Language engineering

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Language engineering

Post by Phil White » Mon Aug 08, 2005 6:40 pm

Language engineering has been practised more or less covertly by governments for time immemorial. The Nazis did it (extremely well) in the years following the fall of the Weimar Republic, the Soviets were masters of the art, as were Mao and Castro.

But neither are the Western democracies free of it. We see doublespeak being deliberately introduced alongside magnificently blatant examples such as "freedom fries".

And yet not all of it is disruptive or ill-motivated.

Whatever you think of PC language, much of it is here to stay and is affecting the way we think (which it what it was intended to do).

The modern official Norwegian languages (both of them) and the Finnish language are all the results of almost superhuman efforts of language planners to unite countries around their languages.

The Académie française has attempted with mixed success to stem the tide of anglicisms, the German-speaking nations recently agreed on a major (and unpopular) reform of the spelling of the language (the Swiss - wise folk - have been spelling German by and large that way for years).

And yet it is rare that a government openly talks about changing the language explicitly in order to change the way we think. The UK government today announced that it was floating the idea of changing the way in which it referred to ethnic groups in Britain in order to influence the way they think about themselves and others think about them.

At least part of the story is here.

The government's version at 8 August 2005 is
The renaming of ethnic minority groups is being explored to allow communities to show pride in both their ethnic roots and their Britishness.

A Downing Street spokesman said that the idea had been suggested to Home Office Minister Hazel Blears to be discussed in meetings as she visited different parts of the country. It was not something the Government was proposing or suggesting, the spokesman said.

It is one of a range of proposals to be discussed at regional meetings between the Government and community leaders.

Ms Blears said in a newspaper interview that she found the idea of US-style hyphenated terms 'quite interesting'.

"I am going to talk to people and ask how does that feel? It is about your identity and I think it's really important.

"I think it's really important, if you want a society that is really welded together, there are certain things that unite us because you are British, but you can be a bit different too."

The Oldham event last week was the first in a series of meetings to be held in locations including Burnley, Leicester, Leeds, Birmingham and London.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke plans to hold follow-up talks with Muslim leaders on September 20 when he will outline 'concrete proposals'.

http://www.numberten.gov.uk/output/Page8050.asp
For what it's worth, I think it would probably have been helpful if the government and government authorities had simply started slipping it in until people got used to it. Now I'm not so sure that it will be that much use.
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Language engineering

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Aug 09, 2005 5:50 am

Phil, When you said “Language engineering has been practised more or less covertly by governments for time immemorial,” I couldn’t help but think of the little book I read a few months ago – George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant – in which he discusses how Bush and the Republican party have so successfully manipulated (or ‘engineered’ as you aptly put it) language to their advantage (through what Lakoff calls ‘framing’) to affect how people think about issues. ‘Tax cuts’ becomes ‘tax relief’ and taxes turn into a punitive action and an ‘affliction’ upon society, rather than a fair paying of our dues to the government for the services it provides. The ‘inheritance tax’ becomes the terrible ‘death tax,’ a tax on dead people – what a ghastly thing to do – rather than a reasonable tax on money that people, who haven’t done a damn thing to deserve it other than being born to the right parents, receive. A thoughtful person who doesn’t just put his head down and keep repeating ‘stay the course’ becomes the dreaded ‘flip-flopper.’ And the Bush administrations plan to gut the Clean Air Act euphemistically becomes the “Clear Skies” initiative. Bush’s language advisors also told him to call the ‘private’ Social Security accounts ‘personal’ accounts and Bush then complained (in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black) that "'privatization' is a trick word," intended to "scare people.” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

To be ‘fair and balanced,’ however, I should point out that Democrats haven’t exactly been amateurs themselves when it comes to manipulating language as evidenced by their ‘affirmative action’ (really quotas), ‘pro-choice’ (really pro-abortion), etc., etc.

So I would definitely have to agree that ‘language engineering’ is alive and well in the world, with a more than healthy contribution coming from U.S. politics.

Ken – August 8, 2005
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Language engineering

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Aug 09, 2005 7:02 am

It seems to me that the broader concept, not restricted to its use by governments, of 'language engineering' (which itself is a euphemistic term for 'the organised or systematic manipulation of language') is a type of persuasion that is generally practised by people who either have strong convictions connected with their world view; by those whose grasp of logic and cause and effect is poor and seek to compensate through exaggeration; by those who have something concrete to gain from engaging in it; or by any combination of these.

Their intention is to persuade by primarily appealing to the emotions of their audiences rather than to their capacity to apply reason and logic. The fact that this is effective is reflected in the size of the advertising budgets that large companies especially are willing to allocate for pushing their products and services, and in the extensive machinery of media manipulation that political organisations have set up. Decades of this kind of bombardment have trained people not only to react disproportionately strongly to the emotional content of the messages pushed by companies selling things, but to the propaganda pushed by politicians, despite the fact that we ought not to be making our judgements about politicians and their programmes and policies on the basis of the same kinds of superficial considerations we might apply when deciding what brand of washing powder to buy.

Of course, written propaganda of some kind has been around almost since the invention of the printing press (if not before), but the new media that have emerged in the 20th and 21st centuries have completely saturated our environment with both advertising and propaganda of all kinds in a way that is pretty difficult to ignore. Unfortunately, the best defence against the rising tide of bullshit – namely becoming properly informed about the facts connected with the message being pushed – requires a degree of effort and discrimination that only a few people have either the time, ability or inclination to apply.

As with terrorism, the balance of advantage tends to lie with the bullshitter, who can make any kind of outrageous claim he likes, putting his audience in the position of having to look for concrete evidence to challenge or at least make an assessment of the claim, in the same way that a terrorist will attack the weak spots in his victim’s defences and thus force the latter to react in a manner corresponding to his perception of the terrorist’s actual or probable plan of attack.

Until both advertisers and politicians are forced to properly substantiate every claim and factoid they present to the public (in effect, until they are forced to stop lying, pretending and telling half-truths), the rest of us will continue either to have an unequal struggle in resisting the relentless torrent of crap, or else give up and decide that we are perfectly happy to allow ourselves to be endlessly manipulated by the professional purveyors of bullshit that hem us in on all sides.

Not surprisingly, the battle over abortion rights in the USA has generated propaganda on both sides of the argument. Not only is there a ‘pro-choice’ position (‘allow abortions’), there is the ‘pro-life’ one (‘forbid abortions’), with advocates of each shamelessly seeking to blackmail legislators and the undecided public with their appeals to emotion, spurious or dubious statistics and, in the case of the ‘pro-lifers’, even violence. However, because people are free to say whatever they like in an open society and justify it as the exercise of free speech, I don’t see the fanatics on either side adopting a more moderate approach anytime soon. In our kind of society, the person or organisation with the most impact tends to be the one with the loudest voice and the most money, regardless of who has the best arguments or the most effective plan of action.

As you say, Phil, not all attempts to manipulate language are ill-intentioned. But in age when there is every reason to be sceptical about the motives of all organisations, attempts to change our language and perceptions that are imposed in a top-down manner are regarded with suspicion by many.

It was interesting that the specific points made in the BBC article you referred to above concerning the possibility of encouraging people in Britain to think of themselves as Italian-British, Pakistani-British or whatever were received so coolly by some of the interviewees whose opinions were contained in the article. In the USA, this style of description (or self-description) does not appear to be at all controversial, and indeed is very widespread. On the other hand, the use of racist epithets and the making of racist comments is severely frowned on in mainstream American society, whereas I don’t think the same can currently be said to be taboo to anywhere near the same extent in Britain.

I imagine that some of those who are suspicious of the attempt to introduce the American style of description are (possibly justifiably) fearful of giving Britain’s racists yet another linguistic stick to beat Britain’s minorities with, whereas in the USA it could not so easily be used for such a purpose.

Notwithstanding the other points I have made above, my opinion is that while no new official terminology will eliminate determined racists from being deliberately offensive, if its introduction gives normal, reasonable people a set of neutral terms which they can use to make distinctions concerning the multiple ethnicities which now exist in Britain without giving offence, I think the government's initiative could yet prove useful.
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Language engineering

Post by haro » Tue Aug 09, 2005 11:41 pm

Ken, I think one of the most important achievements of the Bush gubmint in the field of language distortion is the fact that now the word "liberal," when used in the US media, is a swear word. It may have begun way back in pre-Dubya eras, but it has become most obvious since the Great Uniter has divided the nation and the world.
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Language engineering

Post by Phil White » Wed Aug 10, 2005 9:55 am

Erik wrote:
... despite the fact that we ought not to be making our judgements about politicians and their programmes and policies on the basis of the same kinds of superficial considerations we might apply when deciding what brand of washing powder to buy.
Since when, do you believe, have citizens made rational decisions about matters of national import? Any and every influential leader has always known that the emotional will override the majority of rational considerations; just read any of the memorable speeches of {I leave the choice to you - mine would be Churchill}.
For some better-known literary object lessons in speechcraft appealing to national identity:
Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2 ("Friends, Romans, countrymen ...")
or
Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3 ("To-morrow is Saint Crispian ...")
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Post by Bobinwales » Wed Aug 10, 2005 10:45 am

The BBC piece shows, if anything, how politician’s knees jerk without any thought about the goolies with which they may come into contact.

Am I going to be Welsh-British? Or as I rather suspect, because I am white, will the pc pundits think that I don’t need to wear my ethnicity on my arm?

Blue Mink sang in the 60’s about a melting pot producing coffee coloured children by the score, forty years on and we are still putting people into groups and labelling them by skin colour or by the way in which they chose to worship their god.

Yes, I am a proud Welshman, and my friend is a proud Asian, he has chosen to live in Wales and take on board the politics, but we are both British, thankfully without hyphens.
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Language engineering

Post by Miia » Wed Aug 10, 2005 11:30 am

Phil White wrote:
The modern official Norwegian languages (both of them) and the Finnish language are all the results of almost superhuman efforts of language planners to unite countries around their languages.
I did not quite catch this point, but if you mean the references to Finnish-Swedish minorities (living in Finland) and Swedish-Finnish minorities (in Sweden), you are quite right. Moreover, these terms have been around for decades - if not centuries - and I'd guess they have their roots in the fact that there has always been Swedish-speaking people in Finland and Finns have moved to Sweden in search of higher quality of life and better wages. Another reason could be the bilinguality of Finland - we have two official languages, Finnish and Swedish.

However, I'd like to point out that I have never heard these kinds of terms used with regard to other minorities. For example, the Russian minority (which is larger nowadays than the Swedish), the Samis, and the Romanys do not have the Finnish prefix, unless it is needed to emphasize that they actually live in Finland (Samis live scattered throughout Northern Skandinavia and Romanys all over the world).

From this point of view, I'm kind of puzzled with your statement... Care to clarify, I'd really appreciate it?
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Language engineering

Post by Phil White » Wed Aug 10, 2005 4:49 pm

Miia,

My apologies, I didn't make myself clear. In the case of Finnish, I was thinking of the massive effort to standardize the language after choosing it as the national language following independence in 1918. If I remember my reading correctly, this was a daunting task, as there had previously been no accepted standard form, but rather many local varieties and dialects. This was compounded by the fact that the language had not traditionally been used for law or administration and many technological fields. The achievements of the many standardization bodies set up at that time are, frankly, staggering.

The situation in Norway is a little more confusing, since the two officially recognized languages (Nynorsk and Bokmål) evolved (were developed) for complex sociopolitical reasons at the end of the 19th century. Linguistically, they are extremely closely related and are mutually comprehensible. Most of the differences relate to the formal, written forms of the languages. The reasons for the formalization and standardization of both languages again lie in the desire for a distinct national language. Peter Trudgill deals with the situation in Norway at length in his "Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society".

In both cases, I was talking generally about "top-down" engineering of a language by a government and offering a couple of examples of very extensive (and very successful) language engineering. These languages owe their very existence (in their current form) to such language engineering. I wasn't talking specifically about the issue that currently faces the British government.

I hope that clarifies what I wished to say.

While I'm back online: The normal collocation used in linguistics for this type of large-scale official influence on a language is "language planning". The term "linguistic engineering" is also used. Sadly, "language engineering" and "linguistic engineering" have over the years become used for a wide variety of concepts more or less related to computational linguistics, and are hence losing their usefulness in the sense I have been using them in this thread. Sad. I find them elegant and accurate.
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Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Aug 10, 2005 5:39 pm

Phil: While it's probably true that emotional considerations have always prevailed over rational ones in politics (and indeed ought not to be ignored completely), that does not also imply that a system in which the most important factor for the success of politicians is their ability to persuade voters by blinding them with bullshit is actually desirable.

Bob: I feel you've missed my point. You are already Welsh (giving you a well-established British regional identity), and I can't see why anyone else, or you yourself, would therefore need to label you as Welsh-British. On the other hand, if some of your neighbours in Swansea came from Ukraine, they might want to refer to themselves as Ukrainian-Welsh or Ukrainian-British, or have others refer to them in this way. It's partly a subjective thing (how positively they felt about their Ukrainian origins), and partly an objective one (their origins really would be Ukrainian, whether they liked it or not).
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Language engineering

Post by Bobinwales » Thu Aug 11, 2005 8:04 am

Thanks Erik, I can follow your reasoning now, but as you said, I am Welsh. I would be Welsh if my skin colour were green, so how can someone be African-American if their forebears were torn away from the continent in the 18th century? My great grandfather came from Somerset, that does not make me English-Welsh. In my opinion, the whole concept of pc lingo is to propagate the concept that skin colour matters, which to my mind is nonsense.
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Language engineering

Post by Shelley » Thu Aug 11, 2005 8:51 pm

For Phil White:
Englifier: One who renders a work into English; a translator. -- New English Dictionary, Sir James Murray, 1901
The above from a "daily word"-type calendar compiled by Jeffrey Kacirk called "Forgotten English". August 9th's word was Englifier. (I got it last Christmas -- somebody thought I might find it useful!) I bring this to your attention because it occurs to me that language engineering and translation are related in that they both deal with the manipulation of words. Doesn't really apply to this (really interesting!) discussion, but I wanted to throw two cents in . . . well, maybe just half a cent!
I note that Miia puts the modifier AFTER the national label:
. . . Finnish-Swedish minorities (living in Finland) and Swedish-Finnish minorities (in Sweden) . . .
In America, the modifier is placed BEFORE the larger group: an ethnic Swede in America would be a Swedish-American. The idea is that ethnicity is a sub-set of all Americans. The Finns may have it right, though, when the question inevitably becomes “yeah, yeah, but what’re ya’ FIRST?” In these gorgeous mosaic days, cultural identity (and loyalty) is under a lot of scrutiny here in the USA. All this hyphenating and splintering gets cumbersome, and I tend to resist it, but it might be serving a larger purpose in the long run. A few more hot, hot summers like this one and we'll end up in the melting pot again, and we'll need the hyphen to remind us which part of the mosaic to hang with before the next ice-age comes! (That is, if anyone can figure out what the mosaic is supposed to look like!) I don’t much like either metaphor. If it's up to me, I hope I get to be the blue tile that's right up next to a red or yellow one, and a bunch of us get to make purple or green.
Bobinwales wrote:
Blue Mink sang in the 60’s about a melting pot producing coffee coloured children by the score . . .
After the O.J. Simpson trial ended, I went to a lecture given by Chris Darden (you will recall he was on the prosecution's team). While despairing of the racial divide in America, and explaining how he thought of himself as a human being, rather than a "black" human being (not unlike Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"), he observed that if you look at how the young people are dating these days, everybody's gonna be taupe before too long! It got a big laugh.
It's hard for New Yorkers to relate to life in places where everyone is the same shade. In New York, everyone wears their hyphen on their sleeve, in a way. I don't like hyphens because they are simply useful in defining the differences between "us" and "them". If color, hyphen, or surname cannot be relied upon, then people finally resort to uniforms. I don't think hyphe-nationalism (did I make that up?) is purely about skin color. It’s more about what you like to eat.
Language is a great way to unite people, which is why I prefer immigrants to America to learn English. At my son's school, we use precious funds to provide translation (into several languages!) of all official school documents sent home to first-generation immigrant parents. I support the translation effort, but would prefer to use the money to subsidize ESL classes for those same parents.
My two cents turned into two dollars -- sorry for taking up so much of your time. Thanks for listening.
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Language engineering

Post by Phil White » Fri Aug 12, 2005 8:33 am

Shelley,

Thank you so much for "Englifier". I shall adopt it as my job title.
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Language engineering

Post by dalehileman » Fri Aug 12, 2005 5:29 pm

Googling "Englifier" yields almost entirely gibberish. Would it be unreasonable to conclude that the term is not exactly current
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Language engineering

Post by Phil White » Fri Aug 12, 2005 6:34 pm

dalehileman wrote: Googling "Englifier" yields almost entirely gibberish.
Being one often does so too. Take me by my word...
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Language engineering

Post by dalehileman » Mon Aug 29, 2005 5:04 pm

Phil: Oh I do. And thank you for all your past Englification
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