Languages of Command

I posted recently about how people in many (most) societies mix and match different languages, usually in a situation where one language is much more esteemed and respectable than another. Often, the way such languages are used tells you a lot about that society, in terms of social status and prestige, power relations and ethnic interactions. And as in my earlier post, modern day examples point to realities in ancient societies. Language speaks power.

You see that phenomenon today in the many societies where particular ethnic groups – commonly immigrants – are especially likely to be involved in manual labor or menial jobs. I’ve see Anglo people in American hotels, for instance, who automatically assume that the chambermaids or waitresses must be Latinas, and address them in some kind of Spanish, in an attempt to be friendly. Sometimes the assumptions about ethnicity are correct, other times not. If you are a sensible Anglo person in the US, you don’t assume that you can address Latino people in Spanish, as it can send the message that you don’t think they can cope in English. (If you get chatting and move naturally into Spanish, that’s fine). The rules are different again in places where Spanish is the presumed normal means of communication. It can be a delicate balancing act.

To varying degrees, similar interactions work around the world, where the menial workers are assumed to speak the language of the lower class, whatever it may be. Class and ethnic divisions have a linguistic character, and languages carry more or less status.

In an extremely hierarchical society, such as an imperial colony, elite classes and races develop various linguistic solutions to deal with the lower orders. In British India, senior military officers, and all administrators, were absolutely required to speak at least one of the major native languages, usually Urdu, and speak it well. If they did not learn, they would shortly be on the boat back home. In consequence, it was a deadly insult for an Indian to address a senior Brit in English, as that would be assuming he had not learned the essentials of his trade. In the great days of the British Empire, in the late nineteenth century, Urdu was its most commonly spoken language – far more so, obviously, than English itself. Queen Victoria herself actually learned enough Urdu to make formal speeches to Indian visitors.

For lower-class British people within that empire, such as ordinary soldiers, a few native terms were essential: “Quickly!” (Urdu, Jaldi!), or “Do it now!” Arabic Yalla! signified Hurry up! Mainly derived from Egyptian practice, the Arabic Imshi! (“Go away!”) not only spread around the empire, but actually entered general English usage at home in the 1950s. Ordinary soldiers – ordinary white people – quickly learned such a basic pidgin.

In fairness, the British also acquired plenty of other words from their imperial experience, and most of the imports were as harmless as char (tea) or bint (girl), shufti or dekko (both meaning look, and respectively from Arabic and Urdu). Not to mention such British Indian words as bandana, bangle, dinghy, dungarees, bungalow, veranda, loot, khaki, shampoo, jungle, chutney, thug, pajamas, punch and toddy (the drinks) – and so on. But that is a different post.

Going back to the language of command – Do it now! Hurry up! That kind of vocabulary is the weapon of various master races through history, and maybe all of them. Occupied peoples under Nazi rule often heard “Mach schnell!” I recall reading an unintentionally revealing interview with a Chinese official in Tibet, who asserted that all the different races got on wonderfully well together. In response to a journalist’s question, he could not actually recall any phrases in the Tibetan language, except for – guess what – “Do it quickly! Hurry up!” That says pretty much all you need to know.

One of the finest Mark Twain books that nobody reads any more is his Following the Equator (1897), which is among other things a devastating critique of imperialism and racial superiority. In one scene, he describes with horror a German tourist in India berating and slapping a servant, in a way that takes him right back to the treatment of slaves in the old US South he had known. Twain had a wonderful understanding of the languages of command.

Through such interactions, languages come to acquire connotations that are positive or negative. The experience of the Second World War persuaded many ordinary Europeans that English – the medium of the illicit radio broadcasts from London – was a much better language to learn than German. English suggested Winston Churchill; German recalled Mach schnell! Prior to the 1920s, most people assumed that the proposed Jewish state in Palestine would naturally have German as its official language. After the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Rwanda largely drifted away from the French of the old elites, to emphasize English.

With this in mind, I wonder about the ways language worked in ancient times, such as in New Testament Palestine, with all its douloi (slaves, rather than the “servants” of most translations), and its forced labor and requisitions. When Roman soldiers gave orders, how did they do it? Very few Jews presumably learned detailed Classical Latin, about as many as there were ordinary soldiers fluent in Koine Greek, or still less likely, in Aramaic. As in British India, most soldiers presumably knew some phrases and commands, with an emphasis on “Do it now!” and “Hurry up!” but I don’t know what languages they might have used as a basis. Greek, I presume, or gutter Greek. There must be a scholarly literature on this street-level linguistic imperialism?

Here is a specific question: when a Roman soldier gave an order to a Jew in Palestine in, say, 30 AD, what did he say to make the other person hurry up? What was the Roman equivalent of Mach schnell?

Rudyard Kipling published a superb story, “The Church That Was at Antioch” (1929), which imagines a couple of Roman officers trying to keep order in an ancient Antioch that is portrayed exactly on the lines of a restive British-ruled Indian city, and where they meet those celebrated troublemakers, Peter and Paul. The British/Indian analogies work wonderfully. For one thing, Antioch is just as disturbed by rumored violations of food taboos as would be a modern Indian city divided between Muslims and Hindus.

The text is here, and you should read it. Jaldi!


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