Have you ever stopped to think why on earth do we assign the letter X to anything and everything we are not familiar with? Mutants, files, factors, numbers, rays, and many other persons, animals, objects or entities of unclear description are classified as X. Why? Well, according to Terry Moore, director of the Radius Foundation, you can blame it all on the old Spanish scholars who attempted to translate Arabic texts into the Spanish vernacular. It seems that when the texts that contained the Arabic mathematical wisdom made their way to Europe via Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries, translators found the task a lot more challenging than expected. As you would expect, some of the sounds in Arabic were not represented by the characters that were available in European languages and thus impossible to translate. The letter SHeen (below) being one of the best examples.
SHeen makes the sound we are accustomed to pronounce as SH — “sh.”It’s also the first letterof the word shalan, which means “something” , some undefined, unknown thing. In Arabic, it is possible to make this definite by adding the definite article “al”, and you’ll have al-shalan — the unknown thing.
So the mystified Medieval Spanish scholars who were tasked with translating this material found that the they could not render the letter SHeen and the word shalan into Spanish because Spanish simply did not have that SH, that “sh” sound.
So what did they do? They created a rule in which they borrowed the CK sound from classical Greek in the form of the letter Kai (below).
Imagined what happened next?
When this material was translated into other common European languages, Latin for instance, translators chose to replace the Greek Kai with the Latin X. And once that happened,once this material was in Latin, it formed the basis for mathematics textbooks for almost 600 years.
So, there you go.
Why is it that we assign letter X to everything that is unknown to us? For no other reason than the inability of some poor scholars in mediaeval times to pronounce the Arabic sound “sh” in Spanish.
Writers are in love with words and so are comedians. However, I would say there’s a BIG difference between the spoken word and the written word. For example, I have no problem cursing like a sailor when I’m on a stand up stage. I think that’s because there’s a smoke-like quality to speaking. You say something – it may stun or shock or cause a laugh or a tear, but then it’s gone.
Interesting article over last weekend in the Spanish daily El País reminiscent of the thesis and arguments put forward by many illustrious postmodernist authors and activists about the blatant manipulation of the cultural and linguistic discourse carried out by the Partido Popular (ironically – “Popular party”, PP), Spanish current right-wing government.
The three authors argued that the PP’s neoliberal, rightist mentality accounts for an immense political and financial power that not only imposes its radical economic and political model onto the people, but it also seeks to impose a change of thought and ultimately to achieve cultural hegemony. This project, they claim, is based on a systematic campaign of self-legitimation and discredit of progressive arguments by using the media which, is mostly dominated or at least influenced by the government. How is this consent achieved?
Using the following, and other, manipulation strategies, already referred to by Noam Chomsky in many of his lectures and publications:
1. Creation (or borrowing) and diffusion of concepts and terms – competitiveness, wage moderation, creation of market confidence, privileges, co-payments, etc .These new notions draw a map of public life, the actors and their conflicts and are presented as unquestionable truths. And yet, their meaning and scope are never made explicit. The more imprinted in public life and in government policy they become, the lower their semantic precision. For example, “freedom” takes on a meaning related to “security”. BESCAM (the local Madrid police force)’s slogan is “Investing in security ensures your freedom.” As in Orwell’s “Newspeak” new ideas become “doublethink” or simultaneously accepted contradictory beliefs – The “Plan of Assurance of Basic Social Services” is the name given to the Castilla-La Mancha government’s cutbacks program. The “process of regularisation of hidden assets” promulgated by Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro is, in fact, a tax amnesty.
These “reconfiguration” of the language by right-wing leaders is a common phenomenon (think of Nazi slogans or the constantly repeated hackneyed phrases by Australia’s opposition leader Tony Abbott’s to make us believe that “boat people”are here to invade Australia). The Spanish right-wing party is manufacturing a set of convincing terms which oppose logic – “we cannot spend what we don’t have”, “free health services are unsustainable“, “only we have “common sense“. In fact, capitalism is based on credit and spending more than what one owns; public health services is not free but financed collectively by the public and therefore, common to all. But the simplicity of these slogans and their seemingly non-ideological nature make it easy for these tautologies to adhere to people’s minds and become unquestionable truths.
2. Appropriation of opponents’terminology
Admittedly, no one owns a language, but it could legitimately claimed that certain expressions are associated with specific traditions, stories and political identities. By usurping the terms of the left, the right wing simultaneously neutralises its opposition and attains a rebellious feel of sorts. Esperanza Aguirre, the current right wing mayor of Madrid, claims that the policies of the syndicates “are outdated, reactionary and anti-social.” Words like “change” or “reform” rather linked to progressive projects, are used in disguise to refer to what are actually counter-reforms. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said at the official commemoration of the 1812 Constitution: “The people from Cadiz taught us that in times of crisis not only is it necessary to make reforms, but one also has to have the courage to carry them through.” He used the symbolism of earlier reforms and reformist movements to justify and legitimate current cutbacks and dress them up as reforms.
3. Stigmatisation of certain groups
The government’s discourse refers to the unemployed as the beneficiaries of the labor reform, a lazy cast that needs to redeem its uselessness repaying the employed population with social work. For instance, Victor Grifols, president of a pharmaceutical company in Spain, proposes that “in times of crisis we could pay the unemployed 60 euros per week to donate life, earnings which could be added to their pensions.” With this proposal, the jobless body becomes a commodity, human waste that can be bought at a (minimum) price.
Some of the earlier government cutbacks also reveal a new type of paria – the sick person, now blamed for the country’s deficit and forced to pay for his/her weaknesses.
And this is the beginning, surely many other groups are bound to be falsely blamed, stigmatised and outcast.
4. Arguments based on simplicity and immediate understanding
“It is not a matter of right or left, but simply a matter of common sense,” said Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, President since 2008 of the PP in Catalonia. Mariano Rajoy’s well known appeal to “common sense” helps the party sustain a mental framework that makes people accept all imposed ideas as if they were their own conclusions, irrefutable expressions of pragmatism and the collective interest.
Euphemisms, attenuations, exaggerations, the defense of contradicting premises – all of these figures have been normalised in the right-wing rhetorical repertoire. For instance, Rajoy says it will do “whatever is necessary, even if I do not like it and even if I had previously said I was not going to do it.” The reduction of temporary teachers “should not be understood in terms of layoffs“, claims Education Minister José Ignacio Wert, “but in terms of renewal of contracts.”
5. Constructing frameworks of meaning
It’s easier for those in the public arena to enjoy more power when they control the framework of what can be said and debated. As it is, and after a protracted degeneration of public life, the PP owns a consensual logic of the system – there is only one reality and no option to interpret it.
6. Orchestration tactics
The insistent repetition of a slogan by different voices, in different times and places is now commonplace: ”unions survive on subsidies“,” teachers don’t work much at all“etc.. As the bellman in Lewis Carroll’s The hunting of the shark said “whatever I tell you three times is the true“. The right takes advantage of that “performativity” governing public statements and whenever a particular type of behavior is repeatedly normally, it tends to become normalised, or to become stigmatised if it has been repeatedly been labeled as an anomaly.
7. Using the power of the media to reinforce these mechanisms
The media helps the Popular Party spread new expressions and slogans while government consultants continue manufacturing statements and translate them immediately into a headline. Inversely proportional to the impact of these messages is the ability to answer them: any possible critical analysis by opposition forces are dissolved in a flurry of articles and editorial columns which achieve a much lower diffusion and influence than the government’s own propaganda.
Noam Chomsky has been warning us for decades now about this active (but subtle) use of the media to manufacture consent and achieve popular control. Chomsky has argued that editorial distortion is aggravated by the media’s dependence upon private and governmental news sources. If a given newspaper, television station, magazine, etc., incurs governmental disfavor, it is subtly excluded from access to information. Consequently, it loses readers or viewers, and ultimately, advertisers. To minimise such financial danger, news media businesses editorially distort their reporting to favor government and corporate policies in order to stay in business.
8. Moralising public discourse
Good or bad, normal or abnormal – these morally charged adjectives are attributed categorically and without room for discussions, appropriating the universality of the concept in dispute. The “normal, sensible people of Spain” to whom Rajoy tries to appeal to belong, undoubtedly, to the right. But by concealing its moral fundamentalism, the PP incurs a political paradox and so, PP advocates like former Mayor of Madrid, Ruiz Gallardón, attempt to assume the defense of women’s rights and the fight against the ingrained domestic violence in Spanish society with a counter-reform of the abortion law which, still limits abortion rights and reinforces legal violence further.
Let’s start by being aware of what is being said and done to us. And then, let’s show our indignation about the use of our own language, our own words, to treat us as brainless commodities with no capacity to analyse and counter-argue.