English: An inherently hierarchical language

Illustration in the style of a Roman fresco of a woman holding a U.S. bomb and CTS tear gas
Jericho Tang/Staff

Related Posts

In my first semester here as a transfer student, in a seminar on archaic Greek lyric poets, I remember hearing a graduate student say, in a very American accent, the very posh, British phrase, “What are we to make of that?” I dropped the class soon after.

Now that I’ve completed a major in classical languages, I think I’m better able to articulate why that bothered me. Many of the classics students I know love the aesthetic mystique of classical literature, often as much as they love using phrases they’ve seen in academic essays so often penned by white British professors. But the one thing I’ve learned most of all from taking Latin and Greek is not to have illusions about words.

Take the adjective “abstract.” “Abstract” used to give me a hazy image of something unclear, mysterious, even spiritual. When I began learning Latin, that hazy image evaporated, and I figured out that “abstract” in plain English just meant “dragged away.” Even then it’s a bit metaphorical, but it’s easier to pin down: Abstract words are “dragged out of context” of everyday speech; abstract art is “dragged out of context” of the images we see in daily life, as when Mark Rothko paints the color orange in a field of pure orangeness.

Often when I’m reading even canonically anti-Eurocentric writing, I see classically tinged words such as “abstract” used in ways I might not have understood before learning Latin or Greek.

Edward Said, for example, whose chronology of Orientalism stretches as far back as Aeschylus, freely uses the word “qualification” in the eponymous book to mean the less obvious, more “academic” meaning, “modification or restriction,” instead of “something you need for a job or another benefit.”

You’re more likely to hear the latter version in your day to day, while the former might give you pause if you haven’t seen it before or had the Latin training to pick it apart (qualis + facere + -tio).

I’m not attacking Said for using a hard word. In fact, I think he has good cause to use it: In the context of the passage, Said outlines a few “qualifications” to his preceding statement that “the Orient is not an inert fact of nature,” explaining that cultural differences are still a thing and the concept of the “Orient” isn’t just imaginary, but linked to real power relationships.

“Qualification” is the most efficient way to communicate the needed meaning on the needed level of nuance. You could try stringing together monosyllables such as “things that make it make more sense,” but that would be clunky.

Yet the fact that you can’t express certain valuable concepts in an accessible way means it’s harder for any but the few to understand what the many need to understand. English is an inherently hierarchical language. If you have a certain education and inhabit certain social or professional circles, you speak a different language than the rest of the Anglophone world.

And without access to a financially useless education in Latin, it seems most English speakers have to speak a language they don’t know: an apt metaphor for the political and ethical situations of our lives.

That the word “lesbian,” for example, comes from the Greek poet Sappho — a resident of Lesbos — doesn’t signify to me, as it does for other young queer people I know, that Sappho was a queer icon. Rather, it serves as a tragic reminder that a millenia-long centering of white, Western elitism has determined even the language we nonwhite, non-Western outcasts have to use to describe ourselves.

I wish I had a language I would want to speak in, one with alternatives such as the one “women loving women” offers for “lesbian.” But that language doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, in pure, “abstracted” form.

Today, I still have to live with and within the language U.S. troops joked in as they dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on the country my parents came from. I have to understand the Latinate words of Said and others to figure out how I fit in this world that continually renews the imperial violence of the ancient past as I add to that long, ever-growing task of building the language a better world would want to speak in.

Contact Cat Chun at [email protected].