Conflicted Phonemes

Laurence Abu Hamdan’s visually stunning project, Conflicted Phonemes, records the use of accent and language tests by the Dutch immigration service to validate or deny asylum claims.

Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes

Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes

It reminded me of the October 1937 mass killing of Haitians, on the island of Hispaniola, in which Dominican soldiers would ask people they suspected of being Haitian the name of the sprig — which they carried for this cause. Perejil, in Spanish, a world difficult for Haitians to pronounce properly. It is unknown how many Haitians were murdered, historians spread from 12,000 to 35,000, under the order of Trujillo. I read of this as a teenager, and it still sticks in my memory.

Abu Hamdan’s work is of similar emotional weight. Using language to sort people is not new, though those Somalis sent back due to these tests are often killed.

The tests themselves, as he notes, hinge on a couple of words, and particular accents. Thus language as a resource is not spread equally across communities and being born into a particular one may result in one’s loss of asylum, or life.

The visuals he uses, mapping the phonemes, the voices, and the outcomes are striking visually, and more so when one understands what is happening, and how language is being used against minority communities, against those who do not have documents, and those whose accents may not match the expectation of the interviewer.

The only thing I can imagine that could be worse with this, is to let an AI run it. Or maybe that won’t be worse? Except it would be difficult to create a database large enough, with enough voice and variety, to ensure adequate representation. Perhaps, though. Hmmm.

If language and accents as identified by humans, are being used to deny legitimate claims of asylum, perhaps this is a space where we can see greater justice with AI assistance.

Language and politics

In the Sept 7, 2019 issue of the Economist, Johnson’s column, Johannes Aavik and his museum in Kuressaare, Estonia, are a concrete reminder that language is a political tool. This exists across all branches of linguistics and the philosophy of language, so this is, of course, nothing new.

Aavik, tells Johnson, coined more words that came to be used, than some undefined number, maybe not Shakespeare, but, many. Aavik set about coining new words from 1918 on, when Estonia declared its independence, after having been under the control of one neighbour or another for most of the territory’s life.

Aavik wanted words, “that sounded beautiful and seemed Estonian.”

While Aavik was part of a wave of nations and languages looking for purity, to ensure that their language was a reflection of their nation and culture, this desire has touched every aspect of cultures of control, from the churches and religions to minority populations, and more.

The once ‘standard’ languages, with their vernacular counterparts were a clear view of high and low culture, slowly dissolved by authors writing in the vernacular, and the languages ‘of the people’ taking hold over the languages of the elite. This has happened to certain degrees, depending on language and place. Some of the languages that are dying off are doing so because they are not given equal value to the minority languages, such as Spanish or English. The dying of a language is a complex mix of history, culture, and economics at the base.

Americans know less of this, as English swells to include words from other languages, slang, dialects, and other in-group words. The rapid advances in technology require more words, and the speed of the internet, particularly Twitter, shares these words around quickly.

In addition to meaning and culture and history, words have emotional valence, that can be personal or broader. The current state of American English is showing rapid shifts, as the President taints words which hold contextual meaning that may not dissolve anytime soon. For example, ‘crooked’ is tied to concepts of Hillary Clinton and depending on where one’s beliefs fall, to a scandal of illegality or a scandal of libel. It’s just one of many. Watching the news in the US, Fox vs CNN, one can watch words swell up with new meanings and underlying accusations and threats.

In research I ran in 2018, about the meaning of language in the realm of human rights, participants parceled out words by party, in one session. Freedom is for the right, justice for the left, and no matter which party they were in, each was tainted, held a hidden agenda and had lost meaning.

It’s hard to know what happens in a country when the concepts of freedom and justice have been politicized and are no longer shared concepts.

While there are many countries, which, for political reasons attempt to engineer a purist language, as Johnson notes, I’m not sure I’ve seen one inadvertently bifurcate language by party to such a degree. Two things come to mind, propaganda, and doublespeak. With the rise of populism and the increase in narrow lines of hate in politics and in the internet, it’s hard to imagine a shared language being possible, but if we cannot find a way to agree on the meaning of the core tenets of the existence of our country, its hard to imagine we can slow the divide and become unified with shared ideals.