Thursday, August 07, 2014


Bad language

Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of the many recently elected anti-EU members of the EU's parliament, has been causing controversy:
Following Wednesday's debate on youth unemployment, MEPs call on far-right politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke to "apologise and step down" for using the word "nigger"

From the transcript of proceedings:
Janusz Ryszard Korwin-Mikke (NI). - Mr President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, introducing the first bill on the minimum wage, said, frankly, that it was to protect industry in the North from competition from cheap labour from the South. Four million people lost their jobs. Then it was four million niggers but now we have 20 million Europeans who are the negroes of Europe – a full 20 million young people are negroes from Europe. Yes, they are treated like negroes. We must destroy the minimum wage and we must destroy the power of trade unions because the trade unions…
…listen to me, the trade unions are the instruments of …
(The President cut off the speaker)
Mr Korwin-Mikke is unapologetic:
But Korwin-Mikke strongly refuted the accusations that he used racist language. When asked to comment by this magazine, he responded, "I used the word 'negro' and I do not see anything wrong in calling a negro a negro."

He further added "Using the word 'nigger' would be nonsense as my aim was to parody the phrase, 'Woman is a negro of the world'," a reference to a John Lennon and Yoko Ono song. The non-attached member also blamed his English for use of the word negro, saying, "my pronunciation is perhaps not the best also I have an earache".
And what is more:
He defended using the word negro, saying that he learnt his English by reading books written by Mark Twain who regularly uses the word 
Of course "negro" is not the word that was used by John and Yoko, or by Mark Twain for that matter, and nor is it the word that elicited the strong reaction to Korwin-Mikke's speech. He seems (or perhaps pretends) to confuse the two N-words, his English being, as he himself seems to recognize, far from perfect.

Not that poor command of English is an excuse. Korwin-Mikke chose to express himself in English, for reasons not immediately obvious, when he was free to speak his own language, as is the norm in the European Parliament. Members choosing to use a language other than their own do so at their own risk: the risk of not being intelligible, of not being convincing, of appearing ridiculous - or, as in this case perhaps, of causing offence by their ignorance of the other language's nuances. 

So whatever Korwin-Mikke may have thought he was saying, his utterance must surely be judged by an objective standard and, even in an international setting, that objective standard must surely be the native speaker/listener.

This incident contrasts with another N-word controversy of not too long ago, one involving the Uruguay soccer international Luis Suarez (recently again in the news for his teeth rather than his tongue). Suarez was given a lengthy ban  after a disciplinary tribunal, in England, where he was playing at the time, found that he had racially abused an opponent, Patrice Evra, a French player of Senegalese origin. Unlike the Polish MEP, Suarez was speaking his own language - Spanish - in a conversation initiated in that language by Evra. Unfortunately for all concerned, though Evra clearly fancies himself as something of a linguist (claiming to speak "a number of languages including Senegalese, French, Spanish, Italian and some Portuguese"), his command of Spanish appears to be quite limited (he admitted during the proceedings that he was “not exactly fluent").

From the report of the "FA Regulatory Commission" (as the the disciplinary tribunal is styled):
It seemed to us that Mr Evra's understanding of the Spanish word "negro" was influenced by his knowledge of Italian. In his interview with the FA on 20 October, Mr Evra said he though "nero" meant "black" , whereas "negro" meant "nigger". This is what he thought from his knowledge of Italian, and he went away to check the position in Spanish.
Suarez accepted that he did use the (Spanish) word "negro" at one point during the exchange and explained what it meant:
Mr Suárez said that he turned to Mr Evra and said "Por que, negro?". He said that he used the word "negro" at this point in the way that he did when he was growing up in Uruguay, that is as a friendly form of address to people seen as black or brown-skinned or even just black-haired. He said that he used it in the same way that he did when he spoke to Glen Johnson, the black Liverpool player. He said in no way was the use of the word "negro" intended to be offensive or to be racially offensive. It was intended as an attempt at conciliation
It was confirmed by the independent language consultants hired by the Commission that 
the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport
They pointed out that the term “negro”
can also be used as a friendly form of address to someone seen as somewhat brown-skinned or even just black-haired. It may be used affectionately between man and wife, or girlfriend/boyfriend, it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech, it may be used to identify in neutral and descriptive fashion someone of dark skin; several famous people in Uruguay are known as “el negro/la negra such-and-such”.
But to no avail:
We remind ourselves that the test for a breach of Rule E3(1) is an objective test. That means that it is for us to form our own view as to whether Mr Suarez's words or behaviour were abusive or insulting. It is not necessary for the FA to prove that Mr Suarez intended his words or behaviour to be abusive or insulting. We are concerned with whether the words or behaviour were abusive or insulting when used in a football match played in England under the FA Rules [emphasis added]
Which would be fair enough - if the words were in the Queen's English: had Suarez been speaking English and called Evra a "nigger", as was initially alleged, and had he then claimed that he had not intended any offence, say on the basis that he did not realise the meaning or force of the word because of his poor command of English, or, à la Korwin-Mikke, if he had blamed Mark Twain, or John Lennon, or an earache (or a toothache!), then it would seem reasonable to apply an objective test and make a finding of abuse, with the objective meaning being ascertained by reference to a native speaker's understanding. But since Suarez was speaking not English but Spanish, and more specifically Rioplatense Spanish, it is surely the norms of that language that should apply for the purposes of an objective test .

What the tribunal in fact seems to do is to dismiss the subjective understanding of Suarez, a native speaker, and then to take as a proxy for an objective view the subjective understanding of Evra, a learner of limited competence.

Perhaps if the conversation had been initiated by Suarez, the native speaker, there would have been some onus on him to avoid any possibility of being misconstrued.

But whether offence results from an incompetent speaker, like Korwin-Mikke, or an incompetent listener, as in the Suarez-Evra case, the only objective criterion is surely that of the native speaker. 

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