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Study linguistics or die

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, April 13, 2005

This week, as the rush to register ensues, you can choose from seventeen languages. Yet, while you can dabble in any number of these exotic tongues, you are restricted from studying the very root of it all: language itself. While anthropology might offer a novice linguistic anthropology survey course, Notre Dame, like almost all contemporary American universities, lacks a linguistics department. This absence is not only an academic void for all of us students, but it is symptomatic of a defective modern understanding of language.

It is redundant and stating the obvious to note that language is powerful, but it is the scope and nature of that power which has become cloudy in our times. As anyone who has seriously studied a foreign language knows, languages hold cultural, political, social, religious and traditional insights within their structures. Even further, the application of language holds tremendous power as selected syntax and diction have entrenched dictatorships, propelled social movements and instigated warfare. To study history, science or nearly any field without sensitivity for linguistics is to make a grave academic blunder.

Here in Uganda, study of the languages Luganda in the central Buganda region highlights a number of cultural realities. For example, there is no direction translation for “hello” in the Lugandan language. There really is not a one-word standard greeting. People always ask “oli otya?” (How are you?) or “ki kati?” (What’s up?) or “ogambaki?” (What do you say?). This simple linguistic difference accentuates profound cultural differences. In Uganda, people do not run by each other and throw out a one or two-word greeting; people stop and actually talk to each other about their welfare and days.

Another example is that when greeting people, Ugandans always say “gyebale,” which literally translates to “thank you for the work you do.” No matter the nature of the work done, people believe it is important to thank each other for their work. This significant part of customary Ugandan life is visible only with a linguistic lens to understand the quotidian greetings.

Such linguistic insights raise a myriad of queries about how languages are constructed, how they evolve and how we learn them. The literature on linguistic study is actually rich and bountiful, ranging from scientific theories on linguistic cognition to studies on the intricacies of political semantic manipulation. Unfortunately, such critical literature and study are generally homeless in the modern American university.

The result of such a failed awareness of linguistics is dangerous because language is constantly being manipulated and controlled all around us, deeply impacting the politico-economic systems in which we operate. The language utilized (very selectively and consciously) by the leaders of such systems is meant to shape the way we perceive debates, issues, problems and even the whole of the world.

Here in Uganda, the president Youweri Museveni is a master of such careful semantic maneuvering. As the political system attempts to shift from a one-party state to one of multipartyism, Museveni refuses to admit that the Movement (the one party of the one-party state) is a party. He calls it an organization to give it an elevated status over the other political parties.

Further, Museveni constantly speaks of the weakness of the forming political parties, implying with his language that their victory will bring the country back to the dark chapters of its history under Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Museveni’s linguistic prowess allows him to subtly pervade fear amongst the population, which will most likely ensure his continued hegemony. Similarly, our own president has exhibited his own linguistic aptitude and exploitation, especially last year during the electoral season.

It is not only an academic oversight to miss the linguistic dimensions of each field, but it also quite dangerous. Without awareness and sensitization, we can easily be coerced and misguided by the linguistic scheming of individuals and groups. The way that the majority of the American population blindly accepted the Bush Administration’s pre-Iraq war justification is a key example.

Yet along with guarding against such abuse, consciousness of linguistics is empowering and emboldening. Linguistic awareness and proficiency can help us to challenge systems of injustice, exploitation and violence.

Writers with the power of pen (or computer keyboard in recent decades) can change the hearts and minds of millions simply with the right assortment of words. Speechwriters and performers can dazzle the emotions of masses with their phrases and appeals. Movements, selecting the right language, can challenge even the mightiest structures of oppression. Most of all, recipients of such writings, media and speeches can become more informed, critical individuals.

Notre Dame may not get a linguistics department any time soon, but that does not mean professors and students alike cannot work to enhance our attentiveness to the evident linguistic dynamics at work all around us. Study of language will empower us to build a healthier, more participatory democracy in our own country and throughout the world. With the conglomeration of power by the political and economic elite throughout the globe, the demand for such informed citizenry could not be greater.

Peter Quaranto is a junior international peace studies major. He writes from Kampala, Uganda, where he is studying development studies this semester at Makerere University. Read his running commentary from Uganda at www.peterquaranto.blogspot.com. Contact Peter at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.