“Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity” (pdf) is a riveting look at “the link between coercion and absurdity” by the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber (whom Yale has cravenly refused to rehire); though I recommend the whole thing, I cite it here for this look at the nexus between language and behavior in Madagascar:

What’s more, one result of the colonial experience was that what might be called relations of command—basically, any ongoing relationship in which one adult renders another an extension of his or her will—had become identified with slavery, and slavery, with the essential nature of the state. In the community I studied, such associations were most likely to come to the fore when people were talking about the great slave-holding families of the 19th century whose children went on to become the core of the colonial-era administration, largely (it was always remarked) by dint of their devotion to education and skill with paperwork. In other contexts, relations of command, particularly in bureaucratic contexts, were linguistically coded: they were firmly identified with French; Malagasy, in contrast, was seen as the language appropriate to deliberation, explanation, and consensus decision-making. Minor functionaries, when they wished to impose arbitrary dictates, would almost invariably switch to French. I particularly remember one occasion when an official who had had many conversations with me in Malagasy, and had no idea I even understood French, was flustered one day to discover me dropping by at exactly the moment everyone had decided to go home early. “The office is closed,” he announced, in French, “if you have any business you must return tomorrow at 8AM.” When I pretended confusion and claimed, in Malagasy, not to understand French, he proved utterly incapable of repeating the sentence in the vernacular, but just kept repeating the French over and over. Others later confirmed what I suspected: that if he had switched to Malagasy, he would at the very least have had to explain why the office had closed at such an unusual time. French is actually referred to in Malagasy as “the language of command”; it was characteristic of contexts where explanations, deliberation, ultimately, consent, was not really required, since they were ultimately premised on the threat of violence.

(Via MetaFilter.)


  1. Yes. I also recall from my anthropology readings that in Madagascar the cows only understand French as that’s the only language their owners speak to them in. Ha!

  2. As a rule, Yale or Harvard don’t rehire assistant professors; exceptions are very rare. It’s a stupid practice, yet it persists. I remember reading about the Graeber case when I was looking into the Bert Vaux scandal.

  3. I must say you’ve written a great post and highlighted the language behaviour thing that is I’ve never heard before.

  4. Sevket Zaimoglu says

    In 1998, while I was crossing the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border with a friend, we were kept waiting for a while at the Turkmen side. The customs officials were trying to extract bribes from us, if not in the form of cash, at least our sunglasses… But after nearly two months traveling in the ex-Soviet domains, we had run out of money. So we kept waiting. In the meantime, a Turkish TIR driver would come for his paperwork, distribute cigarette packs and buy icecream to everyone (not to us of course, only to those that “mattered”), get in the director’s office and probably pay the real bribes there, and then be done with the customs. This scene repeated itself a couple of times. Then, there was a disagreement and a small fight among the customs officials. The policemen and soldiers also became involved. It was probably a fight over the spoils of the day. They made a lot of noise, but no physical contact. However, the disturbance was enough to bring the director out of his office. He first tried to calm them down by talking in Turkmen. He was superior to the customs officials, but the policemen and the soldiers were not in his direct command. Since I am Turkish, I understood most of what he said. He then increased his voice, started threatening them, but still in Turkmen and to no effect. Finally, when he saw that his words were useless, he switched to Russian, began giving them a roasting in Russian. It was an amazing sight how everyone suddenly stopped bickering about, lowered their heads, and listened guiltily to the director’s monologue. I then understood that in Turkmenistan, Turkmen might be the official language, but Russian is still the language of command.

  5. A great anecdote that beautifully illustrates the topic — thanks!

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  7. John Cowan says

    I don’t think craven is the right word. Graeber seemingly offended Yale’s management by supporting the graduate student labor union, and they punished him. That is not cowardice, it is revenge (of a mean kind, but still revenge). It would be cowardice if others called for his non-renewal on specious grounds and Yale went along with it: but the reverse was true.

    I would say that the language of command in my house is Loud.

    the cows only understand French

    In Ireland the pigs only understand English, for the same reasons; plus English is a good enough language for pigs.

  8. David Marjanović says

    That’s interesting because Celtic is the branch with the longest list of hyonyms by far.

  9. John Cowan says

    Ah, but in those days the English was not to the Celts, and so they had to make do with a language for human beings.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    At the celts(ag). Things that belong to you ( and luck) are with (le). To (do) generally involves lateral movement or transfer, and vertical movement (emotions descend vertically) is on (ar).

  11. John Cowan says

    Yeah, I knew something was off, but I couldn’t easily find the Right Thing online by searching for variants of [Irish possession], and fell back on a generic dative.

    Talking to pigs (and selling them) in English.

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    @john Cowan no worries, in Irish they say Dia dhuit (with do) but Beannacht Dé ort (with ar) so there is no logic on it☺

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