Greene: YOU ARE WHAT YOU SPEAK
Babel and the Damage Done
Language and Myth
The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’ ” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.
The power of language in the human imagination is illustrated by one of the best-known stories of Genesis. Men, in their arrogance, began to build a tower that would reach to Heaven, rivaling even the glory of God. God, who admits he is “a jealous God,” is not amused and resolves to take action. But what does he do? Does he smite the tower builders, as he does a host of other unfortunates throughout the Old Testament? Does he send an unforgettable visible sign, like the writing on King Belshazzar’s wall or the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert?
These things, well in God’s power, would have been more direct ways of impeding the arrogant tower builders. But instead, God makes a decision that will have lasting consequences, deciding to “confound the language of all the earth.” Before the birth of historical linguistics, the Babel story explained how the world came to speak a multitude of languages. Adam and Eve presumably spoke the same one. Genesis tells us how this happy state of affairs ended and we got Akkadian, Hittite, and Hebrew.
But the more interesting part of this story is what it shows about the power of language in the eyes of its authors. God worries that with one common language for humankind, “nothing will be restrained from them.” This, remember, is God: he can flood the world, rain frogs on the Egyptians, turn rivers to blood, and raise the dead. Communication through language must be mighty indeed to worry the Supreme Being into doing something about it.
The epigraph beginning this chapter may be the first recorded, but certainly not the last, story of language differences getting violent. Militant Protestants and Catholics distinguished one another in Northern Ireland in part by the modern-day equivalent of “shibboleth”: Protestants pronounce the eighth letter of the alphabet “aitch,” while Catholics say “haitch.” Minor differences in the Serb, Croat, and Bosniak pronunciations of the language once known as Serbo-Croat were played up by ethnic nationalists in the run-up to the wars in the former Yugoslavia. (The former Yugoslavs have abandoned “Serbo-Croat,” now insisting they speak Serbian, Bosnian, and Croat.) And after a horrifying multiday spree of shootings and bombings in Mumbai in December 2008, Indian police insisted that Pakistanis were behind the massacres. Though the killers had attempted to appear Indian, Indian authorities noted spelling mistakes in their letter of demands. Pakistanis retorted that certain pronunciations—”zoror” versus “jurur”—marked the terrorists as Indians. The two nuclear-armed rival countries mobilized troops amid talk of war, as the shibboleth appeared again in its most life-or-death form.
If language is enough to get God himself involved and a terrifically powerful marker of who belongs to what tribe, we would expect humans to try to control it by raising one language above all others—and sometimes even restricting who can use it and when and how.
Hebrew died out as a standard language almost two thousand years ago. As Aramaic became more common in the ancient Middle East, Jews began using the holy language of the Torah mainly for religious purposes. Hebrew was effectively dead for those millennia, until Eliezer Ben Yehuda began the revival of it in Palestine. But the idea of using the holy tongue for scolding a child or ordering food offended the most Orthodox Jews, who resisted violently. It is those same ultrareligious types who don’t even speak the name of their god. Modern scholars can only guess (from the Hebrew text, which omitted vowels) that the Jewish deity’s name is “Yahweh.” When reading the Torah aloud, religious Jews replace YHWH, the four letters of God’s name, with adonai, “Lord.” Elsewhere, they simply refer to him as haShem: the name. Jews are famous for revering their holy books; less famously but just as fervently, they revere the language itself, too. They once revered it so much that they resisted its revival: to see it spoken in the street would inevitably mean seeing it profaned.
Judaism’s Abrahamic rival took the opposite path: not restricting the language of religion but flinging it far and wide. The archangel Gabriel’s first word to the prophet Muhammad was Iqra’!, “Recite!” Muhammad took dictation of the Qur’an from Heaven in his native language, Arabic, then spoken only in the Arabian Peninsula. From there, he and his successors spread the new religion of Islam spectacularly in just a few centuries. And Arabic was the essential language of Islam. So important was the original language of the text that true Muslims had to read it only in Arabic. (The Qur’an itself states, in God’s own words, “And if We had sent this as a Quran in a foreign language other than Arabic, they would have said: ‘Why are not its Verses explained in detail in our language? What! A Book not in Arabic and the Messenger an Arab?’ ” [41:44])
The religious role of the language helped Arabize the lands from Morocco to Iraq. Pious Muslims the rest of the world over must know Arabic to read their holy book too. Any translation is by definition inauthentic—in 2009 an Afghan court upheld the twenty-year prison sentence of a man who had translated the Qur’an into the local dialect of Persian without the Arabic text alongside. This means that hundreds of millions of Muslims—a majority of the world’s Muslims, in fact—can access their religion today only in a foreign language.
Different though the Jewish and Islamic approaches are, both faiths revere their sacred language. Being a true Jew means mastering the Hebrew language in order to interact with the texts and learning Aramaic to read Judaism’s lengthy exegeses on the Bible. Meanwhile, Arabs so venerate the language of the Qur’an that one of the highest honorifics in Islam is hafiz: one who has memorized the entire book.
This is a book about language, not religion, so why all this talk about the sacred? The interplay between religion and language illustrates a core point: language is tightly bound with the things we hold dearest. It makes us human; if united through language, we can be as great as God. But language also defines us as religious tribes: we are those who read the holy texts in their original sacred languages, and you are not. Finally, religious-linguistic taboos reveal some of our magical thinking: using a word, the name of God, risks the sin of taking that holy name in vain. Jews avoid it entirely. Christians make sure that when they are angry they say “Jiminy cricket!” or “Jeez!” The fact that God made this one of only ten commandments tells us something.
The point is that even today, we both worship the power of language and approach it with a dose of fear. People believe that words matter intensely. They often think that the way they speak is inimitable and superior, and that their language is the clearest outward sign of who they are. These two beliefs taken together form a secular religion of language today—and make language an inviting target for mythmaking and manipulation. Often these myths come from those who care most about language, great writers and wordsmiths who should really know better.
For example, did you know that the Arabs have six thousand words for camels and camel equipment; that “muscatel” is an Italian word meaning “wine with flies in it”; and that the Maoris of New Zealand have thirty-five words for dung?
Actually, you couldn’t know any of these things, because verbs such as “know” (and “learn” and “discover” and the like) require the following statements to be true. None of these statements is. And they all come from the same source: the entertaining and wide-ranging journalist Bill Bryson, in his book The Mother Tongue. This book, meant to be an entertaining but serious look at the English language, begins with an introduction so packed with manifest silliness that it makes for an excellent illustration of why smart people believe so many odd things about language.
The Mother Tongue first takes the reader on a magical mystery tour of foreign languages. Bryson says that “we tend to regard other people’s languages as we regard their cultures—with ill-hidden disdain.” Too true. Unfortunately, Bryson proves himself right with a series of stories that should have set off his own too-bizarre-to-be-true detector. “In Japanese, the word for foreigner means ‘stinking of foreign hair’,” he tells us. No. Gaikokujin means foreign-country-person. “To the Czechs, a Hungarian is ‘a pimple.’ ” No, to the Czechs, a Hungarian is a Mad’ar, related to the Hungarians’ name for themselves, Magyars. (A less-common variant, uhersky, looks a bit like uher, “pimple,” but only coincidentally.)
Bryson goes on, “The French, for instance, cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man and gentleman.” All three claims are wrong. “Mind” is esprit, brain is cerveau, and the French can certainly tell them apart. Man is homme, but the French have the (English-derived calque) gentilhomme for a well-bred man, as well as the word monsieur for situations such as “The gentleman would like a cup of coffee.” Maison does mean both house and home, but that doesn’t mean the French “cannot distinguish” them any more than it means that Americans “cannot distinguish” “house,” a dwelling, from “house,” a kind of electronic dance music.
The “X people have no word for” trope is a staple of curious but only half-informed language writing. It is based on the expectation that a foreign lexicon is mysteriously different if one word in that language equates to two or more of ours (maison for “house” and “home”) or if we need two English words or more to translate a foreign one. Bryson says we have no word for the Danish hygge, then goes on to tell us exactly what it means: “instantly satisfying and cozy” (though he’s confused parts of speech: hygge is a noun, and so it’s “coziness”). Since we have no word for the French sang-froid or Spanish macho, Bryson says, “we must borrow the term or do without the sentiment.” Really? Was there no way to think about cool under pressure or swaggering masculinity, before those words entered English? Bryson is indulging here in a pop form of the theory called “Whorfianism”: the notion that without a word for something, you can’t think about it.
What about thirty-five Maori words for “dung”? I don’t know Maori, so I found a dictionary, which included three: haumuti, hamuti, and tuutae. “Piece of dung” also came in with parakaeto and paratutae. Perhaps in every dialect of every Maori, including slang words and euphemisms and animal- related terms, and throwing in adjectives and verbs related to it, you could, at a stretch, turn up thirty-five. But how easy would it be in English? Polite words would be dung, fertilizer, manure, feces, stool, defecation; euphemisms would include poo, poop, doo-doo, and number two; animal terms would include cow patty, buffalo chip, rabbit pellet, and guano; semi-taboo words would include turd and crap; silly words would encompass malarkey and caca; and let’s not forget good old shit.
What of “muscatel” being Italian for “wine with flies in it”? Not remotely, though Bryson may have been misled by the fact that mosca means “fly” in Italian. If you want a fun fact for muscatel, here’s one: the name comes from muscat, a type of grape. “Muscat” shares an etymology with “musk.” And “musk”? It comes from Middle English muske, which comes from Middle French musc, which comes from Late Latin muscus, from Late Greek moschos, from Middle Persian mu?sk-, from Sanskrit muska, meaning—wait for it—“testicle.” And muska comes from the diminuitive of m¯us, meaning “mouse.” So Sanskrit speakers many, many years ago euphemized “testicle” as “little mouse,” and through many years of natural language change, the word “musk” evolved along one track and the words “muscat” and “muscatel” developed from another. This doesn’t mean that “muscatel” means “testicle wine” or “wine with mice in it” or any such ridiculousness. It means that “muscatel” shares a distant past with Sanskrit words for “testicle” and “mouse”—a story just as interesting as Bryson’s, with the virtue of being true.
I can’t resist one last Bryson foreign-language story, perhaps the most preposterous of all: “In Cantonese, hae means ‘yes.’ But with a fractional change of pitch, it also describes the female pudenda. The resulting scope for confusion can safely be left to the imagination.” This requires a tremendous imagination indeed. I have tried and totally failed to imagine a context in which both “yes” and “female pudenda” might both be appropriate responses to the same question and hilarity could ensue from the wrong understanding. In any case, the “fractional change of pitch” Bryson describes is one of the Chinese “tones,” rising, falling, level, or dipping pitch. These tones make one Chinese word as different from another as “bit” and “beet” are in English, and the Chinese have no trouble distinguishing them.
Somewhere out there, a Chinese journalist-cum-humorist may be writing “In English one word means ‘cotton or cotton-blend cloths used to cover a bed.’ But with a fractional change in vowel quality, it means excrement. The resulting scope for confusion can safely be left to the imagination.” Except how often do you really confuse “sheet” and “shit,” even when, as many foreigners do, they are pronounced similarly?
Having exoticized—call it amiable bullsheet—every foreign language he has ever heard a tall tale about, Bryson moves on to English, the real subject of The Mother Tongue. Here the talented writer is on firmer ground, and by and large the book is an accurate and enjoyable popular history. But first he feels compelled to set up the unique story of English with a list of supposedly mind-bending quirks:
English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. . . . Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in English one tells a lie but the truth. . . . The complexities of the English language are such that even native speakers cannot always communicate effectively. . . . English also has a distinctive capacity to extract maximum work from a word by making it do double duty as both a noun and a verb . . . drink, fight, fire, sleep, run. . . . There is an occasional tendency in English, particularly in academic and political circles, to resort to waffle and jargon . . . one of the great curses of modern English.
Which of these things couldn’t be said of French or German, or a vast number of other languages for that matter?
That is quite enough picking on Bill Bryson. He is, after all, more of a commentator and a humorist than a serious journalist. His writing is laugh-out-loud funny, he has remarkable powers of observation, and he is obviously a highly intelligent man. But being a humorist doesn’t get him off the hook; he wrote not just The Mother Tongue but several other books trying to entertainingly teach people things they did not know about English. Humorist or not, Bryson really wants to share the things he “knows.” The problem is, as the nineteenth-century American writer Josh Billings wrote (though it’s often put into the mouth of Mark Twain), it’s not the things people don’t know; it’s the things they know that ain’t so.
It seems nobody knows more things that ain’t so about language than journalists. No journalist would switch from writing about politics to a writing about physics without checking the facts carefully. But thoughtful and brainy writers think that because they know how to use language well, they can suspend their nonsense detector when they write about language. Legends get dredged from magazine articles and other secondary sources, themselves badly informed. For the writer passing them along, some stories are too good to check or even to think critically about for several seconds. All a writer needs, when writing about language, is the sense of being a good writer with a fine vocabulary and style. Forget research, dictionaries, etymologies, the insights of linguistics—just use your intuition to decide what to believe or, when in doubt, just wing it. Journalists writing about language without getting the facts, just because they themselves are adept at using language, are like top athletes who think they are physiologists. I, of course, am a journalist too. But I’ve learned (not least by making my own mistakes) that language really deserves proper study in its own right, not just the odd dashed-off column on a linguistic topic between other endeavors.
If you want entertaining language punditry without too much worry about the facts, I prefer punditry that knows it’s fake. Take Dave Barry’s “Ask Mr. Language Person,” an advice column:
Q: I am a speechwriter for a leading presidential candidate, and I need to know which is correct: “integrity OUT the wazoo,” or “integrity UP the wazoo.”
A: We checked with both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Rev. Billy Graham, and they agree that the correct word is “wazooty.”
But those interested in language don’t need to choose between dry academia, too-good-to-check “facts,” and satire. There are many fascinating real-world facts about language, including those still being discovered about language’s origins, its possibilities, and its global varieties. No enemy of fun facts, I absolutely glory in them. But fun facts are fun only when they’re true.
Excerpted from You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene. Copyright © 2011 by Robert Lane Greene. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.