Thursday, August 18, 2005

Who's 'we'?

Lately there's been some controversy in Russia about the new youth movement Nashi, which was started by the Kremlin in an attempt to stave off orange revolution. Although the group calls itself 'anti-fascist,' human rights activists fear (justifiably, in my opinion; you can find out more via the links on Volodymyr Campaign) that it's just the opposite.

Part of the debate involves the group's name, which is Russian for 'ours.' Some have interpreted this as a message to minorities, liberals and Nashi's other targets: 'This country is ours and not yours.' The organisation's press secretary, on the other hand, insists that 'ours' is meant to be all-inclusive: 'When we say "us," we mean anyone who lives and works for the good of our country.'

The English system of pronouns, like the Russian, makes no distinction between a 'we' that includes the person being addressed and a 'we' that does not. 'We're invited to a party tonight' can be followed by 'so put your suit on' or by 'Could you clean the oven while we're out?' 'This is our land' can mean 'This land is your land, this land is my land,' or it can mean 'so you wetbacks get out.'

In fact, I've never heard of a language that uses different words for 'us-with-you' and 'us-against-you.' German doesn't; neither does French or Spanish, Hebrew or Greek. (If any readers know of a language that does make a distinction, please let me know via the comments.) I find it hard to imagine that the idea has never occurred to any group. Then again, maybe certain aspects of human nature have always made such a distinction inconvenient. Without the ambiguity of 'we,' groups like Nashi would find it harder to prevaricate about what they stand for.


At 4:05 pm, Anonymous beatroot said...

Hi, beatroot here in Warsaw.

Almost same word in Polish (nasz), same meaning.

The problem comes, of course, when defining what 'us' means. In Poland, sadly, many many people think that 'us' means catholic the exclusion of everybody else.

'Them' can also be a code for antisemetism. In 1968 there was a communist government inspired antisemetic campaign to get rid of Jewish intellectuals from the Party. After they arrested people like Jacek Kuron (one of the leaders of Solidarnosc, who died last year) the questioning always started, "So, you are a Jew?" Kuron, Michnik and others always replied: "no, I am a Pole."

To these types of pondlife, a Jew cannot be a Pole, and the other way round.

So who does Putin and his Nashi think are 'us' and who is 'them'?

At 9:45 pm, Blogger language said...

Sure, a number of languages have inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, for instance the Algonquian languages (like Potawotami), Dravidian (e.g., Tamil), Taiwanese, etc.

Fijian has an even more complicated system; see the examples here. And according to a Wikipedia article, "Cherokee distinguishes between four forms of 'we.' These are: 'you and I,' 'another and I,' 'others and I,' and the 'comprehensive plural' (you, another or others, and I)."

At 9:52 pm, Blogger Laura Brown said...

Language Hat, this is fascinating. Thank you so much!


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