are the terms the Inuit people use frequently when they are not in concentration camps, consuming carbohydrates and getting fat.
English speakers, for the most part, do not have the same experience of snow as the Inuit. Our experience in this regard includes what we categorize with the words snowflake, snowball, snow belt, snow bank, snow fence, snow fall, snow drop, snow man, snow melt, snow pack, snow flurry, snowdrift, snow shower, snow squall, blizzard, ice storm, sleet, hail, freezing rain, slush, avalanche, mogul, corn snow, sun cup, névé, graupel, cornice, white out, and so on - that is, snow as we might know it. Words are not what they are used for, neither do they come before what they describe. Words come after the fact. They come after what they mean from experience and context, but before our learning them.
These snow-words are not exclusive vocabularies that restrict the thinking of Inuit and English speakers. Any English or Inuktitut speaker of the Inuitan Eskimo-Aleut language spoken in Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Siberia can observe snow in all its states and conditions and talk about it. Thinking does not depend on language. To illustrate, and to make fun of, the old saw that Eskimos have special vocabularies that we lack in English such that we cannot talk about snow like the Inuit people, look at these parodic vocabulary items from Phil James' Eskimos' One Hundred Words for Snow:
penstla - the idea of snow
briktla - good building snow
astrila - snow sparking in starlight
mextla - snow used to make Eskimo Margaritas
MacTla - snow burgers
wa-ter - melted snow.