Saturday, July 29, 2006

Elastic Loaves! Get Yer Fresh Hot Elastic Loaves!

*Noshing on National Language Policies

An AP article in today's Times online reports that President Bush's prolix pen-pal, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has ordered all Western words deported from Iran. The article is short enough to copy here:

Iranian President Bans Usage of Foreign Words

Published: July 29, 2006
Filed at 6:53 a.m. ET

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered government and cultural bodies to use modified Persian words to replace foreign words that have crept into the language, such as ''pizzas'' which will now be known as ''elastic loaves,'' state media reported Saturday.

The presidential decree, issued earlier this week, orders all governmental agencies, newspapers and publications to use words deemed more appropriate by the official language watchdog, the Farhangestan Zaban e Farsi, or Persian Academy, the Irna [Islamic Republic News Agency] official news agency reported.

The academy has introduced more than 2,000 words as alternatives for some of the foreign words that have become commonly used in Iran, mostly from Western languages. The government is less sensitive about Arabic words, because the Quran is written in Arabic.

Among other changes, a ''chat'' will become a ''short talk'' and a ''cabin'' will be renamed a ''small room,'' according to official Web site of the academy.

Astute readers will recognize in the decree the kind of linguistic lock-down that historically accompanies the consolidation of geopolitical power. Hitler was renowned for inventing German words to refer euphemistically to Nazi operations, e.g., Einvolkung ("one people"), to refer to Aryan assimilation, and Sonderbehandlung ("special treatment"), to execution. But the attempt to exterminate languages deemed foreign and threatening to national interests crosses all geopolitical boundaries and sensibilities.

Among Western European languages, the promotion of the native tongue accompanied the vernacular impetus of the religious Reformation and the centralization of the nation-state, as native languages replaced Latin as the language of religion and official state business.

In Italy, the Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri launched the Italian vernacular movement with his treatise De vulgari eloquentia (ca. 1300), in which he privileged the native tongue (locutio prima) over the learned languages, Latin and Greek. As Italy's city-states vied for dominance of the Appenine peninsula, la questione della lingua had Italians perennially debating which regional variety of Italian should be privileged as the vernacular standard.

In England, the London idiom, "the flower of English," was assumed to be superior to all other regional dialects. Instead, sixteenth-century English humanists protested the influx of words “englished” from Latin and Continental languages: Sir John Cheke opined that “our tongue should be written clear and pure, unmixt and unmangled with borrowings of other tongues”; and Thomas Wilson, who wrote one of the first rhetorics written in English, lamented that “some seek so far outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mothers' language.”

Wilson's use of the word outlandish is key here. Referring to language spoken in the "out-lands," and defining that language as irregular and eccentric, the term links English's linguistic boundaries to the country's national borders, as England looked to fend off any form of foreign invasion.

Unlike France, however, as well as present-day Iran, England never established a formal academy charged with policing the purity of the native tongue. In this respect, it is significant that the Times article does not specify what punishments will be meted to Iranians who continue to use the banned words: Who will regulate the new decree? How will offenses be prosecuted?

It goes without saying (at least in this blog) that language usage is nigh-impossible to police, and language change impossible to stem. That said, we cannot underestimate the punitive stakes of the legislation, or consider such a futile attempt to regulate speech immaterial (read: human rights advocates, on alert).

Nor can we consider the law foreign to our own legal and linguistic sensibilities, an outlandish instance of Islamic fundamentalism. After all, the "English first" campaign here is inseparable from debates over U.S. immigration, and millions of immigrants stand to suffer materially from what is legislated and enacted in both.

What will domestic enforcement of the Iranian language policy reveal more broadly about that nation's will to global power? (Here we might note that the word "Iran" is an Anglicized form of the name of the country, derived from same Sanskrit root as the word "Aryan.") How might "English first" policies be feasibly -- and responsibly (i.e., Constitutionally) -- regulated here?

Something to chew on while you eat your pizza (from Italian) in your summer cabin (from Spanish). Indeed, feel free to chat about it -- chat is native to English.

Update 6:04 CDT: Seeing as Mark Liberman at Language Log was kind enough to offer me a hat tip, let me return the gratitude with the link to his post, which he has just updated with a fascinating paper on Farhangestan guidelines. Do check it out.

*As I note in my subsequent post, I first misspelled this word as gnoshing. Mea culpa.


komfo,amonan said...

By the way, IRNA stands for Islamic Republic News Agency. Do they have a website? Yes. Yes they do. Compellingly, one of their house languages is "Srpski", which is I guess how they refer to Bosnian in, er, Iranian.

Euonymous said...

Excellent. I shall remove the sic and insert the title.

Indeed, while I'm abashed not to have known this (and delighted to learn about it), the Times was remiss in not spelling out the source of the acronym.

Many, many thanks for the correction and for the link to the website (!).

Anonymous said...

Pretty interesting site you've got here. Thanx for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to this matter. BTW, why don't you change design :).

PoesyProf said...

Thanks for the compliment... Do I know you? I did change design (jumped ship to Wordpress), but then abandoned blogging altogether (alas).