Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jon Stewart is a Linguist

Jon Stewart indulged in one of my favorite linguistic pastimes, tracking language engineering and language change. In this clip , Stewart identifies the Republican effort to replace the word "rich" with "job creator". "You can't even use the word rich," says Stewart, airing a series short clips of legislators saying "job creator" when they really meant "rich":

"Getting Washington off the backs of job creators" (Tim Huelskamp, R, Kansas)

"Stopping tax increases on our job creators" (Bobby Schilling, R, Illinois)

This attempt to engineer language change probably won't work, although I thought the same thing about the term "homeland" when it was introduced again post 9/11 -- and we're all used to it now, as in Homeland Security.

It's sometimes difficult to notice language change in your own language, because it usually happens slowly over time. It sounds jarring at first, then you get used to it, then you don't notice it and often forget about the difference.  Remember when we used to be drilled on the difference between lie-lay-lain v. lay-laid-laid? No more. Or remember when few and less were not used interchangeably? Or what about using "that" when you mean "who", as in "the boy that lives next door..."  And for those of you who swear you always use "who", listen up and listen hard to yourselves over the next few days!

I hope "job creator" doesn't replace "rich", just like I hope that the China Daily's persistent use of "jackal in a monk's robe" never replaces the name for the Dalai Lama.

One great example of language change, or at least language fluctuation in Chinese is with the use of personal pronouns, especially I, or wǒ. In Imperial China, wǒ wasn't used much, because it was too blunt and self-serving for the era of honorifics. Then during the Mao era, it was even worse, when using wǒ was highly discouraged for being too selfish, too individual-minded instead of thinking about the masses and the common good. As a foreigner learning Chinese, you quickly get a sense of how much you're over-using wǒ. Chinese still shy away from it. It will be interesting to see how things change as the more self-centered, individualistic, and capitalist-minded youth grow up.

(image from electionsmeter.com)

31 comments:

  1. It strikes me that "Jackal..." is just as apt a name as "Dalai Lama" for this Tenzin Gyatso. The title is purportedly that of a spiritual leader, but in reality it represents centuries of brutal oppression.

    Tenzin or Jackal or what have you, let's just call a spade a spade. There is nothing redeeming about this character, irrespective of our opinions about the Chinese.

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  2. Of course that was the cause of the French Revolution, all those job creator sauces and the Queen trying to promote healthy diets with cake and stuff.

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