Language and Authority

Tsee iz fahran ah Subway?
Image by angus mcdiarmid via Flickr

A man I met grew up in the US speaking Yiddish at home.  He used this language to subvert authority and make a deep connection in a unique way.

As he would set up Jewish children’s day camps in the Soviet Union, he often had to speak in front of Jewish audiences.  The government would supply an interpreter.  He had no reason to trust this interpreter, but he did not know Russian.  Intuitively, he thought the interpreter may be manipulating his words.  During that time, he was probably justified.

Once in the 1980s he was standing before a group of elderly Jews.  He began his talk in Yiddish: “Does anyone here speak Yiddish?”  A majority of hands went up.  So he continued the rest of his talk in Yiddish–and his interpreter could not understand the rest.

Through the use of another language he was able to subvert the Soviet authority.  He connected to his audience directly, without the intermediate, untrusted, self-serving government interpreter.

Furthermore, he made a historical point.  An elderly woman approached him afterwards, weeping.  She told him she had not heard Yiddish spoken in an official setting since the October Revolution, when she was a little girl.  This man not only conveyed his message, but the language itself reverberated with history and touch the individuals of his audience.

3 thoughts on “Language and Authority

  1. Alex L.

    Cool story. You have good examples (in this post and a previous one about the media) about how language can help someone think and communicate independently of “the party line”–whether that’s a hard line as in the Soviet Union or a soft one in the U.S. I’ve been trying to do a similar thing by looking at raw economic data on such sites as Google Public Data Explorer to test the rhetoric and contradictory claims from the media and politicians about the economy.


  2. Pingback: Who would I trust? « JRFibonacci’s blog: partnering with reality

  3. Pingback: Ecolinguism in Israel: Another place where languages go to die – Loving Language

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