Published: April 13, 2023

Name: Addison Edgar
Advisor: Prof. Kira Hall, TA Tiffany Blanchet
Course: LING 1000: Language and US Society
Semester: Fall 2022
LURA 2023

 

 

How do contemporary colonialist societies maintain social stratification through language? To answer such a question, it must first be understood that, in the modern age, systems of imperialist domination have become much less obvious to a society’s majority population, especially those societies in the so-called “First World”. In the United States, for instance, overt systems of domination were utilized in the enslavement of folk of African descent. When the overt processes of over one hundred years of enslavement, torture, and murder were begrudgingly declared illegal following the end of the US Civil War, people of color were subjected to systems of total discrimination and segregation – Jim Crow. Once this method of domination became untenable in the face of the growing civil rights movement, the system was replaced with mass incarceration. Most cleverly the 13th amendment, which officially prohibits enslavement in the United States, bluntly states that enslavement is permissible as punishment for a crime. Hence, the commodification of bodies of color, which established black and brown folk as “criminals”, comes full circle to mirror the days prior to 1865, but this time in a covert fashion, requiring individuals to carefully investigate the connections between mass incarceration and the history of enslavement.

Covert white supremacist language operates in much the same way as more overt systems of discrimination do. Like the mass incarceration of BIPOC folk or the forceful so-called “adoption” of Indigenous American children by families of white European descent, such language divides the human-invented systems of class and race into categories of “us”, the dominant subjects, versus “them”, the marginalized and disproportionately affected subjects of neoliberal colonialist ideology.

Taken at face value, the word barbarian does not likely infer ethnic prejudice or suggest white supremacist ideology to most white folk living in the so-called Western world. The word seems harmless, perhaps even inspiring positive feelings from one’s favorite Schwarzenegger movie. This very thinking about the word is what I myself subscribed to for many years, as I was ignorant of the origins of the word. Like the prison industrial complex in the United States, the word requires thoughtful investigation into its origins. My involvement with the Ethnic Studies department, as well as being introduced to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic domination through Dr. Kira Hall’s introductory linguistics class, Language in US Society, inspired me to look deeper into seemingly harmless language derived from ethno-nationalist origins. When I stumbled upon an interview with the then-President of the United States George W. Bush Jr. calling for a “crusade” against the “barbarians” following the September 11th attacks in New York City, the subject of my study and of the video essay linked on this page became solidified.

Through my research in the creation of my video essay, which can be viewed above, I discovered that the word barbarian originated from the Ancient Greek descriptor for the native inhabitants of the North African coast. Though I go into much more detail in the video itself, the word saw a rapid change from a simple descriptor to morphing into an ethnic separator which was quickly co-opted by developing imperial powers to justify the murder, pillaging, and enslavement of so-called “uncivilized” communities of people of color who could only be civilized through the aforementioned despicable actions. Being in the business of speechcraft, George W. Bush Jr. was most likely aware of what he was suggesting when rallying the white population of the United States behind the invasion of “barbarian” nations, with the Bush administration relying on the word’s nearly two-and-a-half thousand-year affiliation with dehumanization and “foreigners” to resonate with US society, itself being established on systems of domination, class stratification, and white supremacy.

Barbarian, a word which I believe should be censored and treated with the same sensitivity as all other ignorant ethno-nationalist, hate-fueled language, is just one word in a vast sea of covert language which could not possibly fit into the restrictive time constraints of a video essay. It is our responsibility, then, to educate ourselves on covert oppressive language which we may not realize that we use on a day-to-day basis, and to rewire ourselves to eliminate the practice of perpetuating hate through said language. That, I argue, is the key takeaway that I gathered through my research on covert language.

 


Image credit 

https://archive.nytimes.com/lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/among-north-africas-berbers/

References 

  1. YouTube. (2008). Bush Talks about Crusade on Sep 16-2001YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsjgjM56HRw.
  2. Lippi-Green, R., Barrett, R., Cramer, J., & McGowan, K. B. (2022). English with an accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States. Routledge. 
  3. Mohamed, E. (2016, July 28). With US or a terrorist: Bush and Bashar's holy wars against terrorism. Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/with-us-or-a-terrorist-bush-and-bashars-holy-wars-against-terrorism/
  4. Drug War Confessional. Vera Institute of Justice. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.vera.org/reimagining-prison-webumentary/the-past-is-never-dead/drug-war-confessional
  5. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Barbarian definition & meaning. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/barbarian