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What’s that you were saying?

1 July 2012

I’m posting this for the first Orthodox synchroblog, on the words we use, and what we mean when we utter them. One of the things about the growth of electronic communications in the last 25 years or so is that people are communicating more with people in other countries, and find that even if we have a common language, like English, things can be misunderstood.

I’ve blogged about this before — here, for example A failure to communicate — words and meaning | Khanya — and for a while was thinking of recycling that post for the synchroblog. It is concerned with a term used frequently by Americans, “massive programs”, which people in other countries often find quite bewildering. But actually there is plenty more to say on the subject. On second thoughts, however, perhaps I have too much to say on the subject; I worked for a number of years as a newspaper proofreader, and later as an editor of academic texts, which sensitised, and some might say over-sensitised me to this kind of thing.

Where does one cross the line from trying to communicate accurately and clearly, on the one hand, and merely being pedantic on the other?

One example that made an indelible impression on me was when I was writing a history exam for the University of South Africa, and one of the questions said “motivate your answer”. I puzzled over this for about 15 minutes, and wondered what I was supposed to do. Should I give my motive for answering that question rather than another? Should I write something like “Answer, you’d better impress the examiner, or I will personally come and tear you up”?

The University of South Africa (Unisa) was a bilingual distance-education university, where students received printed study guides in either English or Afrikaans, but I suspected that most of the lecturers were Afrikaans speaking, and translated their exam questions into English. So when I got home after the exam I looked in an Afrikaans dictionary, and discovered that the Afrikaans word motiveer means “give reasons for”. No English dictionary, however, gave that meaning for “motivate”. And by then it was a bit too late.

Later on I was tutoring a theology student who was studying through Unisa, and he had to submit a written assignment on the “Apostolicum”. Neither of us had a clue what the “Apostolicum” was. It turned out to the the statement of faith usually referred to in English as “The Apostles Creed”. Orthodox Christians don’t use the “Apostles Creed”, but we use what Western Christians call the “Nicene Creed”, which we refer to as “The Symbol of Faith”. So we use different terms to refer to the same thing, and the same terms to refer to different things.

Some years later I was working for the University of  South Africa myself, editing the study guides sent to students, and because of my past experience I was acutely conscious of the need for clarity. In reading the text, I would try to imagine it being read by a student in the mountains of Lesotho, snowbound in the middle of winter. She would be reading the English text, but her home language was Sesotho, and English was her second language. And the university lecturer who wrote the text would be Afrikaans speaking and the text would be in his second language. So there was a double translation going on. So if the student can’t understand the text, she might not find it easy to phone the lecturer to ask. The nearest telephone is at a country store 10 miles away over the mountain, and the pass is blocked with snow, and even if she manages to get there, the phone line could be down because of the snow. So it would be important to explain technical terms, and the technical terms should be explained using words that the student can find in a dictionary.

So sometimes meaning can be lost in transation.

But sometimes meaning can be lost even when there is no translation involved. People make use of words in new ways, and give them different meanings. Sometimes this is done deliberately. Sometimes it is part of a natural development of language.

The White Gaze

There are popularised technicalities, and technicalised everyday words. For example, some academics use the ordinary English word “gaze” in a technical sense that would be confusing to the non-specialist reader. My English dictionary says that “gaze” means to look long and fixedly, especially in wonder or admiration. But if you look in Wikipedia you can also learn that Foucault uses the term gaze in the distribution of power in various institutions of society. The gaze is not something one has or uses; rather, it is the relationship in which someone enters. “The gaze is integral to systems of power and ideas about knowledge”.’ This is not something that one can learn from the dictionary definition of the term; I’m not even sure that one can learn anything about it from reading that sentence in Wikipedia.


Another example, which has to do with the political history of South Africa, relates to racism. That word appeared in the early 1960s. The word that was previously used was “racialism”. In the early 20th century “racialism” referred to bad feeling between English and Dutch-speaking white people. Racialists were those who saw these groups as essentially opposed to each other, and who favoured political policies that would benefit one group rather than the other. English-speaking racialists, for example, wanted all teaching in schools to be in English, rather than Dutch (and later Afrikaans).

The term “racialism” gradually came to refer to relations between white people and black people in South Africa, or, as they were called in those days, “Europeans” and “Non-Europeans”. Non-Europeans were divided into “Indians” (later “Asiatics”, and later still “Asians”), “Coloureds” and “Natives” (later “Bantu).  All these terms enjoyed periods of political correctness, and later came to be regarded as politically incorrect.

When the policy of apartheid was introduced in 1948, some people opposed it. They said that South Africa was a multiracial country, and that its government should also be multiracial. Politicians in neighbouring countries also used the term, but Roy Welensky, the prime minister of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) gave multiracialism a bad name when he explained what he meant by it. It was not apartheid — the rigid separation of diffrerent races having political power in their “own” areas. It was rather a partnership between different races, like the partnership between horse and rider, with the white man being the rider and the black man being the horse.

It was then that others adopted the policy of nonracialism. This was the idea that race should cease to count as a category that determined anyone’s political, social or economic rights. In a nonracial society, race should not determine where you could live, whether or where you could vote, what kind of work you could do, where you could go to school or who you could associate with. Nonracialism was adopted as a political principle by various opposition groups in the 1950s and 1960s, notably the African National Congress (and various other groups in the Congress movement), the Liberal Party and others.

Nonracialism was not met with universal approval, even by those who opposed the National Party government and its apartheid policy, and some, who preferred an Africanist policy, broke away from the ANC to form the Pan Africanist Congress.

Perhaps because “racialism” had become a part of words like “multiracialism” and “nonracialism”, which referred to political and constitutional arrangements, it was gradually replaced by the shorter word “racism” to refer to the feeling of hostility and antagonism towards people perceived as belonging to other races. By the end of the 1960s “racialism” was hardly heard anymore; people spoke of “racism”.

Between 1990 and 1994 South Africa abandoned apartheid, and an ANC government was elected in 1994 with the aim of building a democratic and nonracial society. The National Party, which had advocated apartheid, dwindled and eventually disappeared from the scene. The Pan Africanist Congress, which still advocated an “Africanist” rather than a nonracial policy, never managed to get more than 1% of the vote. At one point some of their spokesmen had used the slogan “one settler, one bullet” as a counter to the nonracialist slogan of “one man, one vote”. After the elections people began joking about “One settler, one bullet, one percent.”

But more recently some people have been twisting these words, to claim that “nonracialism” is actually “racist” — see Whiteness Studies, Black Consciousness and non-racialism | Khanya. They have done this by importing words from an entirely different context (North America), and twisting them to discredit  the aim of a democratic nonracial society that we struggled for for fifty years and more, and in many ways still have to build. In denigrating the idea of a nonracial democratic society, and denouncing it as “racist”, they don’t say what they want to put in its place. Or if they do, they have buried it in incomprehensible verbal mush.

In his novel 1984 George Orwell described this kind of thing as “newspeak” or “doublespeak”. People would shout slogans like “war is peace and peace is war”. And so, in South Africa today, people are saying that nonracialism is racism.

As George Orwell said, in his Politics and the English language

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This post is part of an Orthodox synchroblog, that is, a number of Orthodox Christian bloggers have written blog posts on the same general topic on the same day, with links to the other posts on the same topic, so it should be possible to surf from onne post to the other, and read them all if one wants to.

The theme of this month’s synchroblog is “The words we use”.

If you have written a contribution for this synchroblog, you may copy this list of links and post it at the end of your own contribution.

If you are a blogger and would like to take part in future Orthodox synchroblogs, there is a mailing list for participants at YahooGroups, where you can get more information, and where we will discuss future topics, etc.

Click to join orthosynchroblogs

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 July 2012 8:05 pm

    Love your post, Dc. Steven! Fr. Antonio has similar linguistic challenges when translating English translations (from Greek? Russian? Whatever?) into Spanish language. To find just the right word imparting the original meaning which fits into both a new language and its culture and still conveys the same originate meaning can be extremely challenging.


  1. Katherine Bolger Hyde | Eat Your Words

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