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The Language of Authoritarians

As everyone knows, there are nine languages spoken in Eritrea.  And, as everyone knows, the Government of Eritrea continues to preach and, in fact, enshrined in the retired-since-birth constitution, the clause that “all languages are equal.” And that, based on this principle, the government cannot possibly endorse any language as the official language.

This article is not going to be about the flaw in this policy.  It is not going to talk about the hypocrisy of how the status of “official language” discriminates against other languages but “working language” doesn’t.    It is not going to talk about the absurdity of a constitution that tells its citizens that they have no official languages was published only in Tigrigna and Arabic; that the Constituent Assembly that ratified the constitution conducted its meeting using Tigrigna and Arabic. It is not going to ask what it means to a Saho or Blin that Shaebia.org presents its articles in Tigrigna and Arabic and how he should find comfort that this is only because the two languages are only “working” but not “official” languages.    It is not going to talk about the impracticality of “mother tongue” education; doesn’t. insist on the implementation of the “mother tongue” approach.

This article is going to talk about how the PFDJ is destroying the Tigrigna language.   To those who think the PFDJ is “tigrignasizing Eritrea”, I have bad news:  the PFDJ is tigrignasizing Eritrea but before it does so, it is making sure it is enfeebling Tigrigna.    And, since Tigrigna is the dominant language in Eritrea and, since Tigrigna is the language of reference for the other languages, this will have a domino effect in destroying the other languages: an enfeebled Tigre, an emasculated Saho, etc.

By “destroying”, I mean it in the following sense:  in free societies, all languages are meant to communicate and express in an interactive way; they evolve and grow to accommodate the dynamism of the society.  Even in free societies, politicians are constantly attempting to create language that absolves them of responsibility but, thanks to a free media, competition among politicians and the ability of the populace to hire and fire politicians at will, the danger is mitigated.  In authoritarian systems, where all the moderating influences are non-existent and governments reign supreme, languages are used to control and suppress and to communicate—in a hierarchical, top-to-bottom way—the belief system, and the values of the government.    Since the belief system and the value of all authoritarian systems is about getting and maintaining power, language is used as a currency towards that end.   Language becomes propaganda.

I will argue that this is partly the result of the influence of communism during Eritrea’s armed struggle, when “Anglicized Tigrigna” war born.   What Anglicized Tigrigian didn’t kill, the style and the syntax is working overtime to incapacitate.   I can think of at least four (by no means an exhaustive) tools that are beating our language to uselessness: the preference for the passive over the active (Irresponsible Language); the presentation of opinions as facts and presenting the obvious as an insight (the “Mallet Yu” Filler), the Obfuscation Obsession (“Tigrigna Cadre”) and finally, The Bury Them With Volume Principle (The “moqshish”).   I believe all these maladies are common to all our languages now because they are prevalent in Eritrea’s dominating language: Tigrigna.    I believe this is a very serious issue; but I have never believed you have to use depressing language to communicate how earnest you are.

Background

Tigrigna Jebha and Tigrigna Shabia are not the Tigrigna that is spoken by the people.   There are nuances and each side claims to know the style of the other but what we know is that the Tigrigna of ELF and EPLF has the same bad origin: German (Marx) concepts, filtered through English (Engels) then translated back to Tigrigna.  Just like the ideologies that gave them birth, the Jebha and Shabia Tigrigna diverged into the Lenninist (Soviet) and Maoist (EPLF) camp.  (TPLF’s Tigrigna went through another filtering—Albanian—but that is a different story.)   The language of “democratic centralism” has given us a strange new language whose sole purpose is not to communicate but to control.

The Tigrigna of our politicians is an Anglicized Tigirigna.  This is why the easiest thing to do is to translate Tigrigna Shabia (particularly Tigrigna Isaias) into English.

When our politicians speak in English, they are actually thinking in Anglicized Tigrigina and then translating their thoughts into words, in English.   You can imagine how a few circuits may be blown in the process—which is why English interviews of Isaias make no sense at all.    If you want to verify this for yourself read the striking similarity between the Anglicized Tigrigna  letter Isaias sent General Uqbe on November 27, 1999 (“who is saying that I have changed?  Since when?  “Not consulting” with whom? About what? When?  How does one express by evidence the emotional claims that the president thinks there is no other than him?  Who are those saying this?)  and the letter he sent the OAU on December 1998 requesting clarification on the OAU Framework Agreement (Where is Badme Town? What is meant by environs? What is reinstatement? )

Going a step further, Tigre Shabia is actually a further translation of Tigrigna Shabia.   One of the ugliest words that gained much currency between 1998 and 2000 is “Chifra” as in “Chifra Woyane.” I call it ugly because Chifra in its original application (as understood by our forefathers) was reserved to refer to a herd of monkeys.  (equating people with monkeys, with flies: This is another reason Ethiopians think Eritreans are bigoted.)   Now, if you listened to Wed-Sheik’s popular Tigre song, “e-nt’hamel”, he makes reference to “Cherot.”  I’ve asked many people, but nobody seems to know what Cherot means.   But, from the context….”Indenqeber we indester, Cherot abiet….” (Despite our attempts to bury and hide its mistakes, “Cherot” said no…”) I’ve deduced that “Cherot” is probably a verbatim translation of “Chifra.”    So here we have a case of a bad usage in one language translating into another.

Going even further, those who read Arabic publications in Eritrea tell me that, in many cases, the Arabic is “Tigresized Arabic.”   The Arabic of Isaias is Anglicized Tigrigna translated to Arabic.  The phrase “One can say…” is translated to the Anglicized Tigrigna of  “kbhal yk’al iyu” to the Arabic “yumkin alQoul…”

What we have here then is Anglicized Tigrigna corrupting Tigrigna; corrupted Tigrigna corrupting Tigre and corrupt Tigre corrupting Arabic.  It is safe to assume the same thing is happening to the other six Eritrean languages.  What we have here is a failure to communicate.   But it is alright as long as we are ALL getting corrupted: Hade hzbi, Hade Hmam.

The Irresponsible Language

This is probably the outcome of the “meda culture” of refraining from using a pronoun, particularly “I” or “me.”   This was supposed to negate the ego and discourage the nurturing of a cult of personality.  We know how well that has worked.   The “anani” or egoist language would have created many but small egotistical people; now we have ONE egomaniac who is credited for creating this ego-free culture.  Isn’t that wonderful?   It is like someone saying, “the greatest thing about me is that I am humble.”

One other consequence of the passive tense is the birth of a dead language with an in-built escape-hatch from accountability.  The PFDJ accuse the private press of “irresponsibility” but they are the biggest advocates of irresponsible communication.   By irresponsible, I mean it in its most literal sense: the language is selected for its capacity to tell you as little as possible about the “actor” or “subject.”  If you point out errors in this article, I can either say, “I made a mistake” or “mistakes were made.” (Or, of course, I can pretend that I never received your correction and refuse to acknowledge you, a preferred method of the practitioners of the politics of exclusion.)  The former requires that someone atone for the mistake; the latter is just a thing that happened.

In this language, you can’t even begin a joke with: “Why did the chicken cross the street?”   The chicken didn’t cross the street; the street was crossed by the chicken.   Well then, let’s ask the street.

When the passive Anglicized Tigrigna is translated to English, we get the always-hilarious phrase “it is to be remembered….” a standby of every Shabia media outlet.   It is to be remembered that the phrase “it is to be remembered” is used often to re-enforce manufactured or false memory.

Mallet Yu

Then there is the constant and redundant “mallet yu”, which literally means  “it means.”   In the PFDJ lingo, you don’t say, “we went to the store and we bought cigarettes.”  You say, “which means, we went to the store, which means, we bought cigarettes.”     Actually, they may concede that they went to the store but they will say, “Cigarettes were bought.”   Why use the active when the passive will do.   The street was crossed by the chicken, mallet yu.

The “mallet yu” is used to lend legitimacy and validity to a story, a claim or an opinion by clothing it in borrowed indisputable, self-evident fact.   How can someone argue against a self-evident fact?   A means B and B means C and therefore A means C.   Mallet yu.

There is also the reverse of mallet yu: mallet aykonen.   In this case, obvious statements are flowered up to give themselves an aura of unique insight.     For example, everybody over the age of five knows that mistakes are inevitable and perfection is impossible.  But the hgdefawian present this as if it is something a rarely revealed Truth (capital t) that only they stumbled on.   Which is why we get the “gegatat aygbern mallet aykonen”:  It doesn’t mean mistakes are not made.    They won’t even admit that mistakes were made (even in the passive tense); they will only deny an imaginary claim that mistakes could not be made.  Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Obfuscation: Tigrigna Cadre

Say you notice someone who just walked into your house appears wet and you ask a simple question like  “Is it raining?”

An Ordinary Eritrean will give you a direct and charming answer.   “tebeluKa Ke!!”  (Indeed!) Or, “ayi, izi do mai ilkayo? TbTbsi ybl alo.”  (This is not rain; it is just a sprinkle.)

A practitioner of Tigrigna cadre will say: “if you were to ask me, ‘is it raining outside’ and if I were to answer the question of ‘is it raining outside?’, we would have to first answer the question of ‘what is rain?’  And ‘what is outside’….By the time he is done answering the question, you won’t remember what you asked and for sure it will have stopped raining outside.

The idea is to numb you with the volume and to recast real questions as if it was a hypothetical, so they can always say, later, that they were responding to a hypothetical question.  All PFDJistas (reformers and hardliners) suffer from this malady.  For a full demonstration of this, refer to the mind-numbing interview of General Sebhat Ephrem, the man who coined the word “handebetnet.”

Incidentally, faced with the same question, the ever-pretentious Asmarino is likely to say something like: “No, it is not raining.   I was just swimming with my clothes on.”      Alora, years later, he will have convinced himself that he had a swimming pool and he will tell his friends that the Asmara of his time and his neighborhood had the purest aqua in the world.

The Moqshish

The moqshish is where they answer questions you didn’t ask.

All our politicians give the moqshish answer.  In Eritrea, the second most well known practitioner of the “moqshish” answer was Haile DeruE.  (You know the first, of course.)  In the good old days when the G-1 loved him, this practice had earned him the title of “Papas” (Pope) because he could calm down any group by anticipating and answering questions they thought of asking but didn’t ask.   He was their troubleshooter.  But not when they turned against him.

In fact, the “evidence” that the G-1 apologists point to prove that the G-15 was plotting the overthrow of the G-1, is the interview given by DeruE to Keste Debenawhere he hypothesizes about and defends the validity of asking for the resignation of a war-time President whose side did badly in a war.

Given the developments, if, at the time, someone were to say: “just like Gemal Abdel Nasser offered his people to resign at the conclusion of the 1967 war when Egypt was having military problems, the President and the Government ought to submit its resignation to the people.

The interviewer (reporter for Keste Debena) never asked him the question.   That he provided an answer to a question that wasn’t asked was no proof that he was suffering from a guilty conscience.   Later the entire G-15 wrote a letter denying that they had ever said such a thing.   He was just practicing “Tigrigna Cadre” the way he had done his entire career.

The purpose of “Tigrigna Cadre” is to impress, not to communicate.   Most of the long-time members of the EPLF/PFDJ, including the ones that were fawning all over DeruE when he paid his last visit to Oakland, and are now calling for his head on a platter, know this.  They know that from the context, DeruE was talking about a post-war development (like Nasser’s) and he wasn’t calling just on the President but on the entire government (which included DeruE) to resign.   Of course, in most places in the world, the “honorable” thing for civilian governments to do after a catastrophe is to resign.   But our G-1 gang has put the buttons to their conscience on “mute” because “the timing is not right.”  The louder the noise of their conscience, the more hyperactive and shrill their acts of condemnation.     They will activate their conscience after “our border is demarcated.”  Of course, we will be at war with Sudan by then…. but that is a different story.

Tigrigna Cadre is further illustration of the adage that says, “the message is the medium.”   Western politicians have to use private media who charge a premium for airwaves and print space and are, thus, more likely to speak in compact ways or what they call “soundbites” in the American media.     But when you own the media, you have no restriction and no need to discipline yourself and learn brevity.

There is another group of communicators who just go on and on sometimes for, let me count, five  pages.   The Internet writer. Why?   Because  we own the space and the PFDJ cannot ban us.

The only limit is people’s patience.   The politicians are betting that we will exhaust the people’s patience (which is why you hear the constant and premature announcement of our death when we, the Internet writers are, in fact mushrooming and this website continues to increase readership); and we are betting that the politicians have exhausted the people’s patience (which is why we itemize their sins and they continue to insist that they have the support of “the overwhelming majority.”)  We can quantify our claim; they cannot.

Who will prevail?  To put it the Shaebia way, “if you were to ask me such a question and if I were to answer it, I would have to first answer what is patience? And what is exhaustion?  It should be remembered that, undoubtedly,  it doesn’t mean that people’s patience cannot be exhausted….”  I could go on but I am betting that, by now, your patience is exhausted.   You understand that it doesn’t mean mistakes could not have been made.

About Salyounis

Saleh Younis (SAAY) has been writing about Eritrea since 1994 when he published "Eritrean Exponent", a quarterly print journal. His writing has been published in several media outlets including Dehai, Eritrean Studies Review, Visafric, Asmarino and, of course, Awate where his column has appeared since the launch of the website in 2000. Focusing on political, economic, educational policies, he approaches his writing from the perspective of the individual citizens' civil liberties and how collectivist governments and overbearing organizations trample all over it in pursuit of their interests. SAAY is the president and CEO of a college with a focus in sound arts and video games and his writing often veers to music critique. He has an MBA from Golden Gate University and a BA from St Mary's College.

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