Posts Tagged ‘language’

The linguist Geoff Nunberg has a fascinating post at NPR on the linguistic vacuity of the Pledge of Allegiance. Nunberg does a nice job of explaining some key bits of historical context pertaining to the origins (and evolution) of the Pledge, and showing how the Pledge is little more than a ritual lacking a real connection to the language therein.

Particularly interesting is Nunberg’s explanation about how Congress inserted the politically thorny phrase “under God” into the Pledge during the Cold War. It’s rather archaic language, though the obsolescence of “under God” isn’t without its advantages, as Nunberg explains.

That ambiguity has certain advantages. But it actually came about because of a linguistic misunderstanding. The words were taken from the¬†Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln asked his listeners to resolve that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Except that in the Gettysburg Address, “under God” didn’t modify “this nation” but the following phrase, “have a new birth of freedom.” In Lincoln’s time, “under God” was a common idiom that meant “with God’s help” or “the Lord willing.” People used it to qualify a bald prediction or promise, mindful of the admonition against vainglory in the book of James.

Inshallah indeed.

And as a tangent: before traveling to Egypt several years ago, I had read in some guidebook that inshallah — “God willing” — was a commonly used Arabic phrase. I had no idea how common, however, until I spent two weeks in Egypt and heard it peppering everyday speech. I can still recall my good friend hailing a cab for us back to his flat in the Mohandiseen neighborhood, leaning into the window of a taxi, and saying to the driver, “Mohandiseen, inshallah. The use of inshallah made his statement a question, practically a plea. Literally, it was like flagging down a taxi in Manhattan, then asking the cabbie, “Brooklyn, God willing.” But in everyday speech, it functioned more like asking, “Will you take us to Mohandiseen?” Still, the fact that my doggedly atheistic friend was invoking God in hailing a cab offered a clue to how ubiquitous inshallah was in Arabic speech.

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