Bombing as Speech Act

There’s an interesting article up at Sapiens by William M. Cotter on military leaflets dropped over civilians during war in the Middle East, specifically Israeli messaging in Gaza as well as U.S. and allied leafleting over ISIS-held Raqqa. As a linguistic anthropologist, Cotter looks particularly at the language used in such leaflets, analyzing them for their strategic use in war. Looking, for example, at the vague language in messages informing Gazans to “stay away from Hamas elements,” Cotter asks, “What does the lack of specificity mean? Why are civilians only being provided with part of the story and given only a portion of the information that they need in order to avoid becoming victims of military strikes?”

The answer is of course because war – even with precision bombing and high tech missiles – doesn’t actually care about civilians or even the distinction between civilians and combatants. Especially in a place like Syria, where total war consumes lives regardless of this distinction, or in places like Gaza, perpetually stuck in interwar1 as civilians never know if violence is near. Actors such as ISIS fighters, the U.S. military and its drones, or the IDF often don’t care about this distinction either. Cotter provides some good analysis of what the messages are actually doing: they provide cover for militaries by technically “warning” civilians of impending violence but without adequately shielding them. In such instances of asymmetrical warfare, such leaflets or other messaging can act as an actual warning for civilians, but also also act as a free pass for military aggression or as a form of psychological warfare to intimidate the opponent.

While my own ongoing work on radio messages and leaflets in Uganda and the Congo resonates with this is somewhat tangential ways (and that will maybe be a forthcoming post), I want to flip the message of Cotter’s piece. The subtitle for his Sapiens article says: “Modern warfare isn’t only conducted with bombs, tanks, and guns—language also plays a central role.” But what if we think of bombs, tanks, and guns as linguistic tools?

If we conceive of bombing as a speech act, a tank as a performative, or a gun as medium, we begin to see all of warfare as communicative practice. War and violence say something, after all. Leaflets and propaganda say something about war, of course, but the politics of war-making and actual acts of war also have a lot to say. We should be attuned to violence as speech. Continue reading


Let’s Stop Telling Women How to Speak

Apparently there’s a new Chrome extension that will cut out words and phrases like “just” and “sorry” from e-mails. The app is aimed at women and is being marketed as a New Year’s resolution to help them stop using gendered words that temper their assertiveness. It’s the textual version of leaning in, I guess. From the article linked above:

The Just Not Sorry extension, which is downloadable at the Chrome app store, underlines self-demeaning phrases like “I’m no expert” and qualifying words like “actually” in red in Gmail like they’re spelling errors. Hover your mouse over the red words, and you’ll see explanatory quotes from women like Tara Mohr (“‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power.”) and Sylvia Ann Hewlett(“Using sorry frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership.”).

I’m all for an extension that links us to some cool quotes or whatever, but an app that tut-tuts people for using language that is labeled as “female” and therefore demeaning is, uh, problematic. I don’t think we need someone to tell us that using “sorry” makes someone unfit for leadership – maybe I want to sound empathetic. (Also, side-note that I’m totally aware that I’m a guy and this is totally different from my point of view, I promise).

Telling women to stop using qualifying words like “just” or “actually” is a coded way to telling women to talk more like men. Hidden under all that less-assertive-language policing is the misogynistic structure of, you know, everything.

This app is just another one of the ways in which women’s behaviors are deemed problematic. The impulse to tell women to stop using uptalk, for example, “implies that if women just spoke like men, our ideas would be valuable. If women just spoke like men, sexist listeners would magically understand us, and we would be taken seriously. But the problem is not with feminized qualities, of speech or otherwise, the problem is that our culture pathologizes feminine traits as something to be ashamed of or apologize for.

Uptalk and vocal fry, along with other speech patterns, get associated with women (and are subsequently denigrated). When it comes to whether or not we encourage women to change their speech, we become complicit in supporting a system that says to be successful is to behave according to a specific set of gendered ideals. This is just the sexism of our society manifested in a feminism self-help book whose goal is to act more like men. What we should be doing is carving out spaces where different language and speech patterns are all accepted in a more inclusive society that doesn’t try to mold people’s speech to a norm.

Here’s a brilliant quote from Debbie Cameron (who has also previously written about qualifying language and gender) on the new app:

Apart from being based on naïve and simplistic ideas about how language works, the other big problem with the ‘women, stop undermining yourselves’ approach is that it presupposes a deficit model of women’s language-use. If women use the word ‘sorry’ more than men (and by the way, that’s a genuine ‘if’: I’m not aware of any compelling evidence they do), that can only mean that women are over-using ‘sorry’, apologizing when it isn’t necessary or appropriate. The alternative interpretation—that men are under-using ‘sorry’ because they don’t always apologise when the circumstances demand it —is surely no less logical or plausible, but somehow it never comes up. As I said back in the summer, the assumption is always that ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

And if we expand our scope a little bit, her point on arguing the alternative is really important. The extension is based on the huge assumption that qualifying or deferential language is somehow a bad thing, even though it has many uses. As mentioned above, I use this qualifying language a lot, and I know it might “seem less assertive” or whatever, but I am aiming to be more inclusive, more empathetic, less of a douchebag.

This is why I really liked this article by Adam Gopnik on “The Conscientiousness of Kidspeak,” in which researchers found that teens’ use of “like” or “you know” or “um” is actually a sign that the speaker is more thoughtful and considerate of the listener and is trying to convey additional meaning beyond the words in between. Instead of telling young girls to cut out these markers, we should try listening to them. The assumption is that teens and the internet are ruining the language when maybe they’re making it better.

The point is, we shouldn’t be telling women to speak more like men – that won’t lead to any change. But if we can create spaces where women can talk like women and not be chastised for it, we can hope for an entire society that is more equal and in which women can just be accepted regardless of how they act. Why say “sorry” less when we could just empathize with people more? Why lean in at the boardroom when we could ask everyone else at the table to lean back a little and include those who don’t have a seat? Why tell women to change the way they speak when we could just actually listen?

Early 20th Century American Slang

For those who don’t know, I work part time at a library of rare books and manuscripts. It often involves stamping books, organizing magazines, opening the mail, filing receipts, and loading packages into the freezer. Recently, it involved putting a giant collection of Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books in numerical order. They are small 3.5″ x 5″ books published in Girard, Kansas, during the early- to mid-20th Century. The books include everything from Shakespeare and Ibsen plays to the U.S. Constitution and French-to-English guides. One that caught my eye was #56, A Dictionary of American Slang.

Included in it were some things that we still use today, like geezer, gold digger, high jack, and hot dog as an exclamation. But there were also some things that I have never heard of, and some of the definitions were just as strange. So, without further ado, some examples of ~1920s slang:

  • absotively – absolutely and positively
  • acknowledge the corn – admit responsibility for
  • Adam’s ale – water
  • all to the mustard – excellent
  • almighty dollar – money, god of America
  • applesauce – blah, tripe, nonsense, foolish talk
  • go to the bad – attend Sunday movies, dance, or otherwise offend the Rotary Methodist god
  • birthday suit – nature’s garb
  • cake eater – tea-hound, lounge-lizard, lady-bug
  • snake’s hips – something excellent
  • cracker – poor white, as in Georgia
  • dude – one who follows “What Men Are Wearing” in the theater programs
  • flumadiddle – humbug, flummery, nonsense
  • full of prunes – you’re crazy, you’re wrong
  • gibble-gabble, mulligatawny – foolish talk
  • to ride the goat – to be initiated into a secret society
  • fluzie – a daughter of joy, prostitute
  • Heavens! – formerly, god’s resident; now, an expletive
  • hotsy-totsy, tootsie-wootsie – a girl all to the mustard, all O.K.
  • izzum-wizzum – hotsy-totsy, red hot sweetie
  • Jericho (to send one to) – Hell, or Hoboken
  • justice – slang for what is obtained in legal courts
  • late unpleasantness – the last war; long used for the Civil War, in 200,000 AD it will be used of the most recent war
  • low-brow – an average person; one who prefers the poetry of Eddie Guest
  • Bible Marathon – the latest American indoor sport, in which both Testaments are read aloud in relays at breakneck speed, to the glory of God
  • mollycoddle – excessively effeminate person
  • mossback – a fossil, dodo, conservative stand-patter
  • to get one’s nanny – to get one’s goat
  • necktie partie – a hanging bee, lynching
  • to pass on – Christian Science euphemism for “to die.” It has become general throughout these Rotaried states. Nobody has died since Christ; all the rest have “passed on.”
  • paste – to strike a blow; “I’ll paste you in the bean”
  • piffle – nonsense, twaddle, applesauce, stewed rhubarb
  • poor white trash – a 100% free and un-terrified Nordic financial and mental pauper in the Southern States, whose family never owned slaves. If a child of poor white trash becomes President, historians will at once raise his ancestors to the aristocracy.
  • pop the question – to propose marriage; to dare congual shipwreck
  • primrose path – road to Hell, anything pleasant
  • puritan – one scrupulous about the morals of others; one who holds that the pleasant is always wicked
  • red – Communist, Socialist, Bolshevik, radical, prohibitionist, anti-prohibitionist, or member of any belief different from yours
  • right-o – annoying, the British expression of approval
  • rough diamond – an uncalcimined daddy; a rich man who eats peas with his knife 
  • rum row – the liquor-laden fleet 12 miles out
  • Sam Hill – the devil, as in “what the Sam Hill?” Sam’s father was Bunker Hill, shortened to Bunk Hill
  • stork – long-legged bird, purveying all human babies. In the U.S. the cabbage and rose bush methods have become slightly obscene; the biological is verboten. The Stork, Santa Clause, and Yahweh live in St. George Washington’s cherry tree.
  • strawberry blonde – red head, carrot top
  • V spot – five dollar bill
  • whangdoodle – mythical creature, akin to the gymnascutus, leg shorter on one side than the other, to let him feed n a hillside; nonsense

On Gender in Language

As I often do at this blog, I’m going to write about something that I know virtually nothing about. Keep that in mind – and feel free to comment – if you have anything to add. But I’d like to take a brief moment to talk about language, because I find linguistics fascinating despite my amateur experience with it. I speak a couple of languages at a fluent or near fluent level, and I speak a couple at a very, very basic level, and every once in a while I notice differences between them.

In Through the Language Glass, my first (and only) foray into linguistics – and a very introductory one at that – Guy Deutscher gives a broad overview of culture’s influence on language and language’s influence on culture. I read the book a couple of years ago, and every once in a while I think back to the studies that Deutscher mentions when I notice differences between the languages I speak or study. Recently, I’ve been learning Swahili, and it reminded me of something that Deutscher wrote about German, the language I learned in high school and college. In the book Deutscher quotes anthropologist Franz Boas as writing that “[Grammar] determines those aspects of each experience that must be expressed.” He then goes on to quote linguist Roman Jakobson: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” Deutscher continues:

If I say in English, “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor,” you may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we are speaking French or German or Russian, I don’t have the privilege to equivocate, because I am obliged by the language to choose between voisin or voisineNachbar or Nachbarinsosed or sossedka. So French, German, and Russian would compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I felt it was your business. [151-2]

I found this really interesting, as I had never seen the constrictions of some languages from the gendered point of view. In Mandarin Chinese, I have very specific words for family members: my mother’s older brother has a different name than my mother’s younger brother, and their names differ from my father’s older and younger brother as well. Chinese is particularly specific when it comes to kinship terms, but broader nouns don’t carry such specificity. All neighbors are neighbors, in other words.

Fast forward a year and a half, and read this wonderful piece by Angus Johnston about the time he was asked his preferred gender pronoun at a party:

[I]t was actually a great question that I was asked that night. It was an exciting question. I’m a “he.” I’ve always thought of myself as a he, and I expect I always will. I’m a man, I’m a guy, I’m a dad, I’m a son, I’m a brother.

But in that moment, I got to choose. I was asked to choose, asked to pick whether for the duration of that conversation I wanted to be approached as a he or as something else. And I knew that whatever answer I gave, it would be honored, respected, taken seriously. And that recognition, far more than any of the rote rounds of he/she/they/ze responses I’ve seen given at the start of workshops, opened something up in me. It wasn’t a door — at least not a door I was tempted to walk through — but it was a window.

And I liked the view.

I attended a conference in February that was dominated by English graduate students, many of whom worked on queer theory. (Jack Halberstam gave the keynote, if that’s any indication of the audience). There were some situations in which I awkwardly didn’t know how to refer to people because I didn’t know what their preferred gender pronoun was. One of my hosts with whom I spent a lot of time tended to use “they” to refer to a person, and I picked up on that when I needed something to default to. At the time, though, I also reflected on how other languages deal with gender pronouns.

In Swahili, there is no “he,” no “she,” no “it.” There is only yeye. There are plenty of nouns that carry gender: there are men and women, brides and grooms. But both waiters and waitresses are wanunuzi. Your neighbor is a jirani. And you don’t have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you have a mpenzi. And using that language everyday for fifty minutes is a window into a life under a different gender system. Obviously this doesn’t mean that it’s easier being trans* or queer in a Swahili-speaking society, but it means that living in that type of setting might be in some ways different. In Mandarin Chinese there is no difference between the third person pronouns. Whether you mean he, she, or it, you say ta. But, oddly enough, when you tried to write about him, her, and it, you would be compelled to write 他, 她, and 它. And so, in a way, talking about people may give you more privacy than writing about them if you’re interacting in Mandarin.

There’s not an argument that I’m building to, I suppose. I’m just processing how the different languages I know use gender, and how they allow speakers some freedom or privacy, but also how they constrict.