Blog .:. December 2004 1 Entries

Language, Brutality, Rape

21 December 2004 Comments

Lately I keep coming across quotations focused on brutal appropriation of language:

James D. Nicholls:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

Terry Pratchett (Going Postal):

It was garbage, but it had been cooked by an expert. Oh, yes. You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency and then sent to walk the gutter for Reacher Gilt, although ‘synergistically’ had probably been a whore from the start.

June Jordan:

Language is political. That’s why you and me, my Brother and Sister, that’s why we sposed to choke our natural self into the weird, lying, barbarous, unreal, white speech and writing habits that the schools lay down like holy law. Because, in other words, the powerful don’t play; they mean to keep that power, and those who are the powerless (you and me) better shape up—mimic/ape/suck—in the very image of the powerful, or the powerful will destroy you—you and our children.

Angela Carter:

He is, I think, already pondering a magisterial project: that of buggering the English language, the ultimate revenge of the colonialised.

I was struck (sorry, inadequate metaphorical language here) by the violence in all of the quotes—and more than that, the sexual violence. The suggestion seems to be more than “language can be used to oppress” or “people abuse language”; the potential to abuse through language is viewed as highly sexual, to the point of rape.

I wonder what it is that makes us see language in such a highly personal way. The French, for example, are keen on keeping their language “pure” from, if you like, the defilement of English. But inasmuch as we have to share ideas through language, our language is always going to be influenced by outsiders—whether we draw that line between two individuals or between two countries seems a bit irrelevant. If there were any such thing as a “pure” language, only the one person speaking it would understand it—and yet, as Derrida points out, we can “own” language once we create and claim meanings for ourselves. Maybe it’s that attachment—we spend so much effort defining words against our own experiences and ideas, with all our own past associations—that we cannot see it as something outside of ourselves. And when words are used against our will for purposes we don’t agree with, it is rape, because it’s abuse of something that is both private and personal, and, in a larger sense, it’s the abuse of whatever networks of trust we have set up with others, where we have established connections and shared connotations. All that gets broken by the appropriation of language, or by people seeking to control through language—hence the brutal metaphors being used, the references to rape.

Tagged: Angela Carter, Books & Reading, Going Postal by Pratchett, Jacques Derrida, James D Nicholls, June Jordan, Language, Terry Pratchett

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