Tag: language

The Whole of Government Needs a Game Changer

Here are some recent phrases that entered the policy lexicon in the last few years that I absolutely hate – “whole of government” and “game changer.” There is a faddishness to tropes in the policy arena that proliferate, that capture a certain sentiment of the moment that soon become over-used. Earlier, it was “tipping point.” I kind of hated that one too.

These words are useful short-hand. Ah yes, a game-changer, that which changes the game, a dramatic development that upends our understanding of what will transpire. Yet, strung together with other stock phrases, you end up with policy pablum. 2013 was a game changer, and now we are at a critical crossroads. We need a whole of government response to the events of recent months, which represent a tipping point in the events (in Syria, North Korea, Iran, Brazil, Turkey). Gag. We should be offended by such writing, as it demeans the craft of writing, turns policy language in to rote speech. Continue reading

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Australia Embraces the “Asian Century”

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated last Sunday that every Australian child should learn Mandarin, Hindi, or other regional languages as part of Australia’s embrace of the Asian Century.  While her new agenda set out in a 300 page report has received its share of harsh criticism and questions about funding, one  has to admire the audacity of Gillard’s vision of an Australia that seeks to engage Asian states and societies through an appreciation of their languages and cultures rather than insisting on interfacing with English.  This may represent a shift, to invert Bernard S. Cohn’s phrase, from the language of command to the command of language… well, at least if the Australian mindset toward Asia can be shifted in the process.

Meanwhile, America Clings to the “Roman Centuries” …

By way of contrast, America’s supposed “pivot” to Asia continues to lack a serious educational agenda.  As my colleague Robert Kelly has noted, there are still more students studying Latin (205,000) in America’s public schools than Chinese (60,000) — even though the number of students studying Chinese has tripled since 2004.   While the study of Spanish (6.4 million) certainly makes sense in a country where Spanish is spoken by 34 million citizens and most of the Western hemisphere, the continued emphasis on French (1.25 million) and German (395,000) are more questionable, particularly when Chinese is the third most commonly spoken language at home in the United States and French and German are not even in the top ten.  In essence, the emphasis on French and German education is not a reflection of domestic language needs so much as an artifact of a persistent Euro-centrism.

Continue reading

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Friday Nerd Blogging

My partner had a different reaction than I did to Khal Drogo’s war speech in “You Win or You Die.” (Originally I was going to name this post “Over-Critical Acclaim for the Khal’s Speech.” Or, “Sex and Violence in Game of Thrones: Contributions of a Pro-Feminist, Anti-Chest-Thumping Standpoint.”*)

In the latest installment of our “Two Profs at Home Over-thinking” series, Stu and I discuss whether it is politically incorrect to appreciate Game of Thrones in all its nasty brutishness.

*With apologies to Bob Keohane. (Also far as invented languages go, Sunju Park Kang argues feminist IR qualifies.)

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The Khal’s Speech

Khal Drogo‘s earlier lines in Game of Thrones consisted mostly of occasional Dothraki grunts and a few mono-syllables of broken English. Then we arrive at the visceral war speech scene in the latest episode… either Geoffrey Rush has been secretly coaching the horse-lord,* or the directors intentionally downplayed Jason Momoa’s talents as an actor to build up to this:

*Actually, the coaching is probably done by David Peterson. For more on how you too can curse and threaten in Dothraki, click here or here or follow this. For more on invented languages generally, here is a great summer read.

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Lost in the Clouds

Drew Conway discusses the evils of word clouds. He doesn’t go far enough: the meaning of speeches and texts depends on the order and proximity of words, not the frequency of their appearance.

Consider the two wordles below of famous addresses.


Wordle: Ihazdream

Wordle: Ihazbloodswettears


They’re both meaningless hash. They tell us virtually nothing of any importance about the two speeches.

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So long for now, New England

I didn’t meet many faculty on my recent tour of New England liberal arts colleges (and a few Ivies), but one scholar I dined with provided this great line about foreign language study:

“Optimists study English; pessimists study Arabic; realists study Mandarin.”

After nearly 1400 miles of driving and visits to more than a dozen schools, my daughter and I enjoyed a personal tour of the Naval War College. Then, we walked around Newport and savored the end of the journey and beautiful vistas.

Incidentally, this was a real highlight of the trip. Someone needs to export it to Louisville.

If anyone here wants to weigh in on the college choice discussion, please feel free to do so in comments. We’ll be mulling over the decision for some time yet.

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Watching Hunger

I finally took the time (and found the courage) to watch Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” (2008). It is the story of the events that led to the 1981 Irish hunger strike at Maze Prison in which Bobby Sands and nine other men died. The film is hauntingly beautiful from an aesthetic standpoint and horrifying intellectually. There are very few films which actually merit the adjective “powerful,” this is one of them.

(I am still processing this film in my mind, but I thought I would share a few thoughts in case others have seen it and thought it through…)

Critics will undoubtedly take issue with the film for its failure to contextualize the crimes (and therefore the punishment) of the IRA “terrorists,” but the film is not a history of the “Troubles” per se. Even if one absolutely condemns the violence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the film forces the viewer to confront the relationship between the state and the body.

There are brutal scenes in which the bodies of the condemned appear Christ like after they have been abused by the prison guards. The state itself appears bodily in the mode of discipline, and the various trials of strength, dignity, and will inflicted upon the prisoners in spirals of barbarism inside the prison. Outside the prison, the bodies of the state are the target of ruthless assassinations by the IRA. The state also appears dis-embodied as the merciless voice of Margaret Thatcher:

“Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen in recent months to play what may well be their last card. They have turned their violence against themselves through the prison hunger strike to death. They seek to work on the most basic of human emotions — pity — as a means of creating tension and stoking the fires of bitterness and hatred.”

The aim is obviously preemptive propaganda, but Thatcher’s rhetoric is fascinating. Hunger, the weapon of the weakest of the weak, is described as a continuation of terrorist violence. The slow, silent, lonely, and intensely painful drama of suicide through starvation is characterized as a mere sleight of hand, a cheap trick designed to stoke hatred by eliciting pity. While Sands and his colleagues did undoubtedly seek to elicit pity and revive the republican cause, their protest was more than a mere final trick.

From the vantage point of the film, the disembodied voice of Thatcher sounds un-human, desperate, and powerless to all but the most gullible and close-minded. It is clear that the hunger strike returns the state to a Foucauldian situation in which it must risk a trial of strength in public with the body of the condemned.

As an American, one cannot help but think of and note the contrasts with the treatment of detainees in the prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Baghram, Kandahar, Diego Garcia, etc. There is no doubt that the treatment of prisoners held in these some of these facilities (e.g. Abu Ghraib) was as de-humanizing as the treatment inflicted on the Irish in Maze Prison. In Mullah Zaeef’s recent memoir, My Life with the Taliban, he writes bitterly of his experience in Guantanamo Bay:

“We were not given toilet paper or water to clean ourselves after using the toilet; only our hands could be used, but could not be washed afterwards. This is how those who claim to defend human rights made us live,” (Zaeef 2010, 196).

From what I understand the UK abandoned the practice of force feeding in 1917 after it led to the death of an Irish prisoner, Tom Ashe.  The US government, however, still seeks to deny prisoners that it labels as terrorists the right to play even this “last card.” Some of the hunger strikers in American facilities like Guantanamo were reportedly force fed and prevented from vomiting nutrients. Mullah Zaeef’s recounts that eventually the doctor-in-charge at Guantanamo refused to continue force feeding the prisoners during the 2005-06 hunger strike.

One has to wonder what the practice of force feeding says about the US and its understanding of the body of the suspected terrorist. One could argue that the act of force feeding a mentally sound, political prisoner foreshadows a totalitarian impulse which we as Americans would prefer to associate with other regime types.  Even the publicly released images of those prisoners in orange jumpsuits, kneeling in stress positions with heads covered and ears muffled, conjures a body completely turned over to the power of the state.  The prisoner is in a limbo where they cannot be human and have absolutely no rights.  That we as Americans tolerated such tyrannical behavior from our own government perhaps speaks to the autistic hysteria under which we have lived for nearly a decade.  Either that or it speaks to the utter indifference we hold for those who are merely accused of being enemies of the state.

Language and Humanity

In the docu-drama “The Road to Guantanamo” (2006), there is an odd scene where an American prison guard (in real life his name is Brandon Neeley) asks one of the Tipton Three to rap for him. The guard becomes uncomfortable when he realizes that these kids being held in Guantanamo not only speak English but are products of an Americanized global culture. It is as if the body of the prisoner comes to have a soul, at least in the eyes of one guard for one brief moment. (Although it is not depicted in the film, the guard resigned from the US military in 2005. He has contributed to the Guantanamo Testimonial Project and has apologized to Shafiq Rasul for the treatment that was inflicted on him. The apology has been accepted).

If a common language can create a minimal sense of shared humanity even amongst sworn enemies, then it is stunning to realize what the Britons did to the Irish in Maze prison. In “Hunger,” the prisoners use Gaelic to organize their resistance, although not all of the prisoners speak the “national” language. And while all of the prisoners understand and speak English, there is almost no dialog between the prisoners and their keepers.

Perhaps the point of the film is that language itself dies as the body is subject to increasing pain.  And it is the death of language that permits such depravity.

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Metaphors of War: Superbowl Edition

Football and War have long been metaphors for each other, with players famously (and infamously in some cases) referring to themselves as “warriors” who will “do battle” on the gridiron led by “field generals” at quarterbacks, throwing “long bombs” to score, and Generals “calling an audible” to launch a “blitz” or a “hail-marry pass.” Indeed, those seeking to inject greater tolerance into American culture have long counseled that we do away with such metaphors, as they trivialize war on both sides of the equation. George Carlin saw this years ago. (Updatedrepaired link to Carlin’s baseball vs. football routine).

Today’s Superbowl between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers provides a rare moment reflection on this seemingly inescapable current in American popular culture. The Cardinals offer a unique mechanism for this, as until this year, they were probably best know for being the team of Pat Tillman, the former Cards player who joined the Army and was killed in Afghanistan.

It also provides a moment to notice, as the Washington Post reports, that the NFL seems to have re-thought its role in this process:

In a little-discussed shift in recent years, the NFL has moved away from depicting its games in military terms. While the league continues to embrace the military as an entity, inviting Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of Central Command, to make the Super Bowl’s opening coin toss and having the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform a pregame flyover at Raymond James Stadium, the NFL no longer endorses using military terminology to describe its contests.

It is inappropriate, league officials say, to do so at a time when American forces are fighting two wars halfway around the globe.

“It’s a matter of common sense,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said as he stood outside the stadium the other day.

The same is true at NFL Films, an arm of the league that perpetuated for decades the image of football as controlled warfare by producing movies glorifying the game’s violence with phrases like “linebacker search and destroy.” In recent years the company’s president, Steve Sabol, ordered all allusions to war be removed from its new films.

“I don’t think you will ever see those references coming back,” he said. “They won’t be back in our scripts, certainly not in my lifetime.”

The sport that once saw itself as the closest thing in athletics to the military no longer holds to this once-cherished notion.

“We’re not going to fight no war, man,” Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Nick Eason said….

“They were basically cliches anyway,” Sabol said. “Just like you would hear coaches say, ‘That’s a guy I want to be in a foxhole with,’ they’ve never been in a foxhole and they’re trying to articulate that to a player who has no idea what a foxhole is.”

At the extreme, these metaphors were always silly, at their worst, they devalued the true sacrifices of soldiers and dehumanized the true destruction and human devastation wrought by actual war. Its a good thing that the NFL is moving in this direction.

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Still Going Nucular

A couple of weeks back I visited Arlington for the National Science Foundation‘s Human and Social Dynamics PI conference. The HSD Initiative is one of NSF’s “cross-cutting” programs, which means the same pool of money funds political scientists, neurologists, roboticists, physicists, anything under the sun if the proposal is smart enough and vaguely related to the RFP. The point of their annual gatherings is in part to create interdisciplinary “synergy”: to provoke conversations among scientists from diverse fields who would otherwise likely never meet.

In practice, these gatherings are a bit socially awkward. Try walking up to a biochemist and striking up a meaningful conversation about her research when you study advocacy networks. That weekend, I found myself tuning out of the conference from time to time and tuning into the blogosphere, where in my comfort zone of IR geeks I passed the time with a very engaging discussion about the pronunciation of “nuclear” in US foreign policy discourse. (It is the very fact that I was traveling away from my kids that explains the copious amount of time I had the time to dither over this so extensively.)

But then a funny thing happened. On the very last day of the conference I had that one interdisciplinary conversation that made the awkwardness of the weekend worthwhile: I met a linguist who specializes in the study of how children learn to pronounce words. The argument on this blog about Palin’s pronunciation of nuclear became the basis for a fascinating, one might even say “synergistic” conversation between political scientist and linguist. Apparently, the NSF’s model can have important payoffs.

The most important outcome of my recent foray into the phonological sciences is that I’ve been forced to rethink / dig deeper into many of my and others’ initial assumptions from that earlier exchange. In particular, my new acquaintance was not at all surprised by the results of my crude YouTube coding: from a linguist’s perspective, for example, it makes little sense to explain variation in pronunciation by region, as there is far more variation within regions than between (also variations by gender, class and context, to give a few examples he rattled off). His initial hypothesis – one not actually mentioned in our discussion on this forum – was that the best indicator of the “nuclear/nucular” divide overall was likely to be political orientation.

In fact, this very relationship has been found in a new study of the pronunciation of “Iraq.” While Lauren Hall-Lew and her collaborators do not find any variation on the pronunciation of the first vowel, their carefully coded analysis of Congressional statements and media coverage shows that “Iraq’s second vowel indexes conservativism when produced as /ae/ and political liberalism when produced as /a:/” – even controlling for regional accent.

Might the same be true of “nuclear”? Maybe maybe not. After all, Jimmy Carter got it wrong just like George Bush, and Bill Clinton said it right only about half the time. No linguist I have now met knows of a systematic study of “nucular.” But various linguists have hypothesized about it in more sophisticated ways than I did in my initial post. Take Geoffrey Nunberg, author of the book Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times, who weighs in to support several of the arguments made in comments on my earlier post.

‘Nuclear’ isn’t a hard word to pronounce. Phonetically, nuclear is pretty much the same as ‘likelier,’ and nobody every says, ‘The first outcome was likular than the second.’ And [even if it were] that doesn’t explain why you hear ‘nucular’ from people like politicians, military people and weapons specialists, most of whom obviously know better and have ben reminded repeatedly what the correct pronunciation is… In the mouths of those people, ‘nucular’ is a choice, not an inadvertent mistake. Maybe it appeals to them to refer to the weapons in what seems like a folksy and familiar way, or maybe it’s a question of asserting their authority: ‘We’re the ones with our fingers on the button, and we’ll pronounce the word however we damn well please.’

Which of these stories explains why Bush says ‘nucular’? He must have beard it said correctly thousands of time when he was growing up- not just at Andover, Yale and Harvard, but from his own father. If Bush’s ‘nucular’ is a deliberate choice, its it something he picked up from the Pentagon wise guys? Or is it a faux-bubba pronunciation, the ort of thing he might have stareted doing at Andover or Yale, by way of playing the Texan to all those earnest Eastern dweebs?”

Steven Pinker, after also commenting on Palin’s accent in the NYTimes, disputes Nunberg’s claims (and my idea that Palin was doing this on purpose) in a recent post on Language Log:

I doubt that nucular represents conscious linguistic slumming by Bush or Palin. People generally end up with the accents of their late childhood and early adolescent peers, so Midland and Houston were the formative influences on Bush’s accent, rather than Kennebunkport and Andover. And I wonder whether nucular is enough of a bubba shibboleth to grant a politician more points than he or she loses among the mainstream pundits.

Though linguists are agnostic about the “correctness” of pronunciation, Pinker makes my point, I think in helpfully citing the Merriam Webster dictionary in support of his claim that you don’t have to be dumb to say “nucular”:

“Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in [kyələr] have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, United States cabinet members, and at least two United States presidents and one vice president. While most common in the United States, these pronunciations have also been heard from British and Canadian speakers.”

From an IR constructivist perspective, the key is not how often the word is pronounced “nucular,” but whether in fact this pronunciation is “disapproved of by many.”

Whether you agree or not, it’s hard to dispute Pinker’s concluding paragraph:

I think we can all agree that there’s a master’s thesis in here for someone: we lack good data on the regional, class, and age distribution of the two pronunciations, and the linguistic and psychological factors that they correlate with.

Personally, I’d love to see some some experimental research into the question not of why people pronounce it “nucular” but how that pronuciation is perceived, and by whom. Maybe I should team up with some linguists for my next NSF project!

Then again, maybe not. All this thinking about “nucular,” my brain is already starting to forget how to say it “properly.” Curses!

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Measuring Linguistic Norms

Recently, I criticized Sarah Palin’s pronunciation of “nuclear,” and suggested that electing her would only make Americans look as if we (still) don’t care how dumb our leaders appear on the global stage. At best, I expected a discussion about whether we should take such things into consideration in elections. More accurately, I expected that post to be ignored, and for most readers to latch on to the much more interesting food for thought to come in later posts that day. (Who would have thought English grammar would be more fascinating than the ethics of killer robots?)

Imagine my surprise to be introduced – by people I respect – to the theory that in fact, there is no one “correct” pronunciation of “nuclear”:

“I just can’t see this as a ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ matter. The English language is not a fixed thing but varies tremendous among geographical and social groupings.” – Dan Nexon

“I’m sorry but this is bullshit… Received pronunciation has nothing to do with… whether a used word is correct or not.” – Alex

“As someone who has consistently ‘mispronounced’ nuclear ever since I learned it from parents who mispronounced it, in a community which mispronounced it, I’ll have to agree with the previous commenter who called your argument ‘bull shit.’ How many accents to diplomats have to deal with every day?” – C. Hall

As a critical thinker, I take such claims quite seriously. It’s actually nice to be forced to think past my own biases. What if I’m actually wrong? What if there’s no correct pronunciation? What if I’m just exhibiting liberal, elitist bias, itself a sort of ignorance about the diversity of dialects out there in different communities of practice around nuclear science and policy?

Originally, I had written in the spirit of a frustrated citizen. Today, I write as a social scientist. On what ought to be the “right” pronunciation I now stand agnostic. But whether there is, in fact, a generally accepted pronunciation and a generally deplored pronunciation (as social facts) I can measure empirically.

Here’s a stab at doing just that. (It can be replicated much more systematically with a bit of time, money, and a team of student coders.) First, let us clearly state the question: is there a “normative” way to pronounce nuclear? (Not a right way. A way that exhibits the characteristics of a “norm” – a “collective expectation of the proper behavior of actors,” to quote Peter Katzenstein whose definition Dan Nexon cites in his famous blog post on international norms.) And the hypothesis: I hypothesize that the “normative” pronunciation is as it is spelled: “noo-clee-ar,” or its British derivation “nyu-clee-ar.” (Not because that’s the spelling. But because I predict people will behave as if that is the expectation in a measurable way.) The counterhypothesis is that the pronunciation “noo-kya-lar” enjoys the same or a greater degree of normative legitimacy (that is, is considered equally “correct.”)

One test of this would be practice: the frequency with which the two pronunciations are used among those engaged in “nuclear security” discourse. I would disconfirm my own hypothesis if I found that in a replicable sample of rhetoric, using replicable measures, speakers were equally likely to use either pronunciation. Today, in between panels at the NSF’s Human and Social Dynamics Annual Principal Investigator Conference, I tested this through an analysis of YouTube clips found using the search terms “nuclear security.” All were posted in the last two years, suggesting the results reflect current norms. I listened to each clip until the first use of the word “nuclear” and then coded the pronunciation, the title, URL and date (for replicability), and as much information as could be discerned about the national / regional background and professional affiliation of the speaker. Only the first word “nuclear” in each clip was used, for ease of replicability. In total, 25 observations were made before I ran out of time and energy. I excluded duplicates not only of the same clip but of the same speaker (so, for example, McCain is featured only once in the dataset). I excluded clips in languages other than English. I also excluded the video of Gorbachev’s interpreter because I couldn’t get it to load.

The remaining clips included all the rest that appeared on the first two screens of YouTube. This represents a sample of 25 out of a population of 1070; YouTube ranks them by “relevance.” These first, “most relevant” 25 include several clips of the Presidential candidates; journalists from the US, UK, Canada and Russia; analysts from Washington think-tanks; nuclear scientists; international diplomats and a comedian. They include speakers originally raised in the US South, MidWest, MidAtlantic and Northeast and Southwest. (Unfortunately none from the Northwest.) They include speakers from the U.S., Russia, England, Australia (I think), Canada (I think), North Korea and Iran. The results:

My dataset for those interested in replicating or supplementing (email me for the complete xls file):

This cursory analysis shows (I think – though bear in mind by this hour I’m slightly inebriated) that the majority of speakers in the sample pronounce the word as it is spelled. Within this (admittedly small and non-representative) sample, I found no variation according to US region. Although I had believed that speakers from the US South are likelier to use the pronunciation “nuk-ya-lar” (and several commenters also referred to “regional” dialects), in fact I found the spelled-pronunciation to be used by speakers from Georgia and Tennessee, as well as from the Midwest, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southwest.

Results are mixed, however, on whether the alternate pronunciation necessarily correlates with lack of knowledge about nuclear policy, as Alex Montgomery would have it, or on whether this usage is peculiarly American, as I had believed. Four speakers in my sample used the word “nukyalar.” We can, I think discount the political satirist (of unknown regional origin). The other three include only one one American: Senator James Imhofe (of Des Moines, IA). The other two “alternate pronouncers” are (I think) both non-American and at least one of them is clearly well-informed about nuclear policy: Australian nuclear energy expert George Collins, the chief of research at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organization.

So, one imagines that were this analysis continued on a much larger number of observations (there are 115,000 YouTube videos with the tag “nuclear”, and many of them contain more than one instance of a discrete speaker pronouncing the word) one might find an overwhelming majority using the spelled-pronunciation, but a population of alternate pronouncers that does not necessarily fit stereotypes.

Whatever it tells us in terms of a person’s qualifications on nuclear policy however, I can convincingly say that the use of “nukyalar” equals lack of fluency in (or willingness to adhere to) norms of nuclear speech. An even better indicator of this than frequency distributions of actual pronunciations is the reactions of third parties to the use of the alternate pronunciation, for as James Coleman reminds us, we know norms not by compliance, by the extent to which deviations from them are condemned by observers. Indeed, users of the “alternate pronunciation” are routinely lambasted by observers; the reverse is not true. If indeed both pronunciations were equally normative, one would expect to see another community of observers ridiculing those who pronounce the word as it is spelled just as often. I have found no evidence of this, though am willing to consider it if any of you have it.

Meantime, “M” suggests another possibility: that there are two sets of norms in two different communities of nuclear experts:

“I have long rolled my eyes at the “nuke-cu-lar” pronunciation. So, you can imagine my shock when I recently had the privilege of interacting with a number of nuclear weapons scientists and others associated with the US nuclear complex. The vast majority of them say “nuke-cu-lar”.”

Testing this would mean disaggregating the two communities; I’ve not done so here. This hypothesis could be tested by replicating the above analysis but replacing the search terms “nuclear security” with the search terms “nuclear scientist” or “nuclear engineer”; or, by gathering enough data points in that the number of nuclear engineers in the sample could be contrasted with the policy community in a statistically significant way. I am out of time today however, so must demure. I will point out, however, that in my sample, only 1 out of 5 nuclear scientists used the alternate pronunciation.

But in the meantime, these findings do, I think, suggest there is clearly a global normative pronunciation for the term, and a measurable opprobrium for those (many though they be) who deviate from it while expecting to be treated as smart, informed members of the global policy elite. Until I am convinced otherwise by something more than anecdotes and self-congratulatory statements from “alternative pronouncers,” I shall continue to advise my students to learn the conventions of the global policy elite. And I shall continue to hope for a President who defers to standard diplomatic convention.

P.S. I also checked whether in fact Palin had mispronounced “nukyalar” prior to the debate. She has, all along. So much for my theory that they prepped her to do this on purpose.

P.P.S. For those interested in YouTube and the US Presidential Election, check out this conference at my new institution.

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New “crimes against humanity”?

A few weeks ago, ABC News (Australia) reported the following from AFP:

“Producing biofuels today is a crime against humanity,” UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler told Bayerischer Runfunk radio.

Here’s the logic: Using biological materials (like corn) for energy production increases global food prices because it increases market demand. Biofuel production also increases competition for arable land and potentially encourages developing states to grow crops for profitable energy production instead of necessary foodstuffs. Some American farmers are apparently switching production from soy and wheat to corn.

Incidentally, this is not a new claim by Ziegler. He expressed the same view at UN headquarters last October, as reported by the BBC. At that time, Ziegler called for a 5 year moratorium on biofuels so that new technologies can use agricultural waste instead of crops.

Play around with google for a short time and it is apparent that various political figures are starting to play fast-and-loose with the phrase “crime against humanity.” On April 16, AFP reported:

“The real crime against humanity would be to just cast aside biofuels and push countries struggling with food and energy shortages towards dependency and insecurity,” [Brazilian President Luiz Inacio] Lula told the conference in Brasilia.

So, in this case, an action and its opposite are both described as a “crime against humanity.”

The Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court, provides a broadly agreed definition of “crimes against humanity.” While the scope of the Statute is fairly comprehensive, I don’t see that it would include biofuel production — or nonproduction, for that matter. Even the catch-all category covers merely “acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”:

Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

Over the years, domestic and international critics of American use of “depleted uranium” weapons have characterized this practice as a “crime against humanity.”

Hmmm. That actually seems like a more serious place to start a debate.

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Evidence that I am a cranky crank

I like Foreign Policy’s Passport blog. I really do. But this kind of thing BUGS the living daylights out of me.

They have a perfectly good post on a bizarre attempt by a Russian regional governor to increase the local birthrate. And it’s illustrated with a stock photo of a rather bizarre postage stamp commemorating the “Week of the Child”. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it says. The reason I’m not totally positive?

The stamp is from Yugoslavia. It’s in Serbian, which is written in Cyrillic, and, of course, has much similarity to Russian, but isn’t Russian.

The bottom of the stamp reads “Belgrade, Oct 4-11, 1954”. The initials across the child’s chest are “FNRJ”, for Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.

Anything Soviet, of course, would have СССР on it, as those of us who are old enough to remember the Cold War may recall.

It’s really not fair, because I’m sure that the poster doesn’t read Russian–and the stock photo site that it came from has it tagged as Russian. Still, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.

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An empire of language

Jack Shafer at Slate draws our attention to an advertising section included in yesterday’s Washington Post: Russia Beyond the Headlines.

Most people I know with an interest in Russia are also fascinated by Soviet propaganda, and Shafer, I think, correctly identifies this as a particularly amusing, if less effective, example of the genre.

It also provides an interesting window into the psyche of the Russian government, though. Take this piece on the position of the Russian language in post-Soviet space. During Soviet times, Great Russian nationalism may have been denounced as a bourgeois deviation, but the New Soviet Man was always presumed to be educated in Russian, because, after all, that was the language of International Communism.

Now that the Soviet Union has vanished, there are still plenty of Russian speakers within the former boundaries of the Soviet (and tsarist) empire. Russian remains an available lingua franca, though many of the post-Soviet states have worked very hard to develop a modern vocabulary in their official languages (this has been a particular issue for some of the Central Asian states). Still, it seems, Russia wants to maintain its position as the imperial culture, except now it’s framed as “convenience” rather than domination.

I remember how at an international conference on post-Soviet space, held in Riga, people scrambled to express themselves in English during the panel discussions, but switched to Russian in the cafeteria. “I am also a Russian-speaker,” a local journalist from Latvia’s Diena newspaper said sourly, mocking Moscow’s attempts to protect Russian speakers in Latvia from discrimination. “Does the Russian government think I need protection?”

Indeed, it does. Because this person, whether he wants it or not, is a part of the Russian world. If his children do not speak the language that can make them feel at home from Kaliningrad to Mongolia, this will be a loss for them. So, a journalist from Diena indeed needs protection – from forgetting. In the same way we need protection against forgetting Latvian music and cinema, which used to be highly popular in Soviet times.

But the value of Russian is dependent on the degree to which post-Soviet space is genuinely intertwined. If the near-abroad views its future as lying elsewhere (say, to the west, or even to the east), then the value of Russian is diminished. Or, perhaps, maintaining the position of the Russian language as the lingua franca is an important strategy in maintaining the position of Russia itself. Either way, the ghost of the Russian empire lives on.

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