Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

How Historical Events Change Language

A traumatic event can spawn a whole bunch of new words.  People on the other side of the event have a new vocabulary.

How do historical events - especially traumatic ones - change language?  One way is through the coining of neologisms. For example, while the 2008-2012? Great Recession persists, Time has done a little online piece about 'Post-Recession Lingo':
Adding to the list of post-recession terms such as "unbanked" (individuals without checking or savings accounts), "anti-dowry" (student loan debt holding you back from getting married or buying a house), and "Groupon remorse" (regret felt upon buying a daily deal you can't use or never really wanted), here's a roundup of zeitgeist-y phrases, including "squatter's rent," "light bulb anxiety," and "not retiring." 
"Financially Fragile"
If an emergency occurred and you needed to come up with $2,000 within 30 days, could you do it? (Legally, hopefully?) If not, then you'd be categorized as "financially fragile," and researchers say that nearly half of Americans fit the description. ...

"Light Bulb Anxiety"
This fear, based on oft-misunderstood legislation intended to phase out usage of traditional incandescent light bulbs, has caused business owners and everyday consumers to stock up the old-fashioned bulbs by the thousands, according to the NY Times. Why all the hoarding? Many people just prefer the light given off by incandescent bulbs over LED or compact fluorescent bulbs. Also, there are plenty of people who aren't sold on the idea that the new-fangled bulbs really save all that much money or energy: In one survey, one-third of homeowners who paid for energy-efficiency upgrades (including switching to CFL bulbs) hadn't seen the decrease in energy bills that they expected.

"Squatter's Rent"
Also referred to as "free rent," it's the money a homeowner—soon to be ex-homeowner, most likely—gets to keep each month when he stops paying the mortgage and has yet to be kicked out of the home. "Squatter's rent" around the nation is estimated to come to a total of $50 billion this year.
I have suffered from Light Bulb Anxiety, so I guess I'm glad there's a term for it.

New techniques in expression and new terms are needed to think about that which was previously unthinkable.  New words are signposts, showing us where the 'before' and 'after' of history are.  The removal of words indicates a break with the past.  But what happens to these linguistic reactions over the long term?  Do neologisms survive?  Do obliterated words, once forbidden by historical memories or historical shame, ever make a big return?  Sometimes, a population does away with their whole language altogether, and switches to another one, apparently better suited to the aftermath.  Finally, traumatic histories tend to produce new forms of language focussed on changing our understanding of time.

These are old questions.  During the Hundred Years' War, there were widespread rumours that the French intended to wipe out the English language.  At the time, French was spoken by England's ruling and commercial classes.  The war had the opposite outcome, and spelt the end of the use of the French language in England.  In the following century, the Protestant Reformation had a huge impact on local vernaculars.

A French Republican clock, part of the project to redesign the whole way the French nation thought about time during the Revolution. Image Source: Wiki.

During the French Revolution, revolutionaries not only insisted on the uniform national use of the French language (the absolutist monarchs had been lax about what language their subjects spoke).  They also transformed it with a bunch of neologisms.  Interestingly, many of these reflected the French revolutionary obsession with breaking with the past and rebranding time in their own terms.  They redesigned the calendar, and renamed the seasons, the months, the days of the week; they also invented a bunch of newly-named secular, nature-oriented festivals that the right-minded were forced to celebrate.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy's big implicit subplot in his great novel about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia concerns the evolution of language.  The novel opens with a noblewoman speaking French.  By the end of the novel, the élites have switched to speaking Russian.

James Dawes wrote a book entitled, The Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. from the Civil War through World War II, in which he traced the relationship between the evolution of words and American violence.  The history of slavery in America includes a long, complex linguistic story that ends with the evolution of the African American vernacular, which implicitly preserves relics like the use of double negatives and the avoidance of certain auxiliary verbs in favour of others (such as the preference for 'to be doing' or 'to do' in specific auxiliary constructions).

Because the First World War is considered to be such a huge watershed, much of the soldiers' slang has survived.  Trench slang allowed soldiers to describe horrifying events that had never been seen before.  Drawn to fight by visions of honour, the soldiers found themselves confronting almost total barbarity.  As a result, Samuel Hynes claims that English came out of the Great War a "damaged" language.  Euphemisms cloaked the mention of death, enforcing a superstitious taboo against openly referring to it, because it was everywhere.  One way of avoiding mention of death was to say someone had 'gone west.' New terms came of the new order born in those mud- and blood-filled ditches that stay with us: 'over the top'; 'on the wire'; 'No Man's Land'; a 'dud'; 'coffin nails'; 'daisy cutter'; 'dum dum'; 'shell shock'; 'blimp'; 'body snatcher'; 'cat walk'; 'chit'; 'civvy'; 'crummy'; 'cubby hole'; 'doughboy' - a British term for US soldiers; 'fag' for cigarette; 'funk' for depression; 'nix'; 'pipsqueak' - for a small calibre shell; 'plonk' for cheap wine; 'plug,' meaning to shoot or 'plug' with lead; 'silent death,' referring to quiet, deadly ambushes in No Man's Land. 

Any Orson Welles fan should know that during the Great War, a 'Third Man' referred to the third person to light a cigarette from a shared match; soldiers believed he would be killed soon after.  The term was associated with pushing your luck, tempting fate, or going too far.  It came from the belief that snipers used the match light in the dark to find their target.  The sniper's first sight of the match light alerted him; the second pass of the match to another soldier gave him time to aim; and by the third pass of the match, the enemy sniper could fire.

One Great War expression that did not make it through to our times is 'pickled monkey,' defined as: "An unknown species of meat served as food to prisoners of war by the Germans."

The end of the Second World War marked the destruction of words and rhetorical styles in German. A German Literature professor whose class I attended explained the effects of World War II and the post-war shame of the Holocaust on the German language. He claimed that certain words that were habitually associated during the war with the logistics of the Holocaust - including banal terms for objects, locations, and railway-related terms associated with the transport of Jews - died out after the war. In some cases, he argued, they were forcibly removed from the language and consciously prohibited.

The Germans referred to the period immediately after the Second World War as Nullpunkt - 'Zero Point,' or die Stunde Null - 'Zero Hour.' Zero Hour was the moment on 8 May 1945 when the Nazi government capitulated. Right at the end of the war, there was a tabula rasa, blank slate moment, when the defeated survivors saw German society as totally obliterated. A poem I particularly remember that captured this mood was Günter Eich's Inventur (Inventory - for a translated version of the German Wiki page about the poem, go here). In the poem, the narrator, a POW, lists his few belongings, culminating with his most precious possession, his pencil lead, with which he can build a new reality by writing in his notebook. Inventur was based on Eich's experience in a prisoner-of-war camp. The poem is an example of so-called Debris Literature, literature conceived in the wreckage, in an atmosphere of defeat and the need nevertheless to recover and rebuild. The poem is partly an ironic play on the mentality of the receding wartime experience, when the war had been characterized by an empiricism and positivism that had run out of control. Inventories and lists rationalized the German mechanization of the war and propelled it forward. In this case, the poem is ironic because we see a prisoner - not the camp commander - also making lists. List-making is an expression of power.

At the same time, Nazism was fuelled by neo-Romantic Wagnerian fantasies about the natural capabilities of the German Volk. Because the Nazis made powerful and inspiring language drawn from that tradition such a central part of their ideology, post-war Debris Literature responded by keeping all language clear, terse and laconic. No more metaphors. No more melodrama and emotional phrases. The survivors even frowned on old-fashioned German calligraphy. Theirs was a barren, 'tell it like it is,' plain-spoken style that equally rejected a faith in rationalism and the raptures of anti-rationalism. It's a difficult line to walk, creating art when you feel you can trust neither your head nor your heart.

When Pol Pot turned Cambodia into a charnel house in the mid-to-late 1970s, he attempted to transform the Khmer language. He was especially fixated on so-called 'memory sickness':
The Khmer language, like many in Southeast Asia, has a complex system of usages to define speakers' rank and social status. These usages were abandoned. People were encouraged to call each other "friend, or "comrade" (in Khmer, មិត្ដ mitt), and to avoid traditional signs of deference such as bowing or folding the hands in salutation.

Language was transformed in other ways. The Khmer Rouge invented new terms. People were told they must "forge" (lot dam) a new revolutionary character, that they were the "instruments" (opokar) of the Angkar, and that nostalgia for pre-revolutionary times (chheu satek arom, or "memory sickness") could result in their receiving Angkar's "invitation" to be deindustrialised and to live in a concentration camp.
In 1982, at the height of the Beirut War, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish expressed the pressure to find new words for events very well in his work, Memory for Forgetfulness: "I want to find a language that transforms language itself into steel for the spirit - a language to use against these sparkling insects, these jets." 

After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, people there stopped speaking French and switched to English.  During the massacres, the ruling Hutus spoke French.  When they began slaughtering some 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority, English-speaking Tutsi rebels moved in from neighbouring Uganda.  In the wake of the genocide, the language of the country became that of the rebels.

There's a recent book out by the late Fred Halliday, Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad Have Changed the English Language.

The Tech Revolution has made English the lingua franca, the global language, but at the cost of generating special branches of English tech pidgins like Internet slang and leetspeak.  As for the latest arrival, I'm willing to bet that Light Bulb Anxiety ain't gonna make it over the long term.  But that's something that could be said about most of the Urban Dictionary.  And, as I mentioned in this post on the 'Cultural Genome,' some words have a way of coming back into fashion - like the word Apocalypse - which in its whole history has never been so popular.

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