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

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.

Thinking in Tongues

So, I’m taking a two-semesters-in-one German class right now. The beginning was easy, as most of it was review of things I still remembered. Now, we’re getting into things where I’m a bit fuzzier.  If I could, I’d be one of the uber-multi-lingual folks who can speak a half dozen languages. That probably won’t happen until the later years of my life.

But it’s interesting to compare notes on the different languages I do know.  English is, of course, my native tongue.  I know all the rules – and the many exceptions – and can speak without even thinking about it.  I can write long papers in mere minutes just by throwing caution to the wind and my hands to the keyboard. I can type this blog. Needless to say, I think in English.

Mandarin, which is hella difficult, is also pretty easy for me, generally. I fumble over the myriad articles (as opposed to our lovely English three) and I need to expand my vocabulary for sure. But, I grew up speaking Mandarin and it works just fine for me.  I don’t spent too much time translating things in my head, which is nice. Readings and writing is terrible for me, because the characters and independent from the phonetic, so I rarely think of the right words. I get the tones correct for the most part when speaking though. I think in Mandarin too.

German, which is way easier than Mandarin, hurts sometimes. Despite having a HUGE number of cognates (guess what Haus, Telefon, Auto, Familie, Universitaet, and Schule are) and some similarities in structure, I keep running into road blocks. Gendered nouns drive me crazy, and add on that German has four different cases. I was trying to help Kim with part of her German homework last night and I just stopped because of confusion – hopefully we can help each other more when we’re in class together next semester. On my way to German yesterday I talked to Joey about exactly this. No matter how easy or difficult a language is, the important thing is to be able to think in that language. I don’t think in German.