Selected Minor Works: Of the Proper Names of Peoples, Places, Fishes, &c.

Justin E. H. Smith

When I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, an outraged student activist of Chinese descent announced to a reporter for the campus newspaper: “Look at me! Do I look ‘Oriental’? Do you see anything ‘Oriental’ about me?  No. I’m Asian.”  The problem, however, is that he didn’t look particularly ‘Asian’ either, in the sense that there is nothing about the sound one makes in uttering that word that would have some natural correspondence to the lad’s physiognomy.  Now I’m happy to call anyone whatever they want to be called, even if personally I prefer the suggestion of sunrises and sunsets in “Orient” and “Occident” to the arbitrary extension of an ancient (and Occidental) term for Anatolia all the way to the Sea of Japan.  But let us be honest: the 1990s were a dark period in the West to the extent that many who lived then were content to displace the blame for xenophobia from the beliefs of the xenophobes to the words the xenophobes happened to use.  Even Stalin saw that to purge bourgeois-sounding terms from Soviet language would be as wasteful as blowing up the railroad system built under the Tsar.

In some cases, of course, even an arbitrary sound may take on grim connotations in the course of history, and it can be a liberating thing to cast an old name off and start afresh.  I am certainly as happy as anyone to see former Dzerzhinsky Streets changed into Avenues of Liberty or Promenades of Multiparty Elections.  The project of pereimenovanie, or re-naming, was as important a cathartic in the collapsed Soviet Union as perestroika, or rebuilding, had been a few years earlier.  If the darkest period of political correctness is behind us, though, this is in part because most of us have realized that name-changes alone will not cut it, and that a real concern for social justice and equality that leaves the old bad names intact is preferable to a cosmetic alteration of language that allows entrenched injustice to go on as before– pereimenovanie without perestroika

But evidently the PC coffin could use a few more nails yet, for the naive theory of language that guided the demands of its vanguard continues to inform popular reasoning as to how we ought to go about calling things.  Often, it manifests itself in what might be called pereimenovanie from the outside, which turns Moslems into Muslims, Farsi into Persian, and Bombay into Mumbai, as a result of the mistaken belief on the part of the outsiders that they are thereby, somehow, getting it right.  This phenomenon, I want to say, involves not just misplaced moral sensitivity, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of how peoples and places come by their names. 

Let me pursue these and a few other examples in detail.  These days, you’ll be out on your ear at a conference of Western Sinologists if you say “Peking” instead of “Beijing.”  Yet every time I hear a Chinese person say the name of China’s capital city, to my ear it comes out sounding perfectly intermediate between these two.  Westerners have been struggling for centuries to come up with an adequate system of transliteration for Chinese, but there simply is no wholly verisimilar way to capture Chinese phonology in the Latin alphabet, an alphabet that was not devised with Chinese in mind, indeed that had no inkling of the work it would someday be asked to do all around the world.  As Atatürk showed with his Latinization of Turkish, and Stalin with his failed scheme for the Cyrillicization of the Baltic languages, alphabets are political as hell. But decrees from the US Library of Congress concerning transliteration of foreign alphabets are not of the same caliber as the forced adoption of the Latin or Cyrillic scripts.  Standardization of transliteration has more to do with practical questions of footnoting and cataloguing than with the politics of identity and recognition.

Another example.  In Arabic, the vowel between the “m” and the “s” in the word describing an adherent of Islam is a damma.  According to Al-Ani and Shammas’s Arabic Phonology and Script (Iman Publishing, 1999), the damma is “[a] high back rounded short vowel which is similar to the English “o” in the words “to” and “do”.” So then, “Moslem” or “Muslim”?  It seems Arabic itself gives us no answer to this question, and indeed the most authentic way to capture the spirit of the original would probably be to leave the vowel out altogether, since it is short and therefore, as is the convention of Arabic othography, unwritten.   

And another example.  Russians refer to Russia in two different ways: on the one hand, it is Rus’, which has the connotation of deep rootedness in history, glagolithic tablets and the like, and is often modified by the adjective “old”; on the other hand it is Rossiia, which has the connotation of empire and expanse, engulfing the hunter-gatherers of Kamchatka along with the Slavs at the empire’s core.  Greater Russia, as Solzhenitsyn never tires of telling us, consists in Russia proper, as well as Ukraine (the home of the original “Kievan Rus'”), and that now-independent country whose capital is Minsk.  Minsk’s dominion is called in German “Weissrussland,” and in Russian “Belorussiia.”  In other words, whether it is called “Belarus” or “Belorussia” what is meant is “White Russia,” taxonomically speaking a species of the genus “Russia.”  (Wikipedia tells us that the “-rus” in “Belarus” comes from “Ruthenia,” but what this leaves out is that “Ruth-” itself is a variation on “Rus’,” which, again is one of the names for Muscovite Russia as well as the local name for White Russia.) 

During the Soviet period, Americans happily called the place “Belorussia,” yet in the past fifteen years or so, the local variant, “Belarus,” has become de rigueur for anyone who might pretend to know about the region.  Of course, it is admirable to respect local naming practices, and symbolically preferring “Belarus” over “Belorussia” may seem a good way to show one’s pleasure at the nation’s newfound independence from Soviet domination. 

However (and here, mutatis mutandis, the same point goes for Mumbai), I have heard both Americans and Belarusans say the word “Belarus,” and I daresay that when Americans pronounce it, they are not saying the same word as the natives.  Rather, they are speaking English, just as they were when they used to say “Belorussia.”  Moreover, there are plenty of perfectly innocuous cases of inaccurate naming.  No one has demanded (not yet, anyway) that we start calling Egypt “Misr,” or Greece “Hellas.”  Yet this is what we would be obligated to do if we were to consistently employ the same logic that forces us to say “Belarus.”  Indeed, even the word we use to refer to the Germans is a borrowing from a former imperial occupier –namely, the Romans– and has nothing to do with the German’s own description of themselves as Deutsche.

In some cases, such as the recent demand that one say “Persian” instead of “Farsi,” we see an opposing tendency: rather than saying the word in some approximation of the local form, we are expected to say it in a wholly Anglicized way.  I have seen reasoned arguments from (polyglot and Western-educated) natives for the correctness and sensitivity of “Mumbai,” “Persian,” “Belarus,” and “Muslim,” but these all have struck me as rather ad hoc, and, as I’ve said, the reasoning for “Persian” was just the reverse of the reasoning for “Mumbai.”  In any case, monolingual Persian speakers and residents of Mumbai themselves could not care less. 

Perhaps the oddest example of false sensitivity of this sort comes not in connection with any modern ethnic group, but with a race of hominids that inhabited Europe prior to the arrival of the homo sapiens and were wiped out by the newcomers about 29,000 years ago.  In the 17th century, one Joachim Neumann adopted the Hellenized form of his last name, “Neander,” and proceeded to die in a valley that subsequently bore his name: the Neanderthal, or “the valley of the new man.”  A new man, of sorts, was found in that very valley two centuries later, to wit, the Homo neanderthalensis.

Now, as it so happens, “Thal” is the archaic version of the German word “Tal.”  Up until the very recent spelling reforms imposed at the federal level in Germany, vestigial “h”s from earlier days were tolerated in words, such as “Neanderthal,” that had an established record of use.  If the Schreibreform had been slightly more severe, we would have been forced to start writing “Göte” instead of the more familiar “Goethe.”  But Johann Wolfgang was a property the Bundesrepublik knew it dare not touch. The “h” in “Neanderthal” was however axed, but the spelling reform was conducted precisely to make German writing match up with German speech: there never was a “th” sound in German, as there is in English, and so the change from “Thal” to “Tal” makes no phonetic difference. 

We have many proper names in North America that retain the archaic spelling “Thal”, such as “Morgenthal” (valley of the morning), “Rosenthal” (valley of the roses), etc., and we happily pronounce the “th” in these words as we do our own English “thaw.”  Yet, somehow over the past ten years or so Americans have got it into their heads that they absolutely must say Neander-TAL, sans voiceless interdental fricative, as though this new standard of correctness had anything to do with knowledge of prehistoric European hominids, as though the Neanderthals themselves had a vested interest in the matter.  I’ve even been reproached myself, by a haughty, know-it-all twelve-year-old, no less, for refusing to drop the “th”. 

The Neanderthals, I should not have to point out, were illiterate, and the presence or absence of an “h” in the word for “valley” in a language that would not exist until several thousand years after their extinction was a matter of utter indifference to them.  Yet doesn’t the case of the Neanderthal serve as a vivid reductio ad absurdum of the naive belief that we can set things right with the Other if only we can get the name for them, in our own language, right?  The names foreigners use for any group of people (or prehuman hominids, for that matter) can only ever be a matter of indifference for that group itself, and it is nothing less than magical thinking to believe that if we just get the name right we can somehow tap into that group’s essence and refer to them not by some arbitrary string of phonemes, but as they really are in their deepest and truest essence. 

This magical thinking informs the scriptural tradition of thinking about animals, according to which the prelapsarian Adam named all the different biological kinds not with arbitrary sounds, but in keeping with their true natures.  Hence, the task of many European naturalists prior to the 18th century was to rediscover this uncorrupted knowledge of nature by recovering the lost language of Adam, and thus, oddly enough, zoology and Semitic philology cosnstituted two different domains of the same general project of inquiry. 

Some very insightful thinkers, such as Gottfried Leibniz, noticed that ancient Hebrew too, just like modern German, is riddled with corrupt verb forms and senseless exceptions to rules, and sharply inferred from this that Hebrew was no more divine than any vulgate.  Every vocabulary human beings have ever come up with to refer to the world around them has been nothing more than an arbitrary, exception-ridden, haphazard set of sounds, and in any case the way meanings are produced seems to have much more to do with syntax –the rules governing the order in which the sounds are put together– than with semantics– the correspondence between the sounds and the things in the world they are supposed to pick out. 

This hypercorrectness, then, is ultimately not just political, but metaphysical as well.  It betrays a belief in essences, and in the power of language to pick these out.  As John Dupré has compellingly argued, science educators often end up defending a supercilious sort of taxonomical correctness when they declaim that whales are not fish, in spite of the centuries of usage of the word “fish” to refer, among other things, to milk-producing fish such as whales.  The next thing you know, smart-ass 12-year-olds are lecturing their parents about the ignorance of those who think whales are fish, and another generation of blunt-minded realists begins its takeover.  Such realism betrays too much faith in the ability of authorities –whether marine biologists, or the oddly prissy postmodern language police in the English departments– to pick out essences by their true names.  It is doubtful that this faith ever did much to protect anyone’s feelings, while it is certain that it has done much to weaken our descriptive powers, and to take the joy out of language.