Monday, September 28, 2009

When Linguistic Subtlety May Matter

When I lived in Singapore, I had a Singaporean neighbor who never said very much; but, when he did have something to say, it stuck with me. That was the case when he dropped a comment about the decision to adopt English as the "official government language." He described it as a decision that would guarantee that all government business would be conducted in a language in which all government officials were equally weak!

When I lived in Singapore I encountered more than my fair share of gaffes that could have been avoided through a greater awareness of the subtleties of the English language, not only the bits that were formally codified in the dictionary but also the slangs adopted by English-speaking cultures around the world and the connotations associated with them. One of the earliest examples that confronted me involved the name of a software system intended to retrieve photographs from a police "mug book" on the basis of a description of facial characteristics (from the sketch artist's reconstruction to the database, so to speak). The acronym for this system turned out to sound like a variation on the N-word in a non-American English speaking culture. I would prefer not to be more specific about this.

Where I can be more specific is in an example I just encountered in a report from Johor Bahru (in Malaysia) by Kevin Brown for the Financial Times. The basic story is straightforward enough:

More than $13bn has been committed to an ambitious plan to create a metropolis at the southern tip of Malaysia three times the size of Singapore, says the chief executive of the state agency set up to drive the project.

Arlida Ariff, chief of Iskandar Investments, told the Financial Times in an interview that a further $2bn (€1.4bn, £1.3bn) was likely to be committed in the next two years, including nearly $300m in retail investment expected to be announced over the next few months.

This may just be a matter of my having had a wonderful dinner in a Turkish restaurant last week: but my immediate reaction was to remember that Iskandar is the name that most of Muslim culture gives to Alexander (as in The Great). That got me to thinking about all the ways in which globalization has come to represent the platform for imperial domination by capitalism! (Are you listening, Michael Moore?) I suspect that those who decided to call their firm "Iskandar Investments" had no trouble with being perceived as a new generation of capitalists; but did they want to be perceived as imperialists as part of the bargain? I am reminded of Jacques Lacan's efforts to apply the use of language, both text and subtext, as a key to understanding the unconscious mind. Would he analyze the subtext this way even if the speaker did not know the language well enough to understand that subtext?

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