Language Thoughts

A few things have been shuffling around my mind vis-a-vis language.

Erin McKean, the editor-in-chief of the Oxford English Dictionary, gave a rather interesting talk over at TED about how dictionaries are destined to transform from their dusty, antiquated, book-ish form factor and should instead reflect the language that people use and invent and modify as they use it. It’s definitely a radical departure from what we commonly perceive to be the role of dictionaries, and while I applaud her ideas and I believe that dictionaries ought to be in an integral part of the way language is used in society, I’m not sure what role a dictionary would have if we allow them to act as a mere reflection of language in use rather than an authoritative resource for proper and correct use. In that way I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist, like the Académie Française. My good friend Kit brings up a good point, however, in that the determining of proper and correct use need not be top-down, but I guess the whole idea needs a lot more digesting.

I’m currently reading “Talking Hands” by Margalit Fox, who interweaves an in-depth survey of sign language and what it may reveal about the human mind, with her accounts of traveling to the Bedouin village of Al-Sayyid where a large proportion of its isolated inhabitants are deaf, and who have as a result an isolated sign language that forms an integral part of everyday life there. It’s a very informative read, but I think I’ve gotten most from the book about how careful anthropologists and linguists have to be in acting both as an academic as well as somewhat of an intruder in communities as such, and garnering trust from the people whose language you want to study is perhaps the hardest task of all.

The language of diplomacy is certainly very tricky. In the recent Security Council resolution 1860 calling for an “immediate, durable, fully respected ceasefire in Gaza leading to full withdrawal of Israeli forces”, the first clause of the resolution is that [the Security Council]

1. Stresses the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza;

The wording is a careful compromise of both US and international intentions – the United States wanted to stress the urgency of (but not forcefully demand or require action) while the rest of the world (and in particular the Arab nations) wanted a more direct call to actually carry through the ceasefire. It’s pretty sad to think that the United States, in addition to its abstention from actually passing the resolution, can actually present such a lukewarm attitude to ending violence and suffering, all in the name of supporting Israel.

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