Monday, April 28, 2008

False Friend # 1

False friend is the linguistic term for a word in another language that looks just like a word in your own, and so you assume it means the same thing. Be careful! It's wonderful to make friends of new words, but make sure you really know them, or they'll only hurt you.

English has very many words that were borrowed from French, or that English and French both took from Latin, which have kept the same meaning: préparation, longue, noble, thème, champion, etc.

For future reference, if you're ever in southern France and you need new batteries for your camera, it is better not to go into a store asking for "Les batteries." The better word here is piles.

Une batterie is a drumset.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Speaking of Propaganda, Comrade . . .

Periodically if you read the Washington Post (I don't personally, but I like to look at the pictures), you'll see something that looks like an article, smells like an article, and is written like an article. Don't be fooled! Check the fine print and you'll see it's a full-page ad taken out by the Russian government's Tourism/Cover-up Board. They buy space in a newspaper in America's capital, and present the message they want us to hear, in a package we are more likely to trust. (I think even conservatives in this country trust the average report in the Post more than they trust, say, this.) Check out this and this, for example.

Well, the Post finally caught on to what the Russians were doing, and on March 6th, decided they might as well make a story out of it, so they wrote this article on Russia's "global propaganda machine." One page two of the article is a reference to the recurring "feature" in their own paper:
The official government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta is using its healthy profits to fund monthly supplements in newspapers in India, Britain, Bulgaria and the United States. "Russia: Beyond the Headlines," as the publication is called, is a paid advertising supplement in The Post.
One of my favorite lines is this one:
The campaign is designed to counter what the government and many people here see as unrelenting and unfair Western criticism of declining political freedoms under President Vladimir Putin.
Let's see ... counter ... criticism ... declining ... Well, there are at least three negatives here, but I think they mostly cancel out to show Putin himself as the biggest negative in the whole picture. As the article admits, there are skeptics that simply won't be fooled by such blatant tactics. But we would be foolish ourselves to dismiss Russia's campaign as harmless. Propaganda works because it understands that people can, and in many cases, deep down they want to be fooled. No one wants to think that the Russians are deceiving us and spying on us so deeply that they have spies in positions of high authority in the CIA and the FBI ... but then we discover Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.

One of the primary tactics of propaganda is relentless repetition of the message. It doesn't really matter what you think of the message on your first hearing--that's long gone when you hear it in the back of your head after the 30th hearing. That's why "Beyond the Headlines" is a regular feature. This is the same tactic used by advertising campaigns. Advertising is propaganda. The father of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, laid out how it all works in a very important and influential little book truthfully titled, Propaganda.

Another tactic of propaganda is the form the message takes. I don't care if you tell me a hundred times the world is round, if your commercial has Hitler saying it, I'll probably start to doubt the message. That's why commercials use every day people (usually women) selling every day products--if we saw the CEO of Frigidaire asking us to buy his product, our mind would drift to what he gets out of it--profit. So he has to redirect your mind to what he want you to get out of the commercial--that attractive people just like you use it. "They do? Well, I don't want to be left out," your mind says, while you think you're logically weighing pros and cons.

So the Russian government puts out its party line in newspapers: its own mouthpiece Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and features in the Post meant to look real, b/c if you don't look too carefully, you'll assume it is real. And of course that's what Putin wants you to think: that his government, his democracy, his new puppet president--that they're all real.

Btw, for more on His High Putinage, stay tuned to Someone Like Putin.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

New Focus

So at long last, I've realized why I haven't been posting, and what I can do about it. As I have floated from point to point in the vast ocean of my interests, my blog came to feel too limiting, so I'm refocusing it. That is, I'm putting back on the wide-angle lens, based on all of my myriad interests. Now, don't worry, all that Germanic and obscure linguistic stuff isn't going anywhere--like curious explorations of how Vatican and Wednesday come from the same root. Still, I have a few areas in particular I'm looking forward to exploring, all in some vague way related to language.

I'd like to serve a slightly more definite "public diplomacy" purpose by looking at some aspects of other languages that have lessons for understanding other cultures--something Americans are so tragically bad at. The sad part really is not that Americans are bad at languages--you can't know you're bad at something you don't try. But by not opening those horizons for ourselves, we do keep ourselves needlessly from the opportunity for more precise thought. George Orwell makes this point famously--and brilliantly--in his 1946 essay on Politics and the English Language.

I'd also like to look again at the whole prescriptivist/descriptivist approaches to language. The prescriptivist grammar school approach to what is "correct" in language is certainly inadequate--to what other field do we feel it is sufficient to apply a grammar school understanding in our adult lives? Yet the strict descriptivism that I think I see in linguistic academia seems a bit restrictive in its own way: If Keynesian prescriptivism ignores the unpredictability of human nature and therefore the fact that languages evolve naturally over time, laissez-faire descriptivism may be too afraid to view language as a tool--one which others will master even if we don't.

In other words, I'm interested in the the whole idea of language being a tool of humanity, and the various applications this has for strategic communication, rhetoric, propaganda, semantic battles in public discourse--the conscious use of language as a tool by people, or the unconscious use of people as tools by language.