Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Banana Peels of Language

Yesterday I read a one-page-article in the Badische Zeitung about Die Fettnäpfchen der Sprache (The banana peels of language) discussing political correctness in talking or writing. I once gave a talk at the Stammtisch of the Freiburg-Madison Gesellschaft about whether political correctness could be overdone. Yesterday's article shed a new light on the topic.

There are two words for black men (Schwarze) in German that are no longer politically correct: Neger (nigger) and the archaic Mohr* (moor).
*The word moor originates from the dark-skinned Muslim Moors (Mauren) who invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the early Middle Ages.

The other day however a quarrel started when publishers began to change the text in classical children's books following the American practice where the nigger in Huckleberry Finn mutated to slave and negroes became persons of African race. Yet race does not work in German because Rasse is a taboo word (Unwort) since 1945. Will they change the word Mohr in Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben (The Story of the Inky Boys) in Heinrich Hoffman's Der Struwwelpeter?

As he had often done before,
The woolly-headed Black-a-moor
One nice fine summer's day went out
To see the shops, and walk about;
And, as he found it hot, poor fellow,
He took with him his green umbrella.

Now Edward, William and Arthur followed him

And kept on singing, - only think! -
"Oh, Blacky, you're as black as ink!"

Now tall Agrippa lived close by -
So tall, he almost touched the sky;
He had a mighty inkstand, too,
In which a great goose-feather grew;
He called out in an angry tone
"Boys, leave the Black-a-moor alone!
For, if he tries with all his might,
He cannot change from black to white."
But, ah! they did not mind a bit
What great Agrippa said of it;
But went on laughing, as before,
And hooting at the Black-a-moor.

Then great Agrippa foams with rage ...
He seizes Arthur, seizes Ed,
Takes William by his little head;
And they may scream and kick and call,
Into the ink he dips them all;
Into the inkstand, one, two, three,
Till they are black as black can be.

See, there they are, and there they run!
The Black-a-moor enjoys the fun.
They have been made as black as crows,
Quite black all over, eyes and nose,
And legs, and arms, and heads, and toes,
And trousers, pinafores, and toys -
The silly little inky boys!
Because they set up such a roar,
And teased the harmless Black-a-moor.

For me changes in the wording of works of literature are unacceptable. I once read the politically corrected lyrics of Bob Dylan's Blowin’ in the Wind: From the original How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man? they were perverted to the grammatically incorrect text How many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult?

In Germany we should now say Sinti or Roma and no longer use the word Zigeuner (gypsy). Nevertheless I still like to order my Zigeunerschnitzel mit Pommes Frites und Salat (Gypsy schnitzel with fries and salad). What is wrong with that? Do we really think that by "officially" changing names or words we will change the attitude of men and women toward people of other mentality, color and religion? Our languages become poorer when we replace grown words by artificial constructs. In his book 1984 George Orwell introduced the language Newspeak: Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?

One example of the so-called rat race of euphemism is the downgrading of the wording for schwer erziehbare Kinder (children who are difficult to raise or difficult to educate). As time went by this was softened to verhaltensgestörte Kinder (children with behavioral disturbances) and continued through verhaltensauffällig (children with behavioral issues) to the ridiculous word verhaltensorginell (children of inventive or original behavior). It is all so frustrating for the change in the wording does not change the behavior of these children a bit or transform them into clever kids as the word inventive suggests.


  1. Absolut richtig! Bei uns in Frankreich existiert zum Beispiel der Ausdruck: "Apprenants à Réussite Différée", glücklicher Weise nur in offiziellen Texten benutzt, das heisst, nicht schlechte Schüler, oder mindestens Schüler mit Schwierigkeiten, aber "Lernende, deren Erfolg später geschehen wird"...

  2. @JJG

    Hej, cela veut dire Spätentwickler en Allemand. Moi je suis l'exemple parfait!

  3. I wonder what Samuel Clemens would make of all this political correctness? I'm not saying that he wasn't prejudice but he seemed to have a way of making it seem alright. His first impressions of French had changed ... and he never apologized for hastily judging the French!