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A race by any other slur
March 11, 2013 11:01 PM   Subscribe

How do other languages (non-English) express the scientific term 'race?' vs the colloquial? In taxonomic terms, the word "race" is 90% used as a misnomer in US discourse. This is rooted in "Social Darwinism," or contemporary racist applications of seminal evolution concepts. This colors verbiage across the sciences, especially the social sciences. To wit, the term 'racism' is in fact based on a dehumanizing paradigm. So, um, how does this shake out elsewhere?

I'm sure there are racist undertones to such words in many languages. Depending on the culture and the timing, I'm sure they'd be different. I'm fascinated by those differences, but I feel like anything less than a deep, idiomatic understanding of various languages coupled with an understanding of the etymological history of those terms during Darwinist revolution would be useless.

That sounds kinda precise, and vaguely Quixotic, so I came here.
posted by es_de_bah to Human Relations (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I want to suggest that you're going about this whole thing in the wrong way. Sorry.

Descriptive Linguistics says: the only meaning a word has is in the consensus understanding in the minds of the current speakers of the language. Words don't have hidden undertones to be teased out by logic, and they don't carry their histories invisibly behind them. If 90% of native, colloquial, unbiased English language speakers use the word "racism" to mean (for instance) "bigotry based on certain physical characteristics which society identifies as 'race'," then that is not a misnomer -- that's the correct usage.

An enormous number of words have fascinating but irrelevant histories influenced by the weird beliefs of the past. These words are not "based on" those histories. The only way to understand a word is by looking at contemporary consensus majority usage. One hasn't grasped something profound about humor if you trace it back to the Four Bodily Humours, nor does one gain a better understanding of how modern Slavs think of Germany by tracing back their word for "German" to the Proto-Slavic root meaning "dumb, can't talk."
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:28 PM on March 11, 2013 [16 favorites]


Words don't have hidden undertones to be teased out by logic, and they don't carry their histories invisibly behind them. If 90% of native, colloquial, unbiased English language speakers use the word "racism" to mean (for instance) "bigotry based on certain physical characteristics which society identifies as 'race'," then that is not a misnomer -- that's the correct usage.

This. You're right that there isn't a biological basis for race as the term is commonly understood in English (American) discourse, but that doesn't mean that "race" as a construct doesn't exist—it does, in a very real, if not biologically-rooted, manner for the vast majority of Americans. And it certainly did prior to any notion of Social Darwinism, too: that's why there were slaves in 1776, more than 30 years before Darwin was born.

Your actual question, though, still is worth asking—I'd rephrase as "how is the idea of race expressed in other languages, and are there different constructions of the idea in those languages?—but you may want to rethink your suppositions.
posted by The Michael The at 5:40 AM on March 12, 2013


The term "race", in scientific discourse, is probably a reference to its colloquial usage, made by someone studying those social categories. It doesn't have a more-sciencey alternative meaning.
posted by ead at 6:39 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


What Harvey Kilobit said; also, the unscientific concept of "race" isn't peculiar to the English-speaking world, it's pretty much universal. What are you hoping to find? I mean, sure, other languages don't use the equivalent of "race" exactly the way English does (Russian, for example, has the equivalent word раса [rasa], but it's not that common—they usually use род [rod], a much more general word meaning 'family, clan; birth; genus; sort, kind'), but I doubt those differences in usage correlate with differences in attitudes. Whorfianism has long been refuted (in the strong form implied here).
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure this answers your question, but in Hebrew one would either say 'geza' - the root, or 'motza' - the origin, so in both cases there would be a connotation of geographic belonging.
posted by namesarehard at 11:56 AM on March 12, 2013


Oh I didn't mean to take a prescriptivist term at all, but I still wholeheartedly disagree with Harvey Kilobit. I also said a misnomer in taxonomic terms. Scientific terminology is full of terms with very specific denotations that have more fluid common usage.

But to say that words don't carry invisible histories behind them is to misunderstand fundamentally how words work. Of course words are social constructed, but that just means that words depend entirely on their history and the way they have been used always as some affect on how they are used.

namesarehard is getting more at what I wanted to see. What types of words lead to the word for race in languages outside of English.
posted by es_de_bah at 5:12 PM on March 12, 2013


I'm not implying strong Whorfianism, as such. I'm interested in how the word came to be because of thought, not how the word makes people think.

That is, this is a poetic question, not an epistemologic one.
posted by es_de_bah at 5:13 PM on March 12, 2013


If you're just looking for anecdata from various languages, I think the colloquial Chinese would be zhong3 zu2, where the first word has roughly the same etymological connection to species as race does in English. The second just means a grouping or affiliation. Interestingly enough, at least in the circles I travel, there's not really a specific word used for racism. That is, I'm sure one exists, but in conversation people seem to say, pian1 jian4, which refers more broadly to prejudice.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:46 PM on March 12, 2013


In Urdu, we use rang (color) and nasl (lineage), or the two combined (rang-o-nasl). Ta'aas-sub would be word for prejudice or bigotry. I don't know of a specific word for racism. And I'm not sure I understand the rest of your question well enough to answer it.
posted by bardophile at 10:35 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


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