Archives For French

Powerful Names

September 30, 2013 — 14 Comments

missilesIt’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming (or labeling) something wields great power.

Whether it be a concrete object, or an idea, the power to name carries the power to shape perceptions.

Philosophically, we might agree that:

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Juliet, Romeo and Juliet).

But, if we are perfectly honest, calling it “skunk cabbage” might affect our perception of its aroma.

A classic example of the power of naming comes from the era of Norse exploration. In the ninth century, Vikings began settling in the inhospitably named “Iceland.” The island was majestic, and its spectacular glaciers and volcanoes still allowed room for extremely fertile farmsteads.

Less than a century and a half later, Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland. He sailed west and established the first colony on a much larger island that he enticingly named Greenland. Erik’s brilliant advertising ploy was quite effective, and hundreds of settlers joined him in the much harsher climes to Iceland’s west.

The specific appellations which led me to ponder the power that resides in naming once again,* actually came from a much more modern source—weaponry.

Military leaders have a knack for generating striking names. Often they are brilliant; occasionally they completely miss the mark. In either case, it’s curious to note the message their choice of nomenclature seeks to emphasize. Consider for a moment two different American missiles.

The AGM-114 Hellfire and the LGM-118A Peacekeeper

The reader naturally assumes the purpose of the former is to rain sulfur and brimstone down on the enemy, while the mission of the latter is to benignly maintain peace. One suspects, however, that being at the epicenter of either explosive device would be equally disastrous.

Another example we might consider is a bit more controversial, but fascinating nonetheless. Consider these labels for movements involved in the abortion debate.

Self-Preferred  ||  Used by Opponents  ||  Used by the Media

Pro-Choice  ||  Pro-Abortion  ||  Pro-Choice

Pro-Life  ||  Anti-Choice  ||  Anti-Abortion

It doesn’t require a brilliant intellect to comprehend the tone each of these labels evokes. Nor should it come as a surprise how the mainstream media tends to line up in the debate.

It’s all in the name. The person who succeeds in naming something wields great power.

C.S. Lewis was a master of language. He knew names exercise significant influence on how things are perceived. In the following passage from “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” he describes how a powerful word—in this case “mercy”—can be dangerously misleading when applied to something inimical to itself.

Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice: transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.

In another essay, “‘Bulverism:’ or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” Lewis actually coins a word which has found favor with a literate subculture. The peculiar word he created conveys a sense of obtuse, opinionated self-smugness. (Yes, I may be reading just a little bit into “Bulverism,” but I really don’t think so. The aristocratic or remote sounding surname “Bulver,” the “ism” suffix and, of course, the “Bul” prefix all combine to engender an odd and unappealing impression.)

The subject Lewis addresses in this work is the unwillingness of disagreeing parties to honestly debate the merits of an issue. Instead, they rush to employ the invalid (and terribly effective) ad hominem approaches that characterize so much of modern politics.

C.S. Lewis is so talented (and ingenious) that he provides us with a biographical note on the fictional creator of the deficient form of “debate” prevalent in the modern era. “The modern method [of argument],” Lewis begins, “is to assume without discussion [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.”

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—“Oh, you say that because you are a man.”

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

. . . Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason.

Sadly, Bulver’s disciples continue to increase, rather than diminish.

Since it was military missiles that initially got me thinking about the subject of the power of naming, it might be fitting to end with a few more evocative labels. They certainly elicit a wide range of impressions.

Condor: Argentina’s avian contribution

Piranha: Tiny but vicious and straight from Brazil’s Amazon

Velvet Glove: Canada’s mixed message

Sky Sword: China’s blending of the ancient and modern

Apache: French, which confuses this American veteran**

Meteor: A European offering sure to land hard if it doesn’t disappear in the atmosphere

Martel: Anglo-French venture they surely don’t want Islamists to think is a tribute to Charles Martel, Hero of the Battle of Tours***

V-1 Flying Bomb: Got to Hand it to the Germans for straight-forward labeling.

Rhinemaidens (Rheintöchter): There’s apparently Teutonic Poetry as well

Fateh: Iran’s “Conqueror”

Zelzal: Iran’s “Earthquake”

Sejjil: Iran’s “Baked Clay” (well we can’t expect all the Persian names to be winners)

Jericho: From Israel where we know whose walls tumbled down

Spike: Israeli and probably not a reference to Jael and the Book of Judges****

Hatf: Pakistani “Vengeance” (derived from the gentle sword of Muhammad)

Hyunmoo: Korea’s mythical “Guardian of the Northern Sky” (mayhap a reference to their aggressive northern neighbor)

Penguin: Those Norwegians really know how to frighten their enemies

Malakhit (Малахит): Just one of Russia’s curiously named explosives in their “mineral missile series”

Umkhonto: South African “Spear” from the Zulu tongue

The Brits are uniquely creative when it comes to naming missiles. They include: Blowpipe, Brimstone, Green Cheese, Rapier, Sea Skua and, of course, Fairey Fireflash and it’s less intimidating companion Fairey Stooge.

For some reason, I find a missile named “Green Cheese” particularly disconcerting. Whoever named that specific weapon was devilishly clever. If I were a world leader, I’d surrender immediately, rather than face a foe confident enough in their military prowess to use that sort of twisted culinary nomenclature for their armaments.

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* I have written on the subject of personal names in the past.

** It just may translate as “Ruffian,” but I don’t think I want to go there, since it hints at political incorrectness.

*** It’s actually a combination of the missile’s guidance options: Missile, Anti-Radiation, Television. I’m sure the parallel with the Frankish defender of the Christian Church is a mere coincidence.

**** The fourth chapter of the Book of Judges.

Our Common Tongue

May 9, 2013 — 5 Comments

Bruegel BabelThe ancestors of Europeans and Asians spoke a common language 15,000 years ago, as the ice age was ending.

That “discovery” sounds remarkably familiar to those acquainted with an ancient story about a colossal edifice erected in the ancient past. The Hebrews preserved a record of the achievement in the eleventh chapter of the book of Genesis. At the time of the tower’s construction, all of humanity consisted of “one people [sharing] one language.”

The argument for just such a common language is made in a detailed study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After finishing this column, you may wish to read the original journal article, which is available here.

The mechanics of the study will be of great interest to all logophiles (word lovers).

Using sophisticated statistical analysis, the researchers identified 23 different words that have remained recognizable for fifteen millennia. These “ultraconserved” words include some of the fundamental building blocks of basic communication. They include: not, mother, man (i.e. male), we, this, hand, old, fire, ashes and (rather oddly) worm.

The study identifies “proto-words” that underlie common terms in extremely diverse languages. It is no accident that these universal words are the ones that are the most concrete, frequent and essential for human communication.

The Languages of the World Etymological Database, part of the Tower of Babel project . . . records reconstructed proto-words for language families from around the world. Proto-words are hypotheses as to the form of the word used by the common ancestor or proto-language of a given language family to denote a given meaning.

These words are reconstructed by first identifying cognate words among the languages of a given family and then, because cognate words derive from a common ancestral word, working back in time to reconstruct the probable features of that shared ancestral form.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a brilliant linguist, and his abiding love of languages provided the impulse for the creation (and intricate history) of all of Middle Earth.

C.S. Lewis was one of the twentieth centuries greatest writers. He was also a scholar—one with an outstanding grasp of literature. Lewis acknowledged that words describing immediate, touchable concerns can be distinct and firm, just like the realities they connote. However, when language moves farther from such elements, it invariably grows more abstract.

All language, except about objects of sense, is metaphorical through and through. To call God a “Force” (that is, something like a wind or a dynamo) is as metaphorical as to call Him a Father or a King. On such matters we can make our language more polysyllabic and duller: we cannot make it more literal. The difficulty is not peculiar to theologians. Scientists, poets, psychoanalysts, and metaphysicians are all in the same boat. (God in the Dock, “Horrid Red Things”).

The linguistic study described here notes that frequency of usage exerts a stabilizing influence on words. Whereas less common (and more abstract) vocabulary “evolves” more rapidly.

A rule-of-thumb emerges that words used more than around once per 1,000 in everyday speech evolve slowly enough to have a high chance of being judged cognate among more than two of the language families; this might equate to around 16 uses per day per speaker of these high-frequency words.

Throughout history various languages have vied with one another for precedence. In the Mediterranean world Greek, for a season, and then Latin for another, were the “universal” tongues. The phrase lingua franca (literally, the “Frankish language”) has now come to refer to any language that is extensively used as a common bridge between speakers of different tongues.

Such languages, of course, enhance communication. That is not to suggest, however, that the development of these “dominant” languages is without critics. It seems, for example, that France was delighted in their language serving for many years as a standard for international diplomacy. Today however, France continues to staunchly resist the advances of English. (In 1994 the initial version of the Toubon Law overreached in requiring the extensive use of French in nearly all contexts. You can read about some implications for international businesses here.)

Even C.S. Lewis regretted some of the negative influences of American English on the mother tongue. In his book Studies in Words, he mourns:

I have an idea of what is good and bad language. . . . Language is an instrument for communication. The language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best. It is better to have like and love than to have aimer for both.

It was better to have the older English distinction between “I haven’t got indigestion” (I am not suffering from it at the moment) and “I don’t have indigestion” (I am not a dyspeptic) than to level both, as America has now taught most Englishmen to do, under “I don’t have.”

It remains to be seen whether any single language will come to truly dominate the world scene. Being able to communicate freely across all political borders sounds like a noble goal. It is ironic that should that day ever arrive it will mark a return to how things once began.

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The painting reproduced above was painted circa 1563 by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.