“Ah, so, you are surprised I speak your language.”
Charlie Chan, fictional Detective, Honolulu Police Department.
(Movies made between 1925-1949, later shown on TV)
In the course of his investigations the “inscrutable Chinese” detective, Charlie Chan, would fool a witness/suspect into believing he could speak very little English. When the person would get careless and give away a clue Charlie would shock everyone by speaking impeccable English and saying “Ah, so, you are surprised I speak your language”, and almost immediately solve the case.
Do we all even speak the same language anymore?
When I was young the term “Confucius say” was a kind of joking way to introduce words of supposed Chinese wisdom. I seem to remember that Charlie Chan was the one who began the use of the term in the United States. When I actually read Confucius I was surprised about his absolute insistence on correct language so that people could clearly understand one another. He felt that knowledge of language and vocabulary is the most important skill for maintaining a civilized society, and that whoever controls the language controls the society.
Over many years I have thought of how words have been used to change and degrade our moral and religious perceptions. The most obvious example has been the bastardization of the word “abortion”. I had never even heard the word until I was in my late teens. Everyone in my social milieu knew that abortion meant killing- no, murdering- a baby, and the practice was never condoned. Did abortion occur and did women die in back alleys? I’m sure they did, but not nearly as many as proponents say. Then came the drive to legalize abortion. I have tried to remember how the word “baby” was changed, to “zygote”, “clump of cells”, “fetus”, “tissue mass”, “products of conception”, even “parasite”. I can’t even remember the iterations used to change hearts and minds away from the child lost.
The word “abortion”, too, went through many changes until the words “a woman’s right to choose” were finally hit upon. And now “choice” has become a woman’s sacred right.
One afternoon I picked my young children up from school and my third grade son was unusually silent. Suddenly he started to cry and said, “Mom, my teacher says that abortion means killing a baby. Did you know that?” “Yes,” I told him truthfully. “Then why don’t you stop it?” he sobbed. What could I say? I knew his teacher that year was bad and I had been excusing her crassness, but now she had crushed my child’s tender heart. I went to see her the next day, and described his reaction to her revelation. She snorted with laughter and said, “So what? He’ll get over it. He has to grow up sooner or later.” How does one cope with that?
Seeing my son with his little babies today I’m so glad he didn’t “get over it,” and still weeps for the loss of those other little babies.
Now we have the specter of political correctness hanging over our heads, destroying the enlightenment that comes from free and accurate speech. I fear for the young minds being formed in an environment of verbal poverty and profanity. How can one think and question if the words are not available?
It was George Orwell who wrote: “(Language) becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
More on language later.