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Words on the Move – Power, Politics, and Meaning

How language shapes our political world

Columbia University's Lydia Liu describes how the term "human rights" found its way from English to Chinese. (2 min., 36 sec.)

Columbia University's Lydia Liu describes how the term "human rights" found its way from English to Chinese. (2 min., 36 sec.)

How language shapes our political world

NEW YORK, October 21, 2010 – Carol Gluck, professor of Japanese History at Columbia University and co-editor of the new essay anthology Words in Motion: Towards a Global Lexicon, joined with fellow anthology contributors Lydia H. Liu, professor of Humanities at Columbia University, Partha Chatterjee, professor of Anthropology and Columbia University and Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta, for a discussion moderated by Economist correspondent Robert Lane Greene on how language shapes our political world.

Gluck launched the discussion with the observation that by following words across borders, space, and time, we can use them as levers to understand relationships between cultures. "It is not really about language ... words are a lever ... we have a word at one end and at the other end comes a different view of the society and politics."

Responsibility, thug, barbarian, and jihad were some of the many words—with powerful and differing implications for the diverse societies using them today—that the panel cited to illustrate these ideas.

During the era of British imperial rule, for instance, words such as thug and barbarian acquired new meanings and political overtones. Liu dealt specifically with these two examples, which she characterized as belonging to "the same political process, even though one happened in India and one happened in China." Chatterjee continued that "thug" in its original use referred to a person who made a living as a "fraudulent robber," but it was the British who incorporated the concept of organized crime into "thug" when it was imported into English.

Bringing the conversation back to the modern day, Greene discussed the American use of the word jihad. "We have started throwing [this word] around... acting as if we know what jihad really is," Greene observed, when in fact the word has a much broader meaning in its Arabic context.

The panel noted that an added level of ambiguity arises when words move to character-based languages such as Chinese and Japanese. Gluck and Liu explained that when words such as human rights were translated into Chinese, they had to combine two characters (each character with its own individual meaning) into a new word. Liu explained that in quan li, the coined translation for the concept of "human rights," quan means "power" or "domination" while li means "self interest," a translation that has proved to be problematic to this day.

By way of conclusion, Gluck pointed out that we "need to be aware that our preconceptions about the other places in the world, or even about out own societies, are in some ways blinding us to the way these words are working."

"We didn't need Twitter to move words," Gluck said. "They have always moved."

Reported by Elizabeth Reynolds