"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: August 2010

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Interesting Times for Islam in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi

The last three weeks have been particularly intriguing times for Islam in America: The debate over the so-called ground-zero mosque (called the Cordoba House, it’s actually a two-minute walk from the ground zero of the former Word Trade Center which was destroyed in the September 11 attacks and isn’t exactly a mosque; it’s a community center that includes a 2000-capacity “prayer room,” an inter-faith center, a swimming pool, etc) reached a feverish point—and boiled over.
Conservative Republican politicians have made the vilest Islamophobic utterances that I’ve ever heard in the political and social mainstream here. All on account of the Cordoba House, which is, in fact, modeled after a Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) or Jewish community center and which is named after the city of Cordoba in southern Spain that is noted not only as a center of Muslim culture but as a symbol of interfaith harmony. (Interestingly, the developers of the Cordoba House have been friends of U.S. governments— from George W. Bush’s administration to Obama’s. Feisal Abdul Rauf, the main brain behind the center, is currently in the Middle East on an “outreach tour” on behalf of the American government and has said recently that his goal is to “Americanize Islam.”).

Well, according to opinion polls made public these past few weeks, about 70 percent of Americans oppose the building of the “ground-zero mosque” in New York.  It also emerged that a fringe, obscure, hate-mongering church in Gainesville, Florida, with the ironic name of Dove World Outreach Center (“dove” symbolizes peace and “outreach” connotes friendship and tolerance!) announced plans to host an “International Burn a Quran Day” on September 11.

Meanwhile, President Obama, during a Ramadan dinner with American Muslims in the White House, famously declared support for the right, if not the propriety, of American Muslims to build the “ground-zero mosque.” During the same period, an opinion poll showed that more Americans (about 20 percent, up from 11 percent last year) than ever before think Obama is (secretly) a Muslim. In fact, Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, America’s most famous evangelist, pointedly declared that Obama “was born Muslim.” As I will show later, this claim is inaccurate.

A number of my readers from Nigeria wrote to request me to give some perspective and order to this chaos of occurrences. And that’s what I set out to do in this piece. First, it is not true, as one of my readers claimed, that “American Christians want to burn copies of the Qur’an.” It’s only one marginal, wacky, inconsequential, hate-filled, hitherto unknown church in a small American town that announced plans to burn copies of the Qur’an. And this has been met with comprehensive condemnation by Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish leaders all over America. In fact, the National Association of Evangelicals, somewhat the American equivalent of our Christian Association of Nigeria, has condemned it. Plus, the town of Gainesville has denied the church a “burn permit.”

That said, it is undeniable that there has been a rise in anti-Muslim bigotry especially in American conservative circles these past few weeks. And the politically-motivated hateful rhetoric of Republican leaders is partly to blame for this. In November, all the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be up for grabs. Republicans who currently suffer a numerical disadvantage in the U.S. Congress have decided to cash in on the “ground-zero mosque” controversy to win votes.

And their plan seems to be working so far. According to an August 24 Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, “Forty-six percent of registered U.S. voters would likely vote for Republican candidates in November and 45 pct for Democrats.” But the Republicans needn’t scapegoat American Muslims to win elections. Traditionally, the party that occupies the White House often suffers massive losses in midterm Congressional elections. Midway into a new administration, American voters historically get impatient and fed up with the president and express their resentment by voting out the ruling party in midterm elections.

But the strategy of the Republicans is probably also informed by the need to rhetorically construct Obama as so thoroughly un-American, nay anti-America, as to make him unelectable for a second term. And what better way to do this in this season of Islamophobia than to claim that he is a “Muslim”? On August 20, for instance, the Republican Party’s director of New Media, Todd Herman, tweeted that President Obama is probably part of the 20 percent of Americans who think he is a Muslim.

But Obama is in reality probably personally non-religious. His dad, although born a Muslim, was a “confirmed atheist.” So was his mom. So it isn’t true that he was “born Muslim.” His paternal grandfather was originally a Christian who converted to Islam. And his maternal grandparents who brought him up were unapologetically nonreligious. Obama himself started going to church only after he met his wife, Michelle.

Although Article VI, Section 3 of the U. S. Constitution states that, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” Americans expect some public display of religiosity from their presidents. But Obama has been fiercely private about his religious life. That has given room for his detractors to claim that he is a Muslim or, worse, anti-Christian.

And that’s why some Obama supporters think it was impolitic for him to have given in to the Republican bait by saying American Muslims had the right to build the “ground-zero mosque.”

That sentiment may not be entirely groundless, but Obama was also protecting the provisions of the U.S. Constitution that he swore under oath to defend. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….”

The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted “Congress” to mean “any government,” whether state or federal. The substance of the First Amendment with regard to religion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1994,  is that “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.”

Interestingly, even the most vociferous opponents of the “ground-zero mosque” concede that American Muslims have the right to build the center. They only want the location to be changed to some place else as a show of “sensitivity” to the feelings of the victims of the September 11 attacks. However, although the 9/11 attackers were Muslims, they didn’t carry out the attacks on behalf of Islam and Muslims. And many Muslims also died during the attacks. In any case, there are already many mosques, such as Masjid Manhattan, that are close to “ground zero.”

My own take, however, is that the developers of the Cordoba House should change its location if only to take the wind out of the sails of bigots and save innocent Muslims in America from needless hostility. Interestingly, the 70 percent Americans who oppose the “ground-zero mosque” on account of its proximity to the former World Trade Center don’t mind a mosque located two blocks away from their homes.

So it’s really more about politics and emotions than it is about religion as such.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

When Food and Grammar Mix

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Insufficient cross-dialectal linguistic competence (that’s my highfalutin way of describing lack of proficiency in both British and American English!) can sometimes literally put the wrong food on your table. That was the experience of a Nigerian big shot— with whom I am well acquainted— who visited Atlanta recently.

He was hungry, so he asked me to take him to a restaurant. On getting to the restaurant, he ordered for “rice and beans.” But when he got his plate, the only thing he recognized in it was rice. 

“Hey, madam, what is this green stuff in here? I ordered for rice and beans!” he protested.

 “Sir, I gave you rice and beans,” the old lady said politely.

My Nigerian big man friend took one careful look at the array of food on display and saw what he recognized as “beans.” So he motioned to the woman.

“Look, madam, I want that!”

“You mean you want black-eyed peas with the rice?”

The man hesitated. He was done with all these silly names. “Well, I don’t care what you call it, madam. I just want it!” he said exasperatingly. 

Since I couldn’t laugh at a big man, I strained very hard to suppress the sensation of laughter that welled up in me. The man learned the hard way that beans and black-eyed peas don’t refer to the same thing here. 

I can relate to the man’s dilemma. The term “black-eyed pea” is not part of the active gastronomic vocabulary of most Nigerians. It certainly wasn’t part of mine until I came to America. But I have since come to realize that Anglophone West Africans are about the only people in the English-speaking world who call black-eyed peas beans. This is perhaps because we don’t grow beans in West Africa; only black-eyed peas. 


Rice and green beans
Another kind of beans
This is what Nigerians know as rice and beans
I suffered a similar embarrassment when I first came to America. I recounted this in my Weekly Trust column sometime in 2005, and I will repeat it here. After several hours of hanging in the air and being fed with strange American culinary concoctions that made my delicate stomach churn violently, I arrived in Washington D.C. exceedingly hungry—and drained.

While I was waiting listlessly for my guide to take me to my hotel, I spotted a cafeteria at the airport and saw people eating food that I was familiar with in Nigeria. I heaved a deep sigh of relief. So I quickly rushed there to get some food lest I should collapse before my guide arrived.

The waiter came to take my orders and gave me the menu with a seemingly interminable list of food choices. I had not the foggiest knowledge of any of the food on offer. Then I saw people eating what seemed like “fried potatoes.”  In my British English orientation, “fried potatoes” is another name for chips. So I shoved the menu aside and simply asked the waiter to give me "chips."

My famished mouth was already watering in anticipation of the "chips" when the waiter brought some strange-looking, yellowish things along with raw tomato sauce.

I thought he mixed up the orders. So I said, “Sorry, I ordered for chips.” Instead of feeling remorseful for bringing the “wrong” order to me, the guy looked at me with a quizzical eyebrow and said, “Yeah, you have chips.” I instantly knew something was wrong.

After forcing myself to eat the “chips” for a while and finding that they violated my taste buds mercilessly, it occurred to me that I could actually direct the waiter’s attention to the people eating what I knew to be “chips.”

So I called the waiter again and told him, “This is what I asked for,” pointing to what the people sitting next to me were eating. And he exclaimed, “Oh, you mean French fries?” (Well, after France opposed the war in Iraq, a U.S. senator said the food should no longer be called French fries, but “Freedom fries!” Most Americans now simply call it “fries.” But I digress).

It was a costly linguistic baptism for me because I had spent a lot of money for the first order. (Airport food is usually needlessly expensive, not least in a busy international airport like Dulles in Washington, D.C). I had to pay extra money to order for the “French fires,” which I now knew better than to call “chips.”

It turned out that what Americans call chips is what the Brits call crisps. And what the Brits (and by extension Nigerians) call chips is what Americans call “French fries”—sorry, Freedom fries.

My daughter who just got to America a few weeks ago is dealing with the same issues. I took her to a restaurant called Popeyes recently. I ordered a meal for her, which comes with a “biscuit.” My daughter laughed out loud. “Daddy, how can I eat a real meal with biscuits? What kind of meal is that?” she asked.

Well, she learned that day that in America biscuit isn’t any of the various small flat sweet cakes she loved to eat in Nigeria-- and that she still loves to eat here; that is called “cookie” in American English. Here, biscuit is some small round bread leavened with baking-powder or soda that is served as a “side dish.” (A side dish, sometimes called a “side order” or simply “a side,” is light food that comes with the main dish of a meal, also called “entrĂ©e” in American English).

She has also learned not to call “sweet” by its name; it’s called “candy” here. Nigerians who often derisively say “na grammar I go chop?” [will grammar bring food to my table?] had better learn that grammar can sometimes literally take away food from one’s table!

Related Articles:

1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
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10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
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15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Politics of Meaning and Usage in English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

What logic regulates correct usage? Why do words and expressions that were once perfectly acceptable in one era become taboos in another? In other words, why do the meanings and usages of words mutate radically over generations?

These and many other questions were the subject of an interesting email exchange I had with a British editor recently. The Brit stumbled across a previous article I wrote titled, “10 Most Irritating Errors in American English” and liked it very much. It stoked his British ego. But he also noticed an Americanism (read: a grammatical slip by the standards of British English) in the same write-up.

I wrote: “I have decided to dedicate this and next weeks’ columns to discuss common grammatical errors in American English.” The British editor pointed out that in British English, the sentence should read: “dedicate… to discussing….” The verb “discuss,” he said, should be in the progressive tense. 

The practice of using "dedicate" with the regular forms of verbs is peculiarly American, he pointed out to me. I agreed. But I told him that even in modern British English there is a gradual, osmotic, if for now imperceptible, semantic shift in the direction of that "horrible Americanism" that irks him. He disagreed. “I don't recall ever seeing this mistake from a British person,” he declared pompously.

 I then sent him a link to the British National Corpus where that usage (that is, where the verb that comes after “dedicate” in a sentence is not in the progressive tense) has appeared a number of times in current British English. (The British National Corpus is a comprehensive compilation of a representative sample of contemporary written and spoken British English).

I wrote: “Well, I found these examples of the use of “dedicated to” without the “ing” form of verbs from the British National Corpus. Apparently, it's not only Americans that alternate between using the continuous and uninflected forms of a verb after the verb "dedicated." My British friend ate humble pie.

 This prodded a lively email conversation between us on why there is often a disjunction between what has been prescribed as correct usage by grammar experts and what real, living people actually speak and write—and why grammarians later succumb to popular usages, which they then codify and hold up as inviolable standards, which are then violated again by people, usually in a subsequent generation, ad nauseam.

 Look at these examples: “Meat” used to denote food in general (that sense of the word is still retained in the age-old saying, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison); “girl” used to mean any young person of either sex; “deer” initially referred to any animal, a reason Shakespeare wrote of “rats and mice and such small deer”; “silly” used to mean fortunate or happy; “broadcast” used to refer to the act of throwing seeds in all directions, not to the dissemination of information through radio and TV; “holiday” is derived from “holy day,” but the word is now used for any day of freedom from work, even if these days are secular; “villain” used to mean a village peasant, but it now only means a wicked or evil person; “aggressive” used to mean hostile and destructive behavior, but in modern business language there is often a tone of approval when someone is described as an “aggressive businessman” or when methods are described as “aggressive strategies”; “academic,” an otherwise respectable word, is now also used derisively to mean impractical, pedantic; “rhetoric,” a time-honored study and application of the art of persuasion, is now popularly used to mean mere loud, confused, and empty talk; and so on.

Similarly, the meanings of words can expand beyond their original meanings. For instance, the word “alibi” initially only meant “elsewhere,” and was used only in legal defense to mean that someone was elsewhere while a crime was committed and therefore couldn’t be blameworthy. Today, the semantic boundaries of that word have been extended to mean “excuse” or “self-justification” of any kind. Grammarians objected to this semantic extension for a long time. Many have given up now.

It’s the same story with the word “alternative.” It originally meant “other of two,” which meant that it couldn’t correctly be used for items that exceeded two. In time, however, people began to talk about “hundreds of alternatives.” At first grammarians were outraged by this mutilation of the word. There can only be “alternatives” for two choices, they protested. No one listened.  They lost the battle.

They also lost the battle over the correct usage of the word “decimate.” It formerly meant “to kill one of every ten.” To the horror of grammatical purists, people extended the semantic boundaries of the word to mean “kill a large number,” to “wipe out,” to “eliminate.” So everyday users of English again decimated the grammatical purists in the battle over the usage of “decimate”!

Most of the fulmination against the above usage patterns derives from a desire to be faithful to the etymological distinction of the words. But that’s short-sighted. Many common English words today have radically diverged from their origins; their contemporary meanings do not bear the vaguest resemblance to their etymological roots. 

For instance, the word “dilapidated” is derived from “lapis,” which is Latin for stone. It is now used of deplorable condition. “Alcohol” was an Arabic word for a substance that women used to darken and thicken their eyelashes; today it means liquor that intoxicates. “Edify” is the Latin word for “build” (a meaning still present in the word “edifice”); today it means to improve through teaching and enlightenment. “Hysteria” is derived from the Greek word for womb; now it means a state of violent mental agitation or extreme emotion. In American English, "hysterical" is becoming synonymous with "very funny." And "ridiculous," which used to mean "very funny" (and still does in some contexts) is now commonly used to mean "unacceptable" in both American and British English.

Usage patterns also mutate over time. For instance, “each other” used to be a reciprocal pronoun that referred only to two people, and it was often understood that it was different from “one another,” which was supposed to refer to three or more people. That distinction no longer exists. In modern English usage, both phrases are used interchangeably.

It was also considered bad grammar to end sentences with prepositions. So instead of writing “I don’t remember the name of the drug he was addicted to,” grammarians of the previous generation would insist that the sentence should be rendered as, “I don’t remember the name of the drug to which he was addicted.”

 This rule emerged from a conscious, if unimaginative, mimicry of the syntactical structure of Latin, the language of science and scholarship in Europe until the 17th century. But, as I've pointed out elsewhere, the “no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence” rule is counter-intuitive, even senseless, and antithetical to the natural rhythm of the English language. It’s no surprise that people had a hard time obeying it.  Today most people end sentences with prepositions, and grammarians don’t seem to be bothered by this any longer.

So meanings and usages are, for the most part, context-specific and historically contingent. If that is the case, why do people fuss over "bad" usage? I think the reason that changes grate on people is that they see usage as making sense according to the grammatical rules that are established in their own minds. These rules, of course, reflect those rules generally accepted in their linguistic environments. 

However, it seems that the rules of grammar are changing less quickly in other parts of the English-speaking world than they are in the United States. As my British friend said, “From where I'm standing, people in the US seem to be playing a game of yo-yo to which we Brits have not been invited.”

Note, though, that Americans have done more to extend the semantic and communicative frontiers and capabilities of the English language in recent times than the Brits have. The Brits should actually be grateful that Americans speak English. Without Americans, English would have receded from the world stage in the same manner that French and other once powerful European languages did.

The strength of the English language derives from the material and symbolic power of its native speakers, particularly Americans, the flexibility of its grammatical rules, and the rich diversity of the sources of its vocabulary. Almost every language in the world has contributed to the vocabulary of the English language.

Well, the foregoing is essentially the story of the battle between “what ought to be” (i.e., the snooty prescriptions of professional grammarians) and “what is” (i.e., popular usage patterns among everyday folks) in meaning and language usage. But that’s a grotesque simplification. Actually, the “what ought to be” is more often than not aggregated and codified from the “what is” to produce the “what ought to be.” 

So usage rules proceed in dialectical triads: the “what ought to be” is often first instituted as the norm, as the thesis. The “what is” then emerges as an unorganized, unconscious antithesis, and the resolution of this antagonism often gives birth to a new set of rules, which then become the new thesis that grammarians preserve and hold up as the standards but which are ultimately subverted by a new antithesis, and on and on. Call it grammatical dialectics, if you like.


Q and A

What is the difference between “besides” and “beside”?

Answer

Besides is an adverb, which functions as a synonym for “in addition to,” “likewise,” “as well as” or “anyway” and “in any case” (examples: “Besides being kind, he is also a shy person,” “I don’t want to travel by air; besides, I can’t afford it”). So, wherever you can use the phrases “in addition to,” “likewise,”  “as well as,” “anyway,” and “in any case,” you can also use “besides.” They are mutually interchangeable. 

“Beside,” on the other hand, is a preposition that indicates position in relation to something or somebody. It can almost always replace phrases like “next to,” “at the side of,” “compared to” or “alongside” (examples: “he sat beside me,” “King Kong looks handsome beside him”).


Related Articles:
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. American English or British English?
10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation



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