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…”)


  1. I find it interesting that you refrain from a recommendation because (as I read you) the book is too wrenching and frank.
    I say let them read it. Let them weep. It’s our shared world.
    The only thing to be really concerned about is that Mr Hedges is more of a journalist than a scholar, with a few choice quotations in his book giving him a sheen of erudition he doesn’t entirely merit.
    I’m going to read Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That” soon, to give myself a dose of wartime horror combined with a first-rate literary intelligence. I’ll be able to assess then if my instinct about Hedges is anything more than an unfounded haughtiness.

  2. If you haven’t read the book, I’d beware of talking about “a sheen of erudition he doesn’t entirely merit.” It’s true he’s not a scholar of literature, but it’s quite obvious he’s known and loved great literature all his life. And most scholars don’t get the intimate exposure to death and suffering that this guy’s had for over twenty years. No, he’s not a great writer, but neither are most scholars. Frankly, I’ll take his thoughtful witness over 90% of the professional thumbsucking I’ve read from the proud possessors of advanced degrees. He knows whereof he speaks, and that counts for a lot with me.

  3. Oh, and Graves, though a fine writer, was not exactly a devotee of unvarnished truth. In fact, his immense tolerance for bullshit (particularly his own) makes him a hard read for me. Same goes for Hemingway, though Hem favored a different brand of bullshit. Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

  4. I started reading, and I am very much enjoying, Robert Graves. I don’t give a hoot whether his memoirs are “true” or not, as long as they are true to art. And, on the evidence of two chapters, I find that to be abundantly the case.
    I did read Hedges’s book, attentively and entirely. It was a worthwhile read. He is indeed a thoughtful fellow, with whom I have no substantial political disagreement, and I only meant to suggest that he’s neither a great writer nor a particularly great reader. His references to the classics are no more than one should expect from a reasonably well-educated person, certainly not remarkable for a professor at Princeton, and shouldn’t be the basis for congratulations.
    Were you, Hat, for example, to write any book on any subject, I would expect a deeper deployment of allusions than was proffered in Hedges’s book.
    I suppose I’m slightly put-off by the idea (which I’ve encountered in a number of reviews of “War is a force that gives us meaning”) that Hedges is somehow a man of immense erudition. Sheer sheen.
    Then again, who the hell is “reasonably well-educated” today anyway? Compared to many other books on the events of the day, his probably does merit the adulation. Damned with faint praise.

  5. Ah well, since I pay no attention to such reviews I wasn’t expecting any more erudition than I got. For a reporter, he’s erudite; for an erudite, he’s not so erudite. But I was reading the book not for erudition but for witness, and in that respect I found it invaluable.
    I don’t give a hoot whether his memoirs are “true” or not, as long as they are true to art.
    Well, there we get into murky waters; I’ve been arguing this on another website. To me, if you’re presenting your memoirs (or photos or whatever) as a representation of reality (not “your” reality, but reality tout court), then it matters a great deal to me whether they’re accurate. If you believe (as is so fashionable these days) that there is no such thing as reality tout court, then I’m afraid we part ways definitively in this matter.

  6. I’ve been arguing this on another website
    You also spoke well about it here at languagehat (though sadly the comments to the post seem to have fallen in the battle of MT Pass).

  7. agreement: Hedges as witness.
    disagreement: that there is such a thing in writing as “reality tout court”.
    relief: that the matter’s been resolved without recourse to a duel. :)

  8. PF: Thanks for the reminder of one of my favorite posts; I grieve for the fallen comments.
    elck: Ah, well then!

  9. Of course hiljada is clearly of Greek origin.

  10. Hat, i’m glad you liked the book, too. I usually agree with Elck but I think he’s way off base here. I found the literary quotations interesting because they were such a welcome change from the usual strategy of quoting contemporary supposed authorities in the field, citing vacuous studies, etc. I found Hedges’ book challenging in a way i like. For example, as a leftist, i very much appreciated his critique of leftists’ romanticizing of violent revolution. I also found his attack on cameraderie bracing, though I ultimately decided that he goes too far in rejecting all forms of it. I’ll have the opportunity to see him at a live reading here at Penn State in a couple of weeks, which should be interesting given some of the passionate responses he’s gotten from audiences in the past.

  11. Most probably, Justin (I’d like to “no doubt”, but I don’t know anything about Serbo-Croatian).
    hiliada is feminine singular (article ‘i’). I don’t know how to explain this, but it is to “one thousand” what “a dozen” is to twelve. The number 1000 is hilia. Both words remained unchanged in Modern Greek.

  12. Aya. I’d like to say “no doubt”.

  13. (“Jamais deux sans trois”.)
    “Both words remained unchanged in Modern Greek”.
    Let me correct myself again. ‘Hiliada’ is ‘hilias’ in Ancient Greek (as happens with names of the third declination, the old accusative became the new nominative form). So, “unchanged” is not quite adequate here.

  14. I firstly have to declare my interest here: I am a Croatian living in Australia (since the 1980s). One should hope that this would give me a relatively cool head when commenting on the linguistic situation since the ex-YU broke up.
    “Tisuca” was never banned by the communists. It has always been the normal word for 1000 in the Croatian literary standard (and yes, the appellation “Croatian literary language” was used even when Yugoslavia was the one country). Check the 1000 dinar banknote of the former communist Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and you will see that all 4 official languages (Croatian, Serbian, Slovenian, and Macedonian) are represented on it.
    “Hiljada” is of Greek origin and was the normal word for 1000 in the Serbian literary standard.
    Coming from Dalmatia, the usual colloquial or dialect word was “iljada” or “ijada” – note the dropping of the H. However, in school or in official use, one would use the form “tisuca”.

  15. Thanks — it’s great to get an informed verdict! Hedges was doing his best, but he’s just a foreign correspondent grabbing data on the run and unable to judge the accuracy of what people tell him.

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