Updates from June, 2012 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 5:00 am on June 14, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: currency, dollar, , euro, hip hop, money, plural, rand, singular,   

    One euro, two euro, many euro 

    South African rand(s)

    The currency here in South Africa is the Rand, named after the Witwatersrand, which means “white waters ridge” in Afrikaans.  (Witwatersrand refers to the area where Johannesburg was first built. A prominent university here shares the name.)

    It’s a matter of contention whether the plural of “rand” is “rand” or “rands.”Articles 13, 14, 15, 55, and 57 of the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act of 1961 use “rand” as the plural. Many currency exchange sites, such as this one, state that “rand” is the plural form. Most of the South Africans I’ve asked say they use “rand,” but I’ve also seen “rands” in some places, like the meter at the local gas station. I’ve also heard “rands” in conversation.

    I GET EURO — PLURAL

    Other currencies have nonstandard plural forms, too. For example, the European Union has designated in several places that “euro” is the official plural form of “euro” in English. This guide delineates the singular and plural forms of “euro” in all the official languages of the EU and says that one writes “100 euro” in English, not “100 euros.”

    However, another official publication of the EU—the English translation style guide—says that, “where appropriate,” “euro” becomes “euros” in the plural: “This book costs ten euros and fifty cents.” In Ireland, the only English-speaking country to use the currency, most of the media, as well as the Department of Finance, uses “euro” for the plural, an issue that has raised a few hackles, such as here and here.

    According to Google Ngram, “euros” seems to be more common than “euro” for the plural in English-speaking countries, with the difference slightly more pronounced in American English compared to British English. (Unfortunately, there’s no filter for Irish English.)

    “million euro / million euros” | American English | British English | English
    “billion euro / billion euros” | American English | British English | English

    This note says “10 euro,” but it’s also intended to be multilingual.

    And why should “euro” be the plural in English, anyway? Other languages have adapted the currency to fit their own standard plurals—in French, for example, one would say euros (although it’s usually still pronounced the same as the singular euro) and in Spanish it’s the same—euros. In German, it’s 100 Euro, but they did the same thing for their previous currency, the Mark (100 Mark). The point is, we have “dollars” and “pounds” and “shillings” in Anglophone countries, so why shouldn’t it officially be “euros”?

    Hang on—there are currencies in English-speaking countries that take a nonstandard plural. The South African Rand is one example, but there’s also the Pula in Botswana and (possibly) the new Gambian currency, the Dalasi.

    But what about other currencies? Why do we say “10 yen,” “100 baht” (Thailand), and “1,000 renminbi” but reserve the usual English -s plural for “10 rupees,” “100 rubles,” and “1,000 francs”? Why is it pounds in proper British English but quid in slang?

    Surely pop music can set us right. In the immortal words of Chris Brown in “International (Serious)” (on Estelle’s new album):

    My stock grown in Stockholm
    Dough heard in Joburg
    F— the SoundScan
    I left with 3 million rand
    So I don’t want to pound it
    Unless we talking pounds
    Yeah, I take euro – plural 
    Estelle, your girl

    Sorry, C.Breezy, but that didn’t clear anything up.

    POSSIBLE PATTERNS

    Perhaps currencies tend to take a standard –s plural when native English speakers are historically familiar with dealing with the currency. This would explain why we have dollars, pounds, and shillings (from direct use), francs, rubles, and pesos (from geographical proximity and frequent historical trade), and even rupees (from the British Raj era, which presented a combination of direct use and frequent trade).

    Even though the EU attempted to legislate the plural for “euro,” they have had questionable success. It seems that, given the chance, native English speakers will revert to the standard English –s plural. This would explain the popularity of “euros” as the plural form in English-speaking countries.

    This pattern might explain why it’s officially and usually “5 rand” but occasionally “5 rands” here in South Africa, a country where native English speakers constitute merely 8% of the population. And that might also explain the persistence of the singular as plural in Botswana and The Gambia, where English is an official language but spoken natively only by small portions of the population.

    However, it doesn’t explain why we still have “yen” and “renminbi” as both singular and plural—surely English speakers are now familiar with these currencies. But perhaps sustained, large-scale trade with Japan and China is too relatively recent to have instigated the change, or perhaps (more convincingly) there isn’t a large enough population of native English speakers dealing directly with the Yen and Renminbi on a daily basis, unlike the Euro, to adapt those words into English and create the change.

    I leave you with a stirring quote from Jay-Z’s verse in “Mr. Carter” (Lil Wayne):

    I see euros, that’s right: plural
    I took so much change from this rap game it’s your go

    Wait—what?

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 8:40 am on June 6, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , language policy, , rwanda   

    The costs of switching to English 

    French was the official language in Rwanda until 2008, when the government decided to transition to English in a bid to increase Rwanda’s viability in the global market. The government at the time stated that English, not French, was key to ensuring economic success and establishing Rwanda as a tourist destination, IT hub, and business center in Africa following the violence of the 1990s.

    Choosing English and aligning with the Anglophone world for economic reasons seems pretty innocuous, right?  It makes sense—English is the most spoken second language in the world and the primary language for international relations and business.  But observers note that there were historical wounds that contributed to the decision, and critics allege that there were political motives at stake.

    Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009—becoming one of only two countries in the Commonwealth that weren’t former British colonies—under the pall of diplomatic intrigue: Rwanda was still a member of La Francophonie (the international alliance of French-speaking nations), but an official Rwandan commission in 2007 accused 33 prominent French officials of being directly involved in the 1994 genocide and relations soured soon afterwards.  In addition, Rwandan officials suggested that colonial-era ties to France and Belgium contributed toward the ideology that resulted in the 1994 genocide, and the government wanted to eradicate ethnicity-based identities, according to researchers Beth Samuelson and Sarah Freedman.

    Many Tutsis who lived in exile in Anglophone countries (e.g., Uganda) during the Hutu-Tutsi violence of the 1990s came back into power after the violence slowed, and they brought with them an English-speaking culture and an English-based power structure, wrote Canadian PhD student Izabela Steflja last month.  Steflja writes that despite Rwanda’s nominal efforts to foster a unified Rwandan identity—based on English (the language of 4% of the population), rather than French (~8%) or Kinyarwanda (~88%), the native language that straddles both Hutu and Tutsi peoples—are misguided and serve only to reemphasize existing power conflicts.

    As for education on the ground, Rwanda gave up trying to teach young children English last year, choosing instead to teach children in Kinyarwanda for a few years before switching to English.  Critics decried the instability in the education system while others praised the attempt to preserve Kinyarwanda, the first language of about 15 million people. But some commentators have questioned the quality of English-language education in the country, especially because there is a dearth of teachers fluent in English.

    The group I work for in South Africa doesn’t normally deal with issues related to Rwanda. But one of our focus countries, Mozambique, a country with a Portuguese colonial past, has also joined the English-speaking Commonwealth of Nations. Mozambique hasn’t adopted English as an official language—an fact made abundantly clear as I tried to Google Translate my way through the Mozambican Constitution last week—but I’m curious to see whether it’ll follow the example of Rwanda and ditch its colonial past (… to adopt another colonial language) in the name of economic advancement.

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 7:39 am on June 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , afrikaans, , , , xhosa, zulu   

    Wading into language politics in South Africa (uh, Suid Afrika? iNingizimu Afrika? uMzantsi Afrika?) 

    I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, a few days ago to begin my work with a human rights litigation group for the next two months. I came to South Africa cold—I knew little about its languages. It’s also very cold here.

    But I knew I was in for an awesome experience when I hopped aboard the Gautrain commuter rail to the center of the city and watched patiently as the electronic sign reading “Stops at Rhodesfield, Marlboro, and Sandton” slowly cycled through five or six different languages, none of which looked familiar to me. (Yes, the city names were even different! Cool! Wait—where does the train stop? Come back, English text!)

    The linguistic diversity of South Africa is overwhelming. With 11 official languages–in order of native speaker proportion: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Tswana, English, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda, and Ndebele– South Africa has the second most officially recognized languages in the world after India.

    I live in the really tiny bit of light yellow (English) in the central-northeastern part of the map.

    I live in the really tiny bit of light yellow (English) in the central-northeastern part of the map.

    According to the 2001 census, Zulu had the greatest proportion of native speakers but still only clocked in at 23.8%. Although only about 8% of South Africans speak it as a first language, English emerged as a politically neutral lingua franca, used in business, politics, and the media, during Apartheid. Choosing English was a politically and racially charged move. The conflict came to a head when the Afrikaner (white Dutch-descended South African) government attempted in 1976 to make Afrikaans, a linguistic descendant of Dutch, a main medium of instruction in all South African schools. That didn’t end well.

    While Afrikaans was seen as the “language of the oppressor” (in the words of Desmond Tutu) and virtually useless outside of southern Africa, English offered broader horizons and opportunities in the international community.

    Before I started preparing to come to South Africa, I overestimated the role of Afrikaans in Johannesburg and even wondered whether I would need to learn a few Afrikaans phrases to get by. I didn’t—nearly everyone in Johannesburg at least understands English. Of course, Johannesburg isn’t representative of all of South Africa, and there are certain areas of South Africa where Afrikaans is commonly spoken.

    I also underestimated the role of other languages: 62% of Johannesburg residents speak Bantu languages at home, a fact that blew my mind but really shouldn’t have.

    Not knowing about the sheer diversity of languages in Johannesburg is partly due to my own ignorance, of course. But I also wonder the extent to which representations of South Africa and South Africans in American popular media, and the racial and cultural implications of those images, influenced my previous impressions. I’m still trying to slowly piece a more accurate picture together. For example, I know next to nothing about Bantu languages and I can’t wait to learn more while I’m here.

    And the more I talk to people, the more complex the language politics of Afrikaans seems. What does using Afrikaans convey about the speaker? (Is it still the “language of the oppressor”?) When do people decide to use it? (My housemate, who learned Afrikaans as a first language, says he sticks with English, a politically safe choice, unless he’s positive from a person’s name that they know Afrikaans.) Who decides to learn it? (After expressing a passing interest in taking Afrikaans classes, another friend advised me not to tell others that I was learning Afrikaans. As part of her rationale, she pointed out that the relationship between Indian South Africans—who number over 1 million today—and black South Africans is not easy.)

    Lots of questions, but so little time!

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 3:37 am on May 28, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammar girl, podcast   

    The Diacritics on Grammar Girl 

    One of Sandeep’s posts was adapted for a podcast produced by Grammar Girl.

    Read it and listen to it here, or download the podcast on iTunes.

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 6:00 am on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , if i was, if i were, mood, , pop music, , subjunctive   

    If I were Justin Bieber… 

    If I was your boyfriend, never let you go
    Keep you on my arm girl, you’d never be alone
    I can be a gentleman, anything you want
    If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go, I’d never let you go

    Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”

    Truly stirring.

    According to English grammarians, “If I was your boyfriend” should read “If I were your boyfriend.” Bieber is describing something that isn’t true — he isn’t the girl’s boyfriend — so he needs to use the subjunctive mood. Here is a lengthier description of the subjunctive. (Not all big pop stars get it wrong, though: Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” follows the rule correctly.)

    My problem with substituting “if I was” for “if I were” in songs is that it doesn’t cost anything to be grammatically correct — you end up with the same number of syllables and stresses. Why not follow the rule? Is there a social cost to using the subjunctive? Like, is it automatically less cool?

    There’s some evidence to suggest that the use of “if I was” is on the rise. Here’s the Ngram data for “if I was” (blue) versus “if I were” (red):

    When “if I was” occurs in the middle of a sentence, writers are almost as likely to use it versus “if I were.” But writers are less likely to use “if I was” if it occurs at the beginning of the sentence (second graph).

    The problem with this data is that “if I was” is occasionally grammatically correct, as in “If I was rude to you yesterday, I’m sorry.”

    So I tried narrowing the searches to eliminate correct instances of “if I was.”

    First, I thought of “if I was you” (blue) versus “if I were you” (red). But saying “if I were you” is pretty much idiomatic at this point. The data confirm that suspicion.

    Here is “I wish I was” (blue) versus “I wish I were” (red). They’re nearly convergent now. I thought that “I wish I were” was idiomatic, just like “if I were you,” but apparently that’s not the case.

    But maybe the subjunctive “was” isn’t really entirely encroaching on the territory of “were.” I compared the phrase “if I was your” to “if I were your,” thinking that a grammatically correct instance of “if I was your” was unlikely to occur. The difference is greater:

    Separating the correct instances of “if I was” from incorrect instances is a challenge. Does anyone have other/better ideas on how to eliminate grammatically correct instances of “if I was” to compare it to “if I were”?

    On a similar note, does anyone know of any studies that look at the loss of the subjunctive in English?

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 11:25 am on March 30, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english only, foreign language, german american, , mexican american, nebraska, , tucson   

    “Inimical to our own safety”: regulating heritage languages 

    With the country waiting for the Supreme Court to release its decision on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, I thought it would be fun to revisit an older Supreme Court decision — one where the Court directly considered the benefits and disadvantages of foreign language learning.

    I was inspired to check out this case, Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), by a section in Lane Greene’s fantastic book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, where Greene described it in the context of fervent “English-only” activism in the US.

    The suit in Meyer v. Nebraska was brought against a teacher who had been caught teaching German reading skills to a 10-year-old child in a parochial school in Nebraska. This was back when German was still commonly spoken in the Midwest by recent immigrants. The relevant statute read in part as follows:

    Section 1. No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, teach any subject to any person in any language than the English language.

    Section 2. Languages, other than the English language, may be taught as languages only after a pupil shall have attained and successfully passed the eighth grade …

    [The statute discusses penalties.]

    Section 4. Whereas, an emergency exists, this act shall be in force from and after its passage and approval.

    Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the case, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the validity of the statute. They wrote:

    The Legislature had seen the baneful effects of permitting foreigners … to rear and educate their children in the language of their native land. The result of that condition was found to be inimical to our own safety. …

    It was to educate them so that they must always think in that language, and, as a consequence, naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of this country. …

    The obvious purpose of this statute was that the English language should be and become the mother tongue of all children reared in this state.

    The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Nebraska Supreme Court, holding that the statute infringed on the rights guaranteed by Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment (“… [n]o state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law…”). Specifically, the Court held that the statute unfairly infringed on the teacher’s right to teach, as part of his occupation, as well as the right of parents to engage that teacher in instructing their children.

    Moreover, they noted that the sole purpose of the statute was to inhibit the teaching of modern languages alone, even though, they note, “Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful. Heretofore it has been commonly looked upon as helpful and desirable.” Later, they write that foreign language learning is “not injurious to the health, morals or understanding of the ordinary child.”

    But, lest you think the Supreme Court was being too progressive, they still warn:

    The desire of the Legislature to foster a homogeneous people … is easy to appreciate. Unfortunate experiences during the late war [World War I] and aversion toward every character of truculent adversaries were certainly enough to quicken that aspiration.

    Still, the means used were too intrusive, they concluded.

    I’m in Tucson, Arizona, right now, working on a handful of legal projects with U.S.-Mexico border human rights organizations. The small-town reasoning evident in the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision — foreign languages are bad, and they are dangerous for our youth and for American ideals — are alive and well today, not least in Tucson, where many people regard the exercise of Mexican-American pride as an assault on the US itself.

    The Tucson Unified School District board recently decided to remove its Mexican-American studies courses in response to a finding by the Arizona Schools Chief that the program promoted racial disharmony. Regulating identity in our schools and fostering homogeneity with dire warnings of a multicultural dystopia don’t seem to have gone out of vogue yet, 89 years after Meyer‘s implicit remonstrances.

    But, as Lane Greene writes, there’s nothing to fear from the teaching of heritage languages — because they’ll probably be lost within two generations, anyway, through the inexorable march of the American monoglot machine. As an Indian-American, I can offer anecdotal support — for better or worse, few among my cohort speak our heritage languages fluently, and those who do still speak English fluently. Of course, anecdotes aren’t data, so here are hard numbers: Hispanics in America today are learning English more rapidly than German Americans at the turn of the century — 95% of surveyed second-generation Hispanic children located in the heavily Hispanic areas of San Diego and South Florida spoke English fluently, and 40% spoke no Spanish. Hardly the bilingual disharmony English-only activists warn of.

    Greene writes:

    It is, to put it simply, nearly impossible to raise a child in the United States without the child learning English; it would require isolation from the outside world bordering on child abuse. Children born in America, and even those arriving at a young age, inevitably pick up English.

    This fact, of course, does little to quiet the English-only activists.

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 12:38 pm on March 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , law school, may, , parsing, shall, , united states   

    Parsing the Constitution 

    Some of the most delightful moments for an ex-linguistics student in law school are when legal analysis clearly intersects with linguistic analysis. That connection was part of what drove me to come to law school. This semester, for me, that close relationship has appeared most often in Contracts and Constitutional Law, two fields which depend heavily on the parsing of text to divine original and apparent meaning.

    Seth Barrett Tillman, currently a lecturer in the Department of Law at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (Ollscoil na hÉireann, Má Nuad) and previously an attorney and law professor in the United States, has written extensively on the interpretation of clauses in the U.S. Constitution.

    In a piece that appeared in the American Journal of Legal History in 2010, Nora and Seth Tillman put forth the argument that our modern understanding of the words shallmay, and will in the Constitution are not consistent with their usage in the late 18th century, when it was written.

    [W]here a word once had multiple meanings, but only one variant is now remembered and understood, we may be seriously mistaken when we ascribe near certainty to our understanding of how a constitutional term was used.

    As we understand it, prevailing eighteenth century American usage, distinguished shall (indicating futurity) from will (indicating the emphatic tense), as it is still spoken in Anglo-English. Whereas today, we Americans conjugate will as “I will, you will, he will,” and shall as “I shall, you shall, he shall,” in the eighteenth century, the dominant American usage (following southern English standards) was will (Iwill, you shall, he shall) and shall (I shall, you will, he will).

    [W]e suggest that standards … may have been of import to [the drafters], and, for that reason, knowledge of those (long moribund) standards may be a useful tool with regard to determining original public meaning …

    It’s a short, fascinating piece. Read it here: Nora Tillman & Seth Barrett Tillman, A Fragment on Shall and May50 AM. J. LEGAL HIST. 453 (2010). (Opens PDF.)

    Tillman also debated Northwestern Law Professor Steven G. Calabresi in 2008 in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review PENNumbra. Tillman argues that the Constitution did not require Barack Obama to relinquish his Senate seat upon inauguration as President.

    He bases this argument over the precise definition of the word “officer” and whether the President falls into that category, drawing upon Article II, § 4 (the Impeachment Clause), Article II, § 3 (the Commissions Clause) and Article I, § 9, clause 8 (the Foreign Emoluments Clause) to make his point.

    Calabresi rebuts, noting that the rub for Tillman’s argument rests in Article I, § 6, clause 2.

    A fun read. Find it here: Seth Barrett Tillman & Steven G. Calabresi, Debate, The Great Divorce: The Current Understanding of Separation of Powers and the Original Meaning of the Incompatibility Clause, 157 U. PA. L. REV. PENNumbra 134 (2008). (Opens PDF.)

     
  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 2:10 am on March 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: american english, ap stylebook, , differences between british and american english, , style guide, toward, towards   

    Toward(s?) a better understanding 

    Hi all, sorry about the delay in getting new posts out to you. Let’s get to it:

    There are many well-documented differences between British and American English. Even those unacquainted with linguistics can point out some of the more obvious ones: color/colour, apartment/flat, spilled/spilt, and plenty more. Lynne Murphy, an American linguist abroad in the UK, maintains the wonderful blog Separated by a Common Language and writes about how language differs across the pond.

    But some American-versus-British rules are less readily apparent. For example, for years, I struggled with whether to write “toward” or “towards.” A few years ago, Grammar Girl taught me that the rule was simple: “toward” is used in the US and “towards” is used in the UK.

    The British newspaper The Guardian writes in its Style Guide:

    -ward, wards. Contemporary usage … suggests that when it is an adjective a word like upward, downward, backward or forward should not end in s, but when it is an adverb it should.

    I checked The Economist‘s Style Guide and found that it was silent on the issue, but it did write “forward” rather than “forwards” twice within the Style Guide itself. The Economist is published out of London and two-thirds of its journalists are based there, so I wonder whether there is or isn’t internal consistency on the use of the -ward(s) suffix.

    According to a commenter on the Grammar Girl website, “toward” is correct AP style. (The AP Stylebook doesn’t have free access, so I can’t confirm.)

    I wondered why we had that difference and whether it had always been that way. So I checked out the Google Ngram data for both American and British corpora. The data ended up raising more questions than it answered, so I’m hoping for more well-informed readers to suggest explanations for the patterns below.

    Here is the frequency of “toward” versus “towards” in British English from 1800 to 2000.

    It’s clear that “towards” has always been favored over “toward” in Britain during this period. There does seem to be a slight shift after 1980, with “toward” becoming more popular than “towards.”

    Here is the American data from the same period, which is more interesting:

    It appears that “toward” supplanted “towards” as the preferred spelling around 1900. The data show a steady decline in the frequency of “towards” starting around 1840. This trend is strange: why did the spelling preference change at all?

    First, a little background: the Oxford English Dictionary regards “toward” and “towards” as variants of the same word. Their etymology is closely related. Similarly, the OED considers other -ward(s) words as variants of each other as well: e.g., forward(s), backward(s), onward(s). It also notes that while there is no difference in definition between -ward and -wards, there may be a slight semantic difference that ascribes more of a sense of “movement” to -wards. This slight difference is disputed, even by the OED authors.

    The OED says:

    In English the history of -wards as an [adverbial] suffix is identical with that of -ward … ; beside every adv. in -ward there has always existed (at least potentially) a parallel formation in -wards, and vice versa. The two forms are so nearly synonymous … that the choice between them is mostly determined by some notion of euphony in the particular context; some persons, apparently, have a fixed preference for the one or the other form.

    It then goes on to observe the preference of Americans for -ward and Brits for -wards.

    Two possible explanations for the American switch from “towards” to “toward” popped into my head at first.

    The first was that Noah Webster’s dictionary, which set out determinedly American spellings for the nascent United States, expressed a preference for “toward.” His dictionary was first published in 1828. I couldn’t find a reliable online source for his original text, so maybe a reader with access to the text can clarify whether this is true. I’m still skeptical whether this is what drove the change. More famous changes like “colour” to “color” happened quicker, according to Google Ngram.

    Another possibility depends on the OED’s observation that “the choice between [toward and towards] is mostly determined by some notion of euphony.”

    According to The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America, rhotic accents (accents that pronounce the R in, e.g., “father”) became prestigious in the United States around the 1870s. It may have simply been more euphonic (more pleasing to the ear) for rhotic speakers to pronounce “toward” rather than “towards” — the former has just two consonants in a cluster, whereas the latter would have a three-consonant cluster, making it more difficult to pronounce. This, too, seems tenuous, because written language changes slower than spoken language and Google Ngram depends on data culled from written texts.

    I can’t seem to think of any other explanations, but I encourage readers to share their thoughts below.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 9:30 am on January 21, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: affirmation, bible, britain, christianity, court, , i swear to tell the truth, , islam, justice, , , , religion, sharia, swear   

    I swear (affirm?) that I will tell the truth 

    I was watching a Kannada soap opera last night (because I have apparently become an elderly Indian woman as of late) and a scene in a courtroom caught my attention. One of the characters was being questioned, and before she gave her testimony she was asked to declare her intention to speak the truth.

    ಸತ್ಯವನ್ನು ಹೇಳುತ್ತೇನೆ , ಸತ್ಯವನಲ್ಲದೆ ಬೇರೆ ಏನು ಹೇಳುವುದಿಲ್ಲ , ನಾ ಹೇಳುವುದೆಲ್ಲ ಸತ್ಯ |

    satyavannu hēḷuttēne, satyavanallade bērēnu hēḷuvudilla, nānu hēḷuvudella satya

    I will speak the truth; I will not speak anything that isn’t true; everything I say is the truth.

    That segment caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

    First, that the declaration was different from our familiar U.S. oath, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

    But of course it wouldn’t be the same. While an objectively large number of people in India use English as a second or third language (some 125 millionaccording to the latest census, nearly half the population of the United States), that still only comes out to about 10 or 11 percent of the country’s population.

    It would be fundamentally unjust for court proceedings to be carried out in a language with which the parties were unfamiliar — even though that probably happens regularly, since there are only (!) 22 scheduled languages of India and hundreds more unrecognized dialects and minority languages.

    So, okay, the witness’s declaration was taken in Kannada. The action takes place in the state of Karnataka, where the two official languages are Kannada and English, so a witness could plausibly use either language. That makes sense. (Plus, it was a Kannada soap.)

    Another thing that caught my attention was that there was no religious sentiment expressed in the declaration. India is a highly religious country, with upwards of three-fourths of the country declaring that religion is important to them. In the U.S., that rate is a little lower, at 65%, but the most famous form of our witness declaration here does explicitly invoke God — “… so help me God,” a line that is usually delivered, scripted, by court bailiffs, along with a Bible.

    In American law, an oath specifically references God. The OED agrees: an oath is specifically a type of declaration that “invokes God, a god, or other object of reverence.” Those who don’t want to make an oath instead provide an “affirmation,” which starts with “I affirm…” instead of “I swear…” and omits the reference to God. Affirming is referenced four times in the U.S. Constitution as an alternative to swearing, and Britain has allowed affirmations instead of swearing since 1695.

    Regardless of whether you swear or affirm, if you lie, you can be charged with perjury, a serious crime.

    Other declarations abroad
    In Britain, oaths are given slightly differently from the American version:

    I swear by [Almighty God/Name of God/name of the holy scripture] that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    Affirmations in Britain require several more hedges than an oath, perhaps because of a cultural suspicion against people who affirm rather than swear: “I swear to tell the truth…” is such a well-known phrase that any deviance from that — regardless of how legal it is — can be regarded with suspicion.

    In Britain, one doesn’t simply “affirm” — one solemnly and sincerely and truly declares and affirms:

    I do solemnly and sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    In the U.S., one can simply affirm. Atheist and former Governor of California Culbert Olson, in office from 1939 to 1943, famously said to California Supreme Court Justice Waste, “God [can't] help me at all, and there isn’t any such person.” He chose to say “I will affirm,” rather than “I swear” during his oath of office.

    According to one of my friends in France (hi, Benoît!), the common declaration given by witnesses in France is:

    Je jure de parler sans haine et sans crainte, de dire toute la vérité, rien que la vérité.

    I swear to speak without anger and without fear, to say the entire truth, nothing but the truth.

    My friend writes, “Because France is a non-religious country, there isn’t any trace of God in any institutions.” I’m sure truth is more nuanced than that, but the French people are certainly less religious than the United States. But the word – jurer – used in the oath is similar to “swear.” Jurer usually carries the same valence as the English “swear” (in that it has religious undertones) and it also has the same secondary meaning of “to curse.” But jurer can also translate to “certify” or “pledge,” words that carry no religious undertones in English.

    Another one of my friends, a walking encyclopedia of Islam (hi, Ahmad!), gave me an overview of Muslim declarations of truthfulness. In many majority-Muslim countries, cases that are tried under Shari’ah law (today, usually family law disputes) require an oath to be given by witnesses. However, unlike Western civil courts, the oath is traditionally given after testimony is given. Once the judge collects all the testimony, he asks the parties to swear on the Qur’an or by God that what they have said is true, or else bringing upon them divine wrath. (Incidentally, this traditional oath appeared in the recent Golden Globe-winning Iranian film A Separation, which I highly recommend.)

    Back home

    The U.S. government is explicitly areligious, but a profession of faith is built directly into the common understanding of court procedure. Of course, there’s no law requiring nonbelievers to swear. But it’s undeniably unfair when free deviance from a set religious phrase, scripted and delivered by a court’s bailiff, could color a jury or judge’s perception of a witness. We shouldn’t be suspicious of someone who affirms more than someone who swears, but many of us are.

    Eliminating “I swear…” probably won’t help, but maybe raising the profile of “I affirm…” as an option for nonbelievers (and even believers who object to swearing in a civil setting) will help make the process fairer.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 4:32 pm on January 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply  

    thediacritics.com 

    Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve reached a milestone. Our domain is now officiallyhttp://www.thediacritics.com!

    Subscribers, don’t worry–you don’t need to change anything. Also, our WordPress domain will redirect you to the new site automatically.

    Oh, and new posts to come soon!

    -John and Sandeep

     
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