“All Words Have Connotations”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
We’ve been talking about covering the difficult topic of torture for quite a while now, and the idea resurfaced again in staff meetings with the recent release of the Bush administration memos on interrogation techniques. About the time we were renewing our efforts to find a voice on the topic, I opened up the Sunday paper to find Clark Hoyt’s editorial "The Brutal Truth" — an account of the linguistic evolution of The New York Times' torture and interrogation coverage.
Hoyt outlines the decision to use the word “brutal” to describe what the Bush administration had labeled “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the reader mail they received in response. Some thought the word was a cop-out, one reader writing “Why can’t The New York Times call torture by its proper name?” While another writes “The Times has simply placed itself as one actor in a political fight, not a neutral media outlet.”
This sort of criticism was in our heads as we produced this week’s program "The Long Shadow of Torture".” Unlike The Times, we don’t get to hash out our editorial choices over a series of articles — we pretty much have one chance to get it right, and then have to live with our decisions after broadcast. I found that many of the questions asked during production mirrored the ones posed in Hoyt’s editorial; as a journalist, when does your choice of words compromise the integrity of your reporting? Using harsher terminology may seem to impart a biased viewpoint, while softer words might be complicit in obscuring the truth. Is “detainee abuse” more accurate than “torture,” or vice versa?
Perhaps my favorite part of Hoyt’s account is the linguist Deborah Hannon’s response to his presentation of the “brutal” issue:
"The search for words that are not in any way evaluative is hopeless," she told me. "All words have connotations."
This statement makes the prospect of objective journalism a daunting one. What do you think, did we we come out OK on this program? What kind of connotations did we inevitably inject into the conversation?
Finding the Confucian Heart
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Last week as I was fleshing out the particulars for our program “Recovering Chinese Religiosities,” I stumbled upon an interesting article about a discovery that the director of the Harvard Yenching Institute referred to as “like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” In 1993, Chinese archeologists uncovered several bamboo strips near Guodian, China. Those strips were found to contain what is thought to be the oldest written version of the Tao Te Ching, as well as many writings from supposed Confucian disciples. The texts are said to have challenged many previous assumptions about both Taoist and Confucian history:
For years scholars believed that Confucians were little concerned with human emotions. But in the Guodian texts, the element “xin,” — a pictographic image of the human heart — appears over and over again as part of several Chinese characters. It’s a startling display, both philologically, in terms of understanding the evolution of Chinese characters, and philosophically. “These texts conclusively show that emotions or feelings as we understand them today were major philosophical concerns,” Tu says. The Guodian texts offer detailed descriptions of a range of human emotions. They also extensively explore the relation between heart, mind, and human nature; between the inner self and the outer world; and whether human nature is good or evil — a cumulative emphasis on the inner dimensions of man that most scholars formerly believed came much later in Chinese intellectual history.
Continuing the lesson we learned from our program with David Treuer, here’s another example of how meaning is often tied to language — the deeper symbolic meaning of the pictographic heart is lost when the text is translated to English. I was also struck by the fact that, while the linguistic elements of this story are specific to Chinese culture, it also displays how the metaphorical relationship between the human heart and emotion seems to be a cross-cultural one.
I can’t help but wonder: What exactly is it about our own biological blood pumps that seem to inspire so much symbolism and meaning?
Language Reclamation, Not Just Preservation
by Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer
What inspires a person to learn the language of his ancestors, even though he didn’t grow up speaking that language himself? And what inspires him to join a school where he can teach that language to children? What do those children think about the language? And what affect can the effort have on an entire community?
These were a few of the questions I had for Keller Paap, a teacher in an Ojibwe immersion school program called Waadookodaading (We Help Each Other) on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in north-central Wisconsin. I got in touch with Paap while I was working on our recent program "Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning." You can hear his story in the embedded audio above. He begins by introducing himself in Ojibwe.
What I gleaned from talking to Paap was that this language revitalization effort is doing more than merely preserving the language. It’s literally keeping the language alive so that it can continue to grow and change, with new words and new ways of saying things. I love the way he describes his students’ relationship to the language. They aren’t dwelling on the long-standing U.S. policy of forcibly educating Native Americans in English. They aren’t learing Ojibwe as a political act or even as a cultural act. They’re just living in it, and making it their own.
This audio piece was produced with help from Trent Gilliss and Mitch Hanley. Music by Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band. Keller Paap took the photo of the Ojibwe road sign, which translates as “The Dam.”
The Language of Money
- Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
- toddler: (holding up a penny) Uh-dakah!
- father: (leaning in) Dollar?
- toddler: (thrusting penny in the air) Uh-dakah!
- father: No. That's a penny.
- toddler: Uh-dakah.
- father: That's money. Can you say mun-eeeee?
- toddler: Money! Dakah.
- father: You buy things with it.
- father: (looking quizzically at mother): What's he keep saying? I can't understand him.
- mother: I don't know. (turning to toddler) Penny.
- toddler: Dakah.
- mother: (to father) Maybe it's the Hebrew -- from school.
- father: I don't know the Hebrew word for money. Do you?
- mother: No.
- father: Google it.
- mother: (searching)
- father: I learned about this on the show. Isn't it zakat or something? No, wait. That applies to Muslims. Maybe zedekah... or something similar.
- mother: Here it is. Tzedakah. Charity.
- father: Hm.
- mother: Here he sees a penny and thinks of giving it away. And we see it and instantly thinking of buying things.
- father: I guess we just learned something from a two year old about money.
- mother: I think so.
- father: Man. We better sign up for some Hebrew lessons...
Spirit of Language
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
As we prepare to do a show on endangered languages, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of language and spirituality. This came up recently with my three-year-old daughter, who has been asking about death since we buried her fish in our back yard. We were driving across town the other day and she said out of nowhere, “Daddy, when will be my last day?” Meaning, When will I die? After a moment of panic, I decided to talk to her about various views of death from different religious traditions. But I quickly realized that she has no knowledge of the words “spirit” or “soul,” and so it was impossible for her to even grasp that concept. In her mind, she is just a body, nothing more, nothing less. And yet, in due time, the English language will give her a concept of the soul, and with it a whole new conception of her self.
Just learning a language is, in part, acquiring a spiritual worldview. And that would explain why religion and language have so often been intertwined in the history of Western civilization. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, the first book he printed was the Bible. A generation later, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, and he also produced the first complete translation of the Bible from the original into a contemporary European vernacular. In 1533 Henry VIII broke with Rome and created the Church of England. The result was a whole new English liturgy, with phrases that have since lodged in most English-speaking brains: “Till death us do part,” “Man cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower,” “In the midst of life we are in death,” and “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
When I think of all the spiritual concepts bound up in my own language, it’s hard to believe that (according to organizations like The Living Tongues Institute) languages around the world are dying at a rate of about one every two weeks. What conceptions of humanity and our place in the world are being lost? I’d be interested to know if any of you have learned any rare languages, and if so what unique ways do those languages have of ordering the world with words?