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Pet Sins July 2004

How a language reflects the superiority of a civilization?

I studied a number of East Asian and Southeast Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese and Malay. Once, a man from China asked me how Malay compared with Chinese. I told him that Malay is more structured than Chinese, with clearer grammar rules which were easy and logical to follow. Chinese has a somewhat more flexible grammatical structure, and I had to learn things more by the 'feel' of whether something sounded right, because Chinese grammar did not organize itself as neatly as Malay grammar. (This is just my personal opinion and I don't claim to be an expert in linguistics)

The man nodded, then he concluded, "Newer languages tend to be more 'organized' and 'structured.' The fact that the Chinese language is more 'haphazard' than the Malay language shows Chinese has a more ancient origin. This shows the Chinese civilization is older and superior."

Well, let's not get into whether 'older' necessarily means 'superior', and I didn't pursue the conversation to ask him to define what he meant by 'superior'. My guess is he hasn't given the matter much thought and was only adjusting his reasoning to support his pre-existing, unsupported biases.

The interesting thing, is that, sometime later, he apparently forgot we had this conversation and asked me the same question again. I gave the exact same answer. But this time he misheard my words. He thought I was saying that Malay is less structured than Chinese, though I was saying the opposite.

He stated his conclusion: "The fact that Malay is less structured than Chinese shows that the Chinese language and civilization are superior."

I pointed out the misunderstanding, and he was left with nothing to say.

So there you see the contradiction in that fellow's reasoning. If Malay is the more structured language, it is inferior to Chinese because it is 'newer'. If Malay is the less structured language, it is still inferior to Chinese because it is less organized, and less thought went into creating it. If someone wants to believe something, he'll find an excuse to do so no matter what. Neutral research results can be interpreted to cast value judgments on people and things.

I think much of modern racists' 'scientific reasons' for believing in the inferiority of certain races go along the same lines - twisting statistics and results to serve a pre-determined conclusion.