February 06, 2006

Speaking the language of the Indians' enemies

According to The Economist, Mércio Gomes, president of the Brazilian government's Indian affairs agency FUNAI, recently remarked in an interview that the Brazilian Indians have "a lot of land", and that ultimately the Supreme Court would "have to set a limit". In response, Sydney Possuelo, a well-known senior FUNAI commented that Mr Gomes "spoke the language of Indians' enemies" (Mr Possuelo was promptly fired). What did he mean, "spoke the language of"? The language spoken by most of the enemies of the Brazilian Indians is of course Portuguese. Nearly everyone in Brazil speaks it. But that isn't what he meant. What he meant is clearly that Mr Gomes was saying the sort of things that the enemies of the Brazilian Indians say. Why didn't he just say that? The two claims strike me as utterly different. Yet ‘X speaks the language of Y’ is a very common locution (there are over 79,000 raw Google-hits for "speaks the language of", and a brief glance suggests that far more are of the figurative type like "he speaks the language of small government conservatism" than of the literal type like "a caregiver who speaks the language of their child"). It is a snowclone of the most simple and basic kind, in fact. I'm puzzled by the curious indirection that this figure of speech enforces. Surely it is not linguists' pedantry to point out that the language in which you speak does not determine any of the content of what you choose to say.

[Added later: lots of people are emailing me to say that I am being a pedant, this is a perfectly normal use of the word language, it is described in dictionaries (the Oxford English Dictionary's meaning 3.f says "Phr. to speak (talk) someone's language, to speak (talk) the same language: to have an understanding with someone through similarity of outlook and expression, to get on well with someone; to speak a different language (from someone): to have little in common (with someone)"), and so on. I don't think I'm saying anything inconsistent with all this. Note carefully, I am not saying anything here is "incorrect". No one is making a mistake. And the dictionaries are right to cover the use of "talk X's language" in the meaning "get along with X" or "have similar ideas to X". What I'm doing above is musing on how this idiomatic use got started. To me, it seems that speaking the language that you use when you say things is such a different idea from saying the sort of things you say. No argument from me about whether this is a well-established usage; it certainly is. It's just one that I don't feel the slightest bit tempted to use. It grates. Is it all right if I have that tiny little prejudice? Huh? Can I just have an aesthetic preference or two, please? Do I have to be Doctor No-Preferences-Or-Value-Judgments Serious Linguist all the frigging time? Huh?]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 6, 2006 09:50 AM