Communication is complicated in the modern Tower of Babel

Photo: Deoridhe Grimsdottir Quandry/Flickr

“But far more numerous was the herd of such/Who think too little, and who talk too much.”

-John Dryden           

During the early 1960s, I was assistant editor of The Newfoundland Examiner, a weekly tabloid published in St. John’s. It was a journal launched to provide progressive news and views that were not likely to be found in the province’s conservative media.

Our sole reporter was Malcolm (“Mac”) Maclaren, who had earlier emigrated to Newfoundland from England. He and I were boarders in a lodge owned by Mrs. Penny (not her real name), and she became a good friend as well as a good host.

One evening, however, her friendship with Mac was sorely tested. She had a dentist’s appointment at 8 o’clock the next morning, but her alarm clock was broken, so she was worried about getting there on time.

“Oh, that’s all right, Mrs. Penny,” Mac assured her. “I’m always up at seven, as you know, so I’ll knock you up.”    

To say that Mrs. Penny was stunned by this promise would be an understatement. It took us nearly 20 minutes to calm her down and convince her that the term “knock up” in England simply means “to awaken.” 

It was a striking example of how the expression of certain words and phrases -- even in a language shared by both parties -- can be misinterpreted, sometimes causing unintended offence.

Visitors to England from Canada have to learn that a druggist is a chemist, an elevator a lift, a lawyer a barrister, a cleaning lady a charwoman, a raincoat a mackintosh, a garbage can a dustbin, a biscuit a scone, and an apartment a flat.

The linguistic disparities between Brits and Americans are even more numerous. So much so that American books published in England have to be re-set in type before publication because of the many common words that are spelled differently. Some examples: Verbs ending in ise in the U.S. are changed to ize (socialize, dramatize). Words ending in er are changed to re (centre, theatre). Tire becomes tyre, check becomes cheque.

No wonder George Bernard Shaw referred to Great Britain and the United States as “nations separated by a common language.”   

Verbal variance

Canada shares some of this verbal variance with Britain, but not to the same extent. Although we’ve Americanized some words, we retain most of the superior British versions. We still prefer the ize endings, cheque rather than check, theatre rather than theater.

One of the main linguistic preferences we share with the British over the Americans is in the inclusion of “u” in words like colour, honour, and neighbour -- words from which the U.S. has deleted the “u”.

A long time ago, while I was editing an anthology of labour relations essays written by both Canadian and American authors, I ran head-on into the “u” stew. The Canadian writers maintained the “u” while the American writers omitted it.

As an editor who liked to have the same spellings used throughout a book, I was in a quandary. Especially since a word that appeared hundreds of times in the book -- labour -– was being spelled differently, depending on the nationality of the author.

I couldn’t possibly choose the American spelling over the Canadian, if only because of our oft-quoted claim that “the most important part of labour is you.” Nor could I arbitrarily insert the u in the American spelling without causing an international uproar. I had to compromise and allow both versions of the word to stand, explaining in my preface why the spelling difference was unavoidable.

The ‘American’ takeover

When I referred previously to citizens of the United States as Americans, I knowingly participated in a worldwide linguistic conspiracy. The people of the U.S. have every right to call themselves Americans –- but so does every citizen of every country in North and South America. Canadians are Americans, Mexicans are Americans, Nicaraguans are Americans, Brazilians are Americans.

Why, then, has the United States been allowed to appropriate the “American” appellation as if it applied only to its citizens?

One can sympathize with the problem they created for themselves when they chose to call their country the United States of America. How could they then identify themselves? Not as United States of Americans, surely, and even less as United Statesians.

As a last resort, they hit upon the solution: usurping the word “American” as if it only meant “citizen of the United States.”

And the rest of the countries in North and South America let them get away with it. As did the rest of the world. Nobody now objects or even raises an eyebrow when a citizen of the United States, when asked his or her nationality, proudly answers, “I’m an American!”

That was the “American” Empire’s first conquest, and it soon led to the adoption of English as the new country’s official language. So deeply embedded has the Americanized version of English since become in the United States that most Americans now consider themselves its predominant speakers.

This conceit has led to a widespread disdain of other languages, which in their view are all inferior forms of communication. Americans do admire the refined manner in which classically educated Britons enunciate, especially as actors and TV hosts; but that’s because these foreigners are still speaking English. Speakers of other languages –- except perhaps Spanish –- are not so well regarded.

The prevailing attitude toward other languages by most Americans was probably summed up best by the rich American lady who objected to the use of any foreign language in the U.S. ”If God had not wished us all to speak English,” she reportedly argued, “he would not have written the Bible in English.” 

The use and misuse of language

According to the renowned author and linguist Charles Berlitz, “Language, reinforced and immortalized through writing, has been the most important development in the progress of the human species.”

True enough. Many outstanding speeches or books by politicians, preachers and reformers have precipitated historic change, for good or ill. They include Martin Luther’s Here I Stand, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream, Susan B. Anthony’s Are Women Persons?, Abraham Lincoln’s Government of the People, by the People, for the People, Mahatma Ghandi’s I Want to Avoid Violence, and Winston Churchill’s Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat. 

In his book Native Tongues, Berlitz provides a few examples of how language incidents changed history. One notable incident involved the wrong translation of a Japanese word. Before dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. President Harry Truman sent a message to the Japanese giving them the chance to surrender or have one or more of their cities totally destroyed. The Japanese government decided to defer a decision until after a cabinet discussion and sent a reply to the effect that it was following a policy of mokusatsu.

This word can mean either “ignore” or “answer withheld.” The American translator chose to interpret it as “ignore,” and thus an implied refusal to surrender. It was a misinterpretation that unleashed the most devastating mass annihilation of civilians in the history of warfare.

Communication vs. propaganda

According to Berlitz, there are 2,796 languages in the world, as well as 7,000 or more dialects. Most people speak one of the 14 important languages that have at least 50 million speakers. But that still leaves a terribly complicated jumble of languages that makes inter-communication extremely difficult.

Chinese is spoken by the largest number of people –- well over a billion –- but English, though with “only” 450 million native speakers (not including the speakers of American English) has nevertheless become much more widely spoken internationally than Chinese. At least 300 million people around the world now speak English as a second language, and many more plan to learn English -- mainly because it has become the universal language of trade, commerce, travel, and diplomacy.

It is possible that English will eventually become the easy-to-learn-and-speak international language that aspiring unilinguists have been striving to create for the past 200 years. Indeed, they have invented several versions of such a language, including Esperanto, only to have them all fail to be widely adopted.

This raises a pertinent question. If the nearly one billion people who now have some capacity to speak English still have trouble communicating with one another in the same language, how could a new invented language be any better?

I’m referring, of course, to the widespread misuse of English to supplant fact with fable, truth with falsehood, propriety with propaganda. The language has been mangled by “alternative facts” and fabrications. The purpose of many conservative business leaders, politicians and pundits seems to be to mislead their audiences, not enlighten them.

And to what purpose? Obviously, to fool them into believing and supporting the ruinous neoliberal policies that are worsening poverty and inequality, undermining social programs, and wrecking the environment.

Most of the millions duped by this propaganda become such “true believers” that they angrily reject the progressive reforms that would help them. They don’t read much any more. They don’t listen to views that conflict with the myths they’ve been fed. They surf the Internet only to seek right-wing gobbledegook that reinforces their ignorance. They have, in short, willingly forfeited the ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood.

Hillary Clinton, in ridiculing most of Donald Trumps’ supporters as “deplorables,” made a gaffe that didn’t help her campaign. Although politically unwise, however, it wasn’t far from the truth.     

The far-right business and government elites benefit immensely from the decline of reading and reasoning. They benefit from the addiction of so many people to TV and movie shows, to the incessant overuse of “smart” phones, and to the multiple forms of digital games. This preoccupation with entertainment diverts the minds of millions from the much more pressing social, economic and environmental issues that are being left to the rich and powerful to control.

But hang on, there’s still hope

To end on an uplifting note, it’s crucial that we should never give way to despair. We should be greatly encouraged that, though millions of people may still remain passive, many more millions have become alert and active, earnestly committed to the achievement of progressive change. The swell of massive opposition to sexual harassment is an outstandingly encouraging development. So are the many global campaigns to tackle global warming.

Perhaps the strongest inspiration for the retention of hope was provided by the many thousands of high school students across the United States who left their classrooms to protest gun violence and demand gun control. Obviously, these teenagers were not so hooked to their cellphones that the recent school massacre in Florida failed to bestir them. It certainly did. The massacre deeply affected and motivated them.

In organizing these concurrent demonstrations so quickly and proficiently, they displayed surprisingly high levels of skill and dedication. Their spontaneous outcry is surely not to be an isolated event. I see it as marking the birth of a burgeoning youth activism in the U.S. -– and hopefully in Canada and other countries -- that is bound to persist and build in the years ahead.

Befittingly, our civilization may yet be saved from destruction by its youngest members -– those who have the most to gain from the prevention of a global-warming-triggered global catastrophe.  

Photo: Deoridhe Grimsdottir Quandry/Flickr 

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