As any English-speaker who has learned a Romance language knows, there are a lot of cognates, both true and false, between English and Romance languages. A cognate is a word that resembles its counterpart in another language. For example, even if you don’t speak Spanish, you can probably guess the meaning of the following words: dormitorio, liberador, laboratorio, general, and central. These are cognates. False cognates are words that seem to correlate, but don’t; for example dirección means address, and embarasada means pregnant, a false cognate that can lead to situations that are, well, embarrassing.
Why does English have so many cognates with Romance languages if it’s supposed to be Germanic? One of my linguistics professors told our class that 80% of the words we use everyday are Germanic, but 75% of the words in the English dictionary are of French origin, adopted into the language during the centuries-long reign of the French in Britain after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. French became, well, the lingua franca, literally translated as “French language,” but meaning the language generally spoken or the universal language. English is the modern lingua franca, follow closely by Mandarin.
So are we more Germanic or more Romantic because of our language uses? Does language affect society? Yes, but not linguistically, instead semantically. And those who have begun to change American English are not conquerors in the traditional sense, but they are leaving their imprint on the language—and on society. There is a list of words I hate to hear, and I want to change their usage.
Productive – “A productive member of society.” Are we a bunch of bees or ants, killing ourselves for the queen, building a hive or colony for the sole purpose of propagating the species? No. Can someone be helpful to society without “producing” something for future consumption? Yes. Therefore, I propose ditching “productive” and using instead “contributive.” The contemporaries of Socrates, much less himself, would not have called him productive. And yet his contributions are going strong millennia later. Composers, artists, writers all contribute greatly to society, but capitalists would disagree, unless their works could be sold for profit. Think of the greatest thinkers of all time versus the greatest producers of all time. Which has contributed more to society, made us what we are, stood the test of time? Which will be remembered in future millennia?
Bipartisan – This is just the most common of many words that imply the inevitability and irrevocability of the two-party system in the U.S. The plurality of Americans are neither Republicans nor Democrats—they are registered independents. Guess who came up with the phrase “the big-three auto-makers”: Chrysler, of course, because it wanted to be lumped in with its MUCH bigger brothers, GM and Ford. Guess who propagates the implied inevitability of the two-party system through terms such as “bipartisan”: the two parties who don’t want any competition. If Libertarians could ever get a cogent message together or a charismatic leader, they could really upset the apple cart.
A corollary to this is the concept of the “aisle,” as in “both sides of the aisle,” or “the other side of the aisle.” It makes it seem like there is this huge void between right and left, where ne’er the twain shall meet. In fact, the majority of Americans sit in the aisle, between left and right. The aisle deserves to be listened to, not just walked on.
The national interest – Although this term seems innocuous enough—the nation is the whole of its people—it is abused to undermine the interests of the people. National interest usually means one of three things—economic interests, governmental interests, or military interests. This category will include unfair trade relations, pressure to establish military bases (you go, Kyrgyzstan!), torture, war in general, deficit spending, and many others. Citizens must constantly remind their representatives that we make up the nation; not the economy, nor the military, nor the government itself. Otherwise, politicians will continue to believe their own erroneous definitions.
Christian nation – In the movie Cry, the Beloved Country, based on Alan Patton’s book about racism, forgiveness and redemption, the white murder victim, a champion for the poor native South Africans, just before he is shot (ironically by an African youth), pens sardonically something like, “When we say we are Christians, we mean we are white.” We can substitute “American” for “White” and encapsulate the philosophy of too many of our countrymen. For them, the two words are interchangeable in their inherent righteousness. And yet, this “Christian nation” does too many unchristian things, with the knowledge and approval of the self-professed Christians living within it. We do not “turn the other cheek,” “sell that [we have] and give to the poor,” or even try to “[have] all things common.” We, as a nation, ignore the Ten Commandments and the Two Great Commandments. Also from Cry, the Beloved Country (this time the book) comes the following quote: “The truth is, our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions.” If Christian conservatives understood and lived the laws of Christianity, we would indeed be able to shrink the size of government, a favorite rallying cry, because the hated entitlement programs would be moot, because “public assistance would simply be Christians “lift[ing] up the hands which hang down.” We would not fear the terrorists, illegal immigrants, or higher taxes. If Christian liberals lived the laws of Christianity, they would abandon their salvation-by-legislation philosophy and strengthen their stances against abortion and the disintegration of the family.
How many Christians in American do you know who would have a hard time saying, “I am a Christian before I am an American”? All Christians in America should be able to say this freely and with deep sincerity, but it sticks in the throat of too many who believe America to be the true source of salvation, focusing on the temporal—ignorant of the teachings of Christ.
Thinking Americans need to take back our language. We need to be the drivers of politics, government, society, and language. Words should not be misused by our representatives to confuse, control, and hypnotize us. Only when we can use a pen effectively can it be mightier than the sword.