Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Monkey with the Lingo

January 3rd, 2012 · 6 Comments

Among the many bizarre books I’ve been reading for research purposes, few are stranger than Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Fire, the former Black Panther bigwig’s account of becoming a born again Christian in the late 1970s. Cleaver spends much of the book repudiating the Communist allies who once supported him, including the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung. To make clear his break from the past, Cleaver goes to great lengths to lampoon North Korean culture; this comical detail from Pyongyang is perhaps my favorite:

You could not say “Good Morning” or “Hello” to [the North Koreans] without their responding: “Yes, it is a beautiful day, thanks to the inspired teaching of our beloved revolutionary leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung, who has filed our lives with the truths of Marxist-Leninist analysis and daily supports our burdens and obligations.” That was good morning, and after six months it began to lose its novelty, but not the power to bore.

That passage reminded me of the Communist realm’s strange obsession with overhauling basic greetings. I first encountered this in the Czech Republic some years back, when it was explained to me that some old-timers still couldn’t stop saying “Honor work!” in lieu of “Goodbye.” (More on that phrase’s slow demise here.) As noted on Microkhan before, one must always be deeply suspicious of political movements that seek to revamp the minutiae of daily life. Even in the most dire of societies, the means of saying “hello” and “farewell” probably aren’t rotten to the core.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Seems like a good litmus test for control of a populace. Those kinds of greetings tend to be pretty reflexive. If you can get people to reorganize their reactions to that degree, you can probably ensure compliance in a lot of other areas.

  • Gramsci

    I’ve read “Soul on Ice”– I never knew there was a sequel (and before Googling it to find out, I would like for his last book to have been “Soul Basically Room Temperature.”)

    In China I did not observe many of these lingering linguistic tics. I was there when Deng Xiaoping died, and aside from a moment of silence there was no real lingering sentimentalism about him. I think the Chinese leadership knows that memorials for the deceased have launched revolts (including 1989). It’s almost like a subversive vehicle needs good Confucian scaffolding to steady it before taking off.

    Anyway, I wonder about the work of James Scott on passive rebellion and its relevance to everyday language. North Korea is an extreme case, but are there other countries where subtle changes to language reflected a shrugging off of the yoke?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: This isn’t quite a perfect match for your query, but you reminded me of a story I heard during my first trip through the Czech Republic.

    Apparently surnames were quite uncommon among ethnic Czechs until the Hapsburgs ordered them to adopts such second monikers. This didn’t sit well with the Czechs, who subtly voiced their displeasure with Austrian domination by selecting surnames that were basically jokes (and often rich in double entendres). See here for a full list of popular Czech surnames. You can’t tell me that some Czech didn’t elect to be known as “Hedgehog” without his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, and his ire directed at Vienna.

  • Gramsci

    Yeah, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Great stuff.

  • Captain Button

    Speaking of North Korean leader worship, I ran across the unpublished book of a “reviser” who help translate propaganda in the 1980s, with much bemusedness.

    http://aidanfc.net/pyongyang.html

    The place I found the link, also a great website:

    http://spikejapan.wordpress.com/2011/12/18/minispike-seasons-greetings/

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captain Button: Amazing find. Just read the intro, will be digging into the book itself forthwith. Love that anecdote about mistranslating the Kim Il-sung paean into Arabic.

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