Linguists and the war



“‘Torture is torture is torture,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” with Chris Wallace.

That depends on what papers you read. The media in France, Italy and Germany have been routinely using the word “torture” in the headings of their stories on the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison. And so have the British papers, not just the left-wing Guardian (“Torture at Abu Ghraib”), but the right-wing Express (“Outrage at U.S. Torture of Prisoners”) and Rupert Murdoch’s Times (“Inside Baghdad’s Torture Jail”).

But the American press has been more circumspect, sticking with vaguer terms such as “abuse” and “mistreatment.” In that, they may have been taking a cue from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Asked about torture in the prison, he said, “What has been charged so far is abuse, which is different from torture. I’m not going to address the ‘torture’ word.”” Don’t torture English to soft-pedal abuse by Geoffrey Nunberg, in Newsday, May 20, 2004


“An American soldier refers to an Iraqi prisoner as “it.” A general speaks not of “Iraqi fighters” but of “the enemy.” A weapons manufacturer doesn’t talk about people but about “targets.”

Bullets and bombs are not the only tools of war. Words, too, play their part.

Human beings are social animals, genetically hard-wired to feel compassion toward others. Under normal conditions, most people find it very difficult to kill.

But in war, military recruits must be persuaded that killing other people is not only acceptable but even honorable.

The language of war is intended to bring about that change, and not only for soldiers in the field. In wartime, language must be created to enable combatants and noncombatants alike to see the other side as killable, to overcome the innate queasiness over the taking of human life. Soldiers, and those who remain at home, learn to call their enemies by names that make them seem not quite human — inferior, contemptible and not like “us.”” From Ancient Greece to Iraq, the Power of Words in Wartime, by Robin Tolmach Lakoff, NYTimes, May 18, 2004

Go linguists! Robin Lakoff was my advisor was part of the time I was at Berkeley. I still owe her a book.


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