Thursday, January 22, 2009

Getting the words right

It's amusing that Barack Obama decided to proclaim his oath of allegiance a second time, after the judge screwed it up the first time. And it's interesting to discover that there's no Bible in this repeat event.

Christians might say that God, through His extraordinary communication capabilities, was surely capable of untangling the initial screwed-up message, so there was no point in invoking Him the second time round. It's more likely, I think, that the absence of a Bible proves that, during the screwed-up swearing-in, the Bible was merely part of the decor, rather than an essential element in the act. In my view, this is fair enough, because the role of the book appears to be a rather symbolic do-it-yourself thing in the swearing-in ritual. Each president-to-be seems to have the right to bring along the particular version of the book that pleases him. What would happen, I wonder, if a Jew were to be elected president? Would he be able to bring along a Hebrew edition of the Torah, without any New Testament whatsoever?

On the other hand, this repeat performance of Obama's swearing-in underlines a highly significant aspect of the procedure: namely, the fundamental importance of the exact words pronounced by the future president in his oath. As everybody knows, these words are extracted from the US constitution, and nobody has the right to play around with them, inventing even a trivially modified form of the oath. I found it amusing that the words were screwed up the chief justice John Roberts, nominated in 2005 by a president who became the laughingstock of the planet because of his habit of screwing up words. It was almost as if Roberts had staged deliberately this embarrassing incident as a departure gift to Dubya, to make him feel less alone.

The fundamental nature and all-importance of human language is the subject of The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker, which I've been reading slowly over the last week or so.

It's a truly remarkable study of the subtleties of language. I find it a sobering book in that I simply never realized, up until now, the amazing complexity of English verbs, even though I tended to imagine naively that I surely understand, more or less, what they're all about. Often, when words are poorly arranged in a sentence, a native English speaker realizes that something's wrong, but we don't necessarily know why it sounds wrong, and how to fix it. We laugh when we hear of this sign in a bar in Norway: "Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar." But George W Bush spoke that kind of English regularly: "I remember meeting a mother of a child who was abducted by the North Koreans right here in the Oval Office." Talking of Bushspeak, Pinker mentions the former president in The Stuff of Thought: "In 2006 George W Bush signed into law the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which increased the fines for indecent language tenfold and threatened repeat offenders with the loss of their license." Isn't it touching that somebody as badly-spoken as Dubya would be offended by indecent language!

I started this post by talking about Obama's swearing-in. Well, on the theme of swearing and oaths, Pinker's book happens to include one of the most colorful chapters you could ever imagine. The chapter title: The seven words you can't say on television. The great Woody Allen once explained his way of telling somebody to leave: "I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words." Now, inspired by Woody's words, I really can't end these rambling reflexions about screwed-up words without a few nice words of farewell to the departing president, who impressed countless observers in such a special way: "Be fruitful and multiply, Sir, and enjoy your retirement."

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