On Linguistic Warfare

Words are cultural tools. Somebody once observed that a culture will develop concepts and needs according to its own experiences, and according to its picture of itself. Most things around us prove that this is true. For instance, we think of Hell as a HOT and terrible place. However, to the Inuits, the Sapmi and other peoples of the extreme North, Hell is a COLD and terrible place.

Sometimes various kinds of culture conflicts and clashes will cause a word, or a concept, to move from one language to another. When a word travels in this way, its meaning will frequently also become changed, sometimes even turned inside out. This will cause the word to become assimilated into the other language according to its new meaning.

One example from my own native tongue, Swedish, is the word “krabat”. It came into Swedish use about 350 years ago, as Sweden was embroiled in what Occidental historians have called the Thirty Years War. On the surface, this was a conflict between the two major Christian sects; the Catholics and the Protestants. A further analysis shows a struggle to dominate European economy. The Swedes aligned themselves with the Protestants and became generally feared as soldiers, but there was one enemy, on the Catholic side, whom they did not wish to meet. This was the soldiers of Croatia. The cry of alarm: “Kroaterna kommer!” (“The Croats are coming”) became changed into “Krabaterna kommer” (“The Krabats are coming”)! Long after peace was restored, the word “krabat” remained in the Swedish language, meaning somebody who is very difficult to deal with, sometimes also impossible to trust. As time went by the concept softened. Today, “krabat” commonly means a sturdy, healthy boy infant to be proud of. Its warlike origin is largely forgotten.

The Croats also made their mark in the history of cultural concept exchange during the time of the self-styled French Emperor Napoleon. He employed Croats as auxiliary troops, and these became famous in France also because of the colourful neckscarves which was, and still is, part of the Croatian national costume. Now the word Croat changed into the French “cravat” and came to signify a formal scarf – actually, the source of the neckties worn by most of us today along with our formal Occidental suits.

A far older and more serious shift of meaning is the story of the concept huri’ya, entities of Paradise, whom some say embody classical Arab virtues: hospitality, learnedness, knowledge of body, mind and spirit, and so forth. It is frequently used in present-day English where it lives a very twisted and distorted life as the “whore”, meaning the lowest and most despicable of earthly women – one who makes a living by selling her own carnal body for money. Oriental respect and desirability has become mutated into loathing and debasement. I do not know when this change occurred – an expert on linguistics could tell us – but literature clearly shows it to be of a quite early date. It is likewise clear that we are dealing with a very deliberate change of meaning. It is an example of linguistic warfare. The followers of one religion took a concept from their opponents and turned it entirely around, making it signify the exact opposite compared with its original meaning. This is a very effective weapon when you wish to strip the opponent of all dignity and honour. In doing so, you also disqualify the culture, the history, the virtues and the religion of the opponent, not to speak of the proper way to speak the language commonly used by the opponent.

The distorted picture of the huri’ya concept is also present in my language, Swedish, which borrowed it from the English and made it mean the same thing as in English. So, “huri’ya” became the English “whore”, to end up as the Swedish “hora”. This mechanism is very dangerous and serves to cement misunderstanding and disagreement.

Another sad example of linguistic warfare, very prominent in contemporary use, is the Arab “jihad”. In Western media and discussion, “jihad” means one thing, and one thing only. This is aggressive, armed warfare on religious grounds. Moreover, it signifies that the attackers are Muslims who wish to wreak havoc on Christians because of differences in religion. Today many private Christians are careful in their dealings with Muslims, possibly because prominent Western speakers have used media to make them fear that a “jihad” may descend upon them at any moment. Partly because of this the presence of Muslims in Western societies have become more or less suspect. This was very clear to me personally a few months ago. I live in the Swedish countryside and bought some firewood from a local farmer. As we loaded the wagon we also came to speak about differences in faith. Eventually the farmer said, quite spontaneously and without further thought: “Oh, the Muslims are all in the cities. It’s quite safe out here where we live, you see”. “How do you know I’m not a Muslim?” I asked. He just looked at me and said: “No, you’re not”. To me, the farmer was a victim of linguistic warfare, and at the time I had no words to set him right.

A wise man however, an imam and a good friend of mine, explained “jihad” to me in another way. He said: “You can make jihad a hundred times every day. Imagine for instance that you see an old lady who wants to cross the street but is afraid of the heavy traffic. Wouldn’t you go with the lady, helping her across the street? Jihad is that which pleases God. To help the old lady is good jihad”.

Therefore, it seems to me that the best road towards counteracting this sad linguistic warfare is to try to know the words and the concepts in their original, correct meaning, and to make full use of them in this way.

It has been said about the Prophet (Peace be upon Him), that to know him was like reading the Holy Qur’an. A great Buddhist thinker also said: “There is no use trying to point to the way. You must BE the way”.

I believe that everybody can do this. Some can do more, some can do less, but everybody is able to use language to add their share towards greater understanding.

Håkan Larsson, PhD, lives in Sweden. He can be reached at: tollvvv@yahoo.se. Read other articles by Håkan, or visit Håkan's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. hp said on May 16th, 2008 at 10:53am #

    “Since the Renaissance, there has been no event of such world wide significance in the history of culture as the discovery of Sanskrit literature in the latter part of the eighteenth century.”
    Will Durant

    “The Panini grammar reflects the wondrous capacity of the human brain, which till today no other country has been able to produce except India.”
    Sir Monier-Williams

    “I am not a little surprised to find that out of ten words in Du Perron’s Zind dictionary six or seven were pure Sanskrit.”
    Sir William Jones

    The Mother of language, math, religion, astronomy, astrology, etc., etc., etc., India has been and still is relegated to, for the most part, obscurity, footnotes and second rate mythical status despite being the true ‘Motherland.’

    In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer; “And oh, how thoroughly here is the mind washed clean of all early engrafted Jewish superstitions, and of all philosophy that cringes before those superstitions. In the whole world there is no study, except that of the ORIGINALS, so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life , it will be the solace of my death.”
    Amen (OM) to that.

  2. Don Hawkins said on May 16th, 2008 at 5:22pm #

    Joe Biden said yesterday that what Bush said in Israel his speech was bullshit. On CNN Wolf said they could not say the word. On NBC Brian said he could not use the word and so the bullshit continues. No no no

  3. Don Hawkins said on May 16th, 2008 at 6:45pm #

    You know the more I think about this I see the reasoning why CNN or NBC couldn’t use the word Joe Biden used to explain parts of Bush’s speech. The word bullshit to say that on TV to the American people and the harm it could do probably can’t even be measured. Now I have found if you use a word enough it seems to lose it’s meaning so bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit there you see just bullshit.