I’m reading a powerful, important book that I can’t with a clear conscience recommend. The book is War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, a journalist who’s been covering war zones since El Salvador in 1982 and has gotten fed up, and I have a hard time recommending it because reading it will give you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach and cause you to think even more poorly of humanity than you may already. You can read excerpts here and here and decide whether you’re interested; I’ll just present a few things of LH interest.
First is a striking collocation (from p. 77), the first time I’ve seen the alternate plurals of medium used in the same sentence, and nicely differentiated: “The destruction of culture sees the state or the group prosecuting the war take control of the two most important mediums that transmit information to the nation—the media and the schools.” Since media has become specialized as “a collective term to refer not to the forms of communication themselves so much as the communities and institutions behind them” (AHD), the plural of the more general sense has to be mediums.
Here’s a long quotation (pp. 33-34) about the artificial distinctions created between the Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian “languages”:
Spoken Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian are of Slavic origin and have minor differences in syntax, pronunciation, and slang. The Croats and Bosnian Muslims use the Roman alphabet. The Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet. Otherwise the tongue they all speak is nearly the same.
Since there was, in essence, one language, the Serbs, Muslims and Croats each began to distort their own tongue to accommodate the myth of separateness. The Bosnian Muslims introduced Arabic words and Koranic expressions into the language. The Muslims during the war adopted words like shahid, or martyr, from Arabic, dropping the Serbian word junak. They began using Arabic expressions, like inshallah (God willing), marhaba (hello) and salam alekhum (peace be upon you).
Just as energetically the Croats swung the other way, dusting off words from the fifteenth century. The Croatian president at the time, Franjo Tudjman, took delight in inventing new terms. Croatian parliamentarians proposed passing a law that would levy fines and prison terms for those who use “words of foreign origin.”
In Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, waiters and shop clerks would turn up their noses at patrons who used old “Serbian” phrases. The Education Ministry in Croatia told teachers to mark “non-Croatian” words on student papers as incorrect. The stampede to establish a “pure” Croatian language, led by a host of amateurs and politicians, resulted in chaos and rather bizarre linguistic twists.
There are two words in Serbo-Croatian, for example, for “one thousand.” One of the words, tisuca, was not used by the Communist government that ruled the old Yugoslavia, which preferred hiljada, paradoxically, an archaic Croatian word. Hiljada, although more authentically Croatian, was discarded by Croatian nationalists; tisuca, perhaps because it was banned by the Communists, was in fashion…
The campaign soon included efforts to eradicate words borrowed from English, German, and French. President Tudjman dreamed up new tennis terms to replace English ones. International judges, forced to use the president’s strange sports vocabulary at tennis tournaments, stumbled over the unfamiliar words, like the unwieldy word pripetavanje, difficult even for Croatians, which had to be used instead of “tiebreaker.”
It reached a point of such confusion that Tudjman began to slip up. When he greeted President Clinton in Zagreb he used the Serbian version of the word happy, srecan, rather than sretan, deemed to be Croatian. The gaffe, broadcast live, was quickly edited out of later news reports on the state-controlled television.
(The c‘s in tisuca and srecan should have acute accents; it’s a palatalized affricate, between the t of tune and the ch of cheap.)
Finally, a couple of literary quotes well worth repeating here. First (pp. 90-91), Auden’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant“:
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
And finally (p. 91), from Proust:
As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary. It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place.
(The original, from “Sur la lecture,” his preface to a translation of Ruskin: “Tant que la lecture est pour nous l’initiatrice dont les clefs magiques nous ouvrent au fond de nous-mêmes la porte des demeures où nous n’aurions pas su pénétrer, son rôle dans notre vie est salutaire. Il devient dangereux au contraire quand, au lieu de nous éveiller à la vie personnelle de l’esprit, la lecture tend à se substituer à elle…”)