April 11, 2004

Language and the War Effort

The recent concern over US preparation to deal with terrorism reminded me of a couple of stories from another era. During World War II my mother was a student at Hunter College. There was a policy that called for all students to study something related to the war effort. If your major was something useful like engineering you were all set; otherwise you had to add something appropriate. My mother was an English major, which was not useful to the war effort. Since she had a good knowledge of French, her war-related course ended up being French shorthand.

I'm not sure what the plan was. I have visions of stenographers parachuting into occupied France to assist the Resistance with its paperwork, and of brigades of stenographers marching to join the Free French, rapidly writing "Lafayette, nous sommes arrivées.". Mom was never called to serve.

I heard another story from the late Professor Edward Wagner, who learned Japanese in the Army. A friend of his was in the Chinese program, which finished earlier. The utility of Japanese was clear, but since the United States was not sending troops to China, they wondered to what use the Army would put a Chinese-speaking soldier. Professor Wagner soon received a letter from his friend, who was now stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He reported that his assignment was to train mules to respond to commands in Chinese, so that they could be sent to the Chinese forces.

Posted by Bill Poser at April 11, 2004 11:14 PM