What Do The French And The Iranians Have In Common?

Oh, there's a joke with a lot of possible answers, ranging from bathing habits to the hirsuteness of the women, but the answer I have in mind is "They're both opposed to the natural evolution of language". That might not be a very funny answer, but the resulting imbecility certainly is. Consider, firstly, that all laws are, ultimately, backed by lethal force. A law is a gun, whether in America or France or Iran. If you're not willing to shoot someone over something, then, don't make a law about it. A simple rule which, if followed, would lead to a saner and freer society. But back to the Iranians and the French: They are, it seems, willing to shoot you if you use English words for concepts which don't exist in the native tongue.

In France, they want you to say "Memoire Dynamique" instead of "RAM". In Iran, you must say "little room" instead of "cabin".

In America, meanwhile, we do to other languages what we do to other nations -- plunder them for all they're worth and then dance about on the broken corpse singing "Yankee Doodle". Or, as someone else put it, "English does not borrow from other languages. English chases other languages into alleys, knocks them out, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar." English has the largest vocabulary in the world, because we'll take any word which suits our fancy, then we'll verb it if we must. Without lubricant.

The ability to adapt words and concepts from other cultures makes you stronger, not weaker. Japan has only been strengthened by their wholesale adoption and adaptation of foreign languages and cultural tropes. The old, isolated, Japan was still using samurai swords in the 19th century. After opening to the West and taking the best ideas that it had to offer, they became the only Asian nation to have the power to challenge the empires of Europe and America on their own terms. Other nations in the region became colonies and pawns; Japan became an Empire. Not by hiding from the rest of the world, but by embracing it. (Well, OK, it was a bit of a forced embrace at first, Commodore Perry and all that, but the Japanese were smart enough to see which way the gunsmoke was blowing and chose to "embrace and extend" rather than simply be conquered and controlled.)

If a culture is so weak and feeble that it is threated by use of the word "pizza", then, that culture deserves to die. Take it off the life support of linguistic regulation, and allow it to perish.

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  1. Zachary Drake says:

    I comment on this on my blog:

    It has always amused me that some, like the Académie française, are of the opinion that language is a top-down, rather than bottom-up phenomenon. Iran's Ahmadinejad is the latest to get into the game. Sullivan says, "Stuff like this must surely help the younger Persians to take him unseriously." I agree, though it would be good to hear from some of them directly.

    Although I do not share Lizard's libertarian opinions about laws and guns, I do agree with the author of Applied Misanthropology when he states: "The ability to adapt words and concepts from other cultures makes you stronger, not weaker." He cites the example of Japan, which beginning in the 19th century has been voraciously devouring foreign ideas, words, and practices. And yet it clearly isn't in any danger of losing its distinctive culture. It lost its old feudal culture, certainly, but what with video games and anime and ramen it certainly seems to be holding its own in modernity.

    I think cultural protectionism is silly and ineffective (but then I'm a member of a pretty dominant culture and a speaker of a pretty dominant language, so perhaps this sentiment is self-serving). Governments or government-sponsored agencies trying to tell people what words to use for things seems like the worst kind of statist paternalism imaginable. (OK, probably not the worst, but pretty intrusive and annoying.)


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