Now we know for sure that politics warps our opinions on everything under the sun, political or not. Either that, or everything under the sun is political. Take the matter of language and Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ragingly anti-Semitic president of Iran, who has been the butt of a lot of snide jokes recently because of his efforts to preserve the purity of his native Persian. If he were the genial president of some unarmed little nowhere place, his campaign to halt — or at least slow — the creep of English into Iranian life would be portrayed as an act of cultural heroism. Wouldn’t it?
Here’s what Mr. Ahmadinejad wants, according to the official news agency IRNA’s account of a decree he issued last week: Henceforth, all Iranian government agencies, newspapers and publications are to use words deemed appropriate by the state’s cultural watchdog, the Farhangestan Zaban e Farsi, or Persian Academy. To that end, the academy has drawn up a lexicon of more than 2,000 substitutes for some of the foreign terms contaminating the Persian, or Farsi, vocabulary, most of them Western. (Arabic influences, apparently, are less offensive to the mullahs.)
As such lists do, this one has produced its fair share of mirth. Not just in the West but on the streets of Tehran, if news reports are to be believed, people are having a lot of fun with the official new Farsi words for pizza (variously translated as “elastic loaf” or “extendable meal”), cell phone (“companion telephone”), helicopter (“revolving wings”), chat (a “small talk”) and cabin (now a “small room”).
“Revolving wings” is actually a lovely, poetic term that is a vast improvement on helicopter, not to mention chopper, and we recommend its immediate adoption by languages everywhere. But it is hard to deny the satirical potential of some of the other approved words: “Since the kitchen isn’t much in our small room here at the lake, after a small talk we resorted to the companion telephone and ordered out for a large elastic loaf with pepperoni, anchovies and four cheeses.” As even the youth of Tehran probably say these days, that is so not going to happen, official edict or not.
The ridicule is predictable, as we know from the experience of other nationalist-minded official bodies that have tried to shore up languages against the encroachment of foreign tongues, particularly English. As recently as last week, France’s “economic terminology commission” was causing merriment with its vow to keep trying to make French people say things like jeune pousse (young plant shoot) instead of startup and telechargement pour baladeur for podcasting. The German government draws sniggers when it tries to force drivers to anschnallen rather than fasten their seatbelts. And in this country, the National Institute for Japanese Language was, at best, tolerantly ignored when it started issuing lists of alternatives to so-called loanwords — such as shoheki jokyo for the clearly unpatriotic baria-furi (barrier-free).
There is even a precedent in Iran. Back in the ’30s, Reza Shah Pahlavi had the Persian Academy issue a lexicon similar to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s, except that it targeted words from Arabic. People undoubtedly made fun of him, too.
The only language guardians who seem immune to mockery, in fact, are those encircling the smaller, more exotic languages — Welsh, say, or Walloon or Siberian Tatar — probably because everyone can see that those tongues really are threatened, unlike the jittery giants French, German, Japanese and now Persian. What other reason could there be for deriding one people for trying to set up a language fence while applauding another for doing the same thing?
The divide goes deeper, however, when it comes to the Iranian initiative. Commentators are poking fun at Mr. Ahmadinejad, just as they did at Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he fumed in the Diet about English loanwords. But there’s a difference in tone, tied to the fact that people have trouble assessing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s language decree separately from his controversial politics. At a certain point, the fun drains out of the humor. Because if he really is what one Canadian columnist called “a terrorist-loving, Jew-hating, tinpot dictator,” anything he does, it seems, must be repressive and regressive.
People who are interested in languages don’t necessarily see it that way. What they see is an effort to preserve an ancient tongue from the relentless linguistic homogenizing that follows globalization. Scholars and historians know the effort is doomed to fail, since languages bloom, fade and adapt as they will. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to care, even if you are an anti-Semite. If Mr. Ahmadinejad is a bad guy, his renaming pizza is not one of the reasons.
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