Chapter 4: The Voice of Sisera

The invention of discursive prose liberated the mind of man from the limitations of the individual’s memory. We can now “know” not just what we can store in our heads, and, as often as not misplace among the memorabilia and used slogans. Nevertheless, that invention made concrete and permanent one of the less attractive facts of language. It called forth a new “mode” of language and provided yet another way in which to distinguish social classes from one another.

Fleeing the lost battle on the plain of Megiddo, General Sisera is said to have stopped off at the tent of Heber the Kenite. Heber himself was out, but his wife, Jael, was home and happy to offer the sweaty warrior a refreshing drink–“a bottle of milk” in fact, the Bible says. (That seems to find something in translation.) It was a kindly and generous gesture, especially since Sisera asked nothing more than a drink of water.

Having drunk his fill, the tired Sisera stretched out for a little nap and told Jael to keep careful watch, for he had good reason to expect that the Jews who had cut up his army that day were probably looking around for him. Jael said, Sure, sure, don’t worry, and when Sisera fell asleep, that crafty lady took a hammer and a tent spike and nailed him through the temples fast to the earth.

I suppose that we are meant to conclude that the Kenites, not themselves Jews, were nevertheless right-thinking folk and that Jael’s act had a meaning that was both political and religious. I’m not so sure. I’d like to know, before deciding, just what language it was that Sisera used when he asked for that drink of water.

Scholars think that Sisera was probably the leader of an invading Hittite army, but the details are not important. What is important is that he was obviously a would-be conqueror in a land not his own. He had, until quite recently, been successful; he had come a long way with his iron chariots, powerful weapons that the Jews lacked and that would have won yet another battle if it hadn’t been for a spell of bad weather. He was a successful foreign invader from a technologically superior culture. Can you suppose that he felt any obligation or even curious desire to learn the language of the Jews? Wouldn’t they have seemed to him just another bunch of local primitives, in no important way to be distinguished from other such bunches he had already overcome? As for the tent-dwelling Kenites, a meager clan of impoverished nomads, who would ever bother to learn their ignorant babble? I’m willing to bet a brand-new Fowler against a D minus freshman theme that Sisera spoke to Jael in his language, not hers, and loudly. With gestures. What Jael did, a little later, was actually an early example of linguistic consciousness-raising. Hers, not his.

Now, your typical American tourist in Naples doesn’t usually get a wooden spike through his head for shouting pidgin English at the natives–a little diarrhea, maybe, but that’s about it. Roman legionnaires in Gaul, however, and British soldiers in India did get some of each, once in a while. Conquered peoples hate, along with everything else about them, the language of the conquerors, and with good reason, for the language is itself a weapon. It keeps the vanquished in the dark about meanings and intentions, and it makes it extremely difficult to obey commands that had damn well better be obeyed, and schnell, too. Whatever it was that Sisera said to Jael that afternoon, it must have had something like the emotional effect of “Juden heraus!” shouted in the streets of a small village in eastern Poland.

History is rich in examples of Siseranism. The language of the Cro-Magnons must have had upon the Neanderthals the same effect as Norman French had upon the English after 1066. Furthermore, it isn’t only the victors and the vanquished who dwell together speaking different tongues. The war doesn’t really go on forever. When the fighting is over–for a while–the victors and the vanquished often settle down to become the rulers and the ruled. They continue to speak different languages. Their languages may in time merge and become one, but they will still find a way to speak different languages. That is the case with us.

The arrangement offers some advantages on both sides. The powerful can write the laws and the rules in their own language so that the weak come before the courts and the commissions at a double disadvantage. (You’ll see what that means when they audit your tax return.) The ruling class also becomes the “better” class, and its language must be the language of literature and philosophy and science and all the gentle arts. The subjects, whose language is deemed insufficiently elegant or complex to express such matters, are thus excluded from the business of the intellect in all its forms and relegated to tradecraft and handiwork, for which their rudimentary babble is just about good enough. On the other hand, the rudimentary babble of the riffraff is, after all, a language that the rulers don’t, and generally don’t care to, understand. The language of the subjects serves them as a form of “secret” talking, so that servants can mutter, not quite inaudibly, appropriate comments on the lord and his lady. It’s the same kind of revenge that schoolboys used to take by learning fluent, rapid pig latin to use in the presence of pompous and pedantic masters.

The linguistic distinction between the rulers and the ruled seems so right, especially to the rulers, that where it doesn’t occur naturally it gets invented. Thus the upper classes in Russia in the times of the czars were put to the trouble of learning French, a more “civilized” tongue, and reserved their Russian for speaking to servants, very small children, and domestic animals. Thus the French upper classes from time to time have gone through paroxysms of tortured elegance in language in order to distinguish themselves yet further from their inferiors. It would have seemed reasonable, and handsomely symmetrical, too, for the French aristocrats to have learned Russian, saving their French for servants, very small children, and domestic animals, but your standard everyday French aristocrat would rather drink out of his fingerbowl than learn a barbarous babble like Russian. It’s interesting to notice that in both those cultures certain linguistic distinctions were ultimately obliterated, at least for a while, by bloody revolutions. True, there may have been some other causes as well, but these little lessons of history should cause at least an occasional sleepless night for those of our rulers who like to speak in a language not understood by the people. We don’t have two languages, of course, so those who rule us have the same problem that once troubled the French aristocracy. They have to devise an elaborate language-within-a-language that we can understand only sometimes and even then uncertainly. It is a mistake to think that the language of the bureaucrats is merely an ignorant, garbled jargon. They may not always know what they are doing, but what they are doing is not haphazard. It works, too.

We like to make jokes, for instance, about the language of the tax forms. Heh heh, we chuckle, ain’t them bureaucrats a caution? Just listen to this here, Madge. Them bureaucrats, however, don’t chuckle at all, and if you’d like to see just what the term “stony silence” really means, try chuckling at their jargon when they haul you down to the tax office to ask how you managed to afford that cabin cruiser. Even your own lawyer will start looking around for some lint to pick off his trousers.

And as long as we have a lawyer in view, ain’t they something? We read with pitying shakes of the head the disclaimers and demurrers at the bottom of the contract. We like to imagine that we, just plain folks, are somehow, deep down where it really counts, superior to those pointy-headed word-mongers with all their hereinafters. Nevertheless, we do what they tell us to do. We always remember that if we can’t figure out from their language what we’re required to do, and if we therefore fail to do it, it isn’t the writers of the jargon who will be called to account. Our sense of superiority is an illusion, a convenient illusion from somebody’s point of view; in fact, when we read the contract, we are afraid. It is the intent of that language to make us afraid. It works. Now that is effective writing.

Imagine that the postman brings you a letter from the Water and Sewer Department or the Bureau of Mines or some such place. Any right-thinking American will eye even the envelope in the same way he would eye some sticky substance dripping from the underparts of his automobile. Things get worse. You open the letter and see at once these words: “You are hereby notified . . .” How do you feel? Are you keen to read on? But you will, won’t you? Oh, yes. You will.

Here comes another letter. This one doesn’t even have a stamp. It carries instead the hint that something very bad will happen to any mere citizen caught using this envelope for his own subversive purposes. You open it and read: “It has been brought to the attention of this office . . .” Do you throw it out at that point because you find it too preposterous to think that an office can have an attention? Do you immediately write a reply: “Dear So-and-so, I am surprised and distressed by the rudeness of your first ten words, especially since they are addressed to one of those who pay your salary. Perhaps you’re having a bad day. Why don’t you write again and say something else?” You do not. In fact, you turn pale and wonder frantically which of your misdeeds has been revealed. Your anxiety is increased by that passive verb–that’s what it’s for–which suggests that this damaging exposure has been made not by an envious neighbor or a vengeful merchant or an ex-girlfriend or any other perfectly understandable, if detestable, human agent, but by the very nature of the universe. “It has been brought.” This is serious.

Among the better class of Grammarians, that construction is known as the Divine Passive. It intends to suggest that neither the writer nor anyone else through whose head you might like to hammer a blunt wooden spike can be held accountable for anything in any way. Like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, this latest calamity must be accepted as an act of God. God may well be keeping count of the appearances of the Divine Passive.

Another classic intimidation with which to begin a letter is: “According to our records . . .” It reminds you at once, with that plural pronoun, that the enemy outnumbers you, and the reference to “records” makes it clear that they’ve got the goods. There is even a lofty pretense to fairness, as though you were being invited to bring forth your records to clear up this misunderstanding. You know, however, that they don’t suspect for an instant that there’s anything wrong in their records. Besides, you don’t have any records, as they damn well know.

Such frightening phrases share an important attribute. They are not things that ordinary people are likely to say, or even write, to one another except, of course, in certain unpleasant circumstances. We can see their intentions when we put them into more human contexts: “My dear Belinda, You are hereby notified . . .” conveys a message that ought to infuriate even the dullest of Belindas. Why is it then that we are not infuriated when we bear or read such words addressed to us by bureaucrats? We don’t even stop to think that those words make up a silly verbal paradox; the only context in which they can possibly appear is the one in which they are not needed at all. No meaning is added to “Your rent is overdue” when the landlord writes, “You are hereby notified that your rent is overdue.” What is added is the tone of official legality, and the presumption that one of the rulers is addressing one of the ruled. The voice of Sisera puts you in your place, and, strangely enough, you go there.

We Americans make much of our egalitarian society, and we like to think we are not intimidated by wealth and power. Still, we are. There are surely many reasons for that, and about most of them we can do nothing, it seems. But one of the reasons is the very language in which the wealthy and powerful speak to us. When we hear it, something ancient stirs in us, and we take off our caps and hold them to our chests as we listen. About that we could do something–all it takes is some education. That must have been in Jefferson’s mind when he thought about the importance of universal education in a society of free people. People who are automatically and unconsciously intimidated by the sound of a language that they cannot themselves use easily will never be free. Jefferson must have imagined an America in which all citizens would be able, when they felt like it, to address one another as members of the same class. That we cannot do so is a sore impediment to equality, but, of course, a great advantage to those who can use the English of power and wealth.

It would be easier to see bureaucratic language for what it is if only the governors and bureaucrats did in fact speak a foreign tongue. When the Normans ruled England anyone could tell the French was French and English, English. It was the government that might, rarely, pardon you for your crimes, but it needed a friend to forgive you for your sins. Words like “pardon” and “forgive” were clearly in different languages, and, while either might have been translated by the other, they still meant subtly different acts. They still do, even though they are both thought of as English words now. Modern English has swallowed up many such distinctions, but not all. We still know that hearts are broken, not fractured. This is the kind of distinction Winston Churchill had in mind when he advised writers to choose the native English word whenever possible rather than a foreign import. This is good advice, but few can heed it in these days. The standard American education does not provide the knowledge out of which to make such choices.

Chapter 5: “let’s face it Fellows”