Behind the Scenes: What's in a name?

Behind the Scenes: What's in a name?


Weekly analysis with Sam Morgan

Language is an essential component of human society, often abused and underappreciated. When it comes to international politics, it can alter the course of history itself.

Your Behind the Scenes correspondent is a translator by training and a journalist by the will of the Fates, so language and how words work have always been fascinating. How people actually use language is an endlessly interesting area of study as well.

A year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although there are more obviously important things to be concerned about, how we use words to refer to concepts like countries and peoples needs a rethink, or at least some extra thought.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

One of the many things that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has reminded us is that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is total nonsense, given the emotional weight often carried by language.

Whether it is an overdue understanding of the colonial undertones suggested by ‘the Ukraine’ or the insensitivity of referring to the invaded country as a ‘former Soviet republic’, the last 12 months have shone a lot more light on semantics.

It does not stop with Ukraine either. As a recent letter to The Economist by the chief of staff to Moldova’s foreign minister eloquently points out, a sizable portion of that country’s population has no memory of a period of history that ended more than three decades ago.

A nation that is bigger in size than Belgium and which is bordered by a Kremlin puppet state deserves better, especially given that it is now an EU candidate country. This column, at least, will never refer to Moldova as a former anything, going forward.

The Baltic countries fit into this same bracket. Estonia, which has been one of the most hawkish on Russia policy in the last 12 months, celebrated its independence day yesterday and is all too conscious of the fact that future celebrations are by no means guaranteed.

Referring to either Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania as former Soviet republics is at best a cliché or lazy writing and at worst, adding more fuel to a narrative that these countries are former Russian territories where some sort of irredentist claim still exists.

In a world where Putin can invade the same country not once but twice and come close to getting away with it, showing care towards how you refer to different concepts and peoples is obviously important.

Putting some extra thought in is not just reserved for Russia’s immediate vicinity either. This column’s author hails from Wales and the language used to refer to that country continues to affect how it is seen internationally and internally.

For example, sloppy reporters still refer to Wales as a principality — i.e. a state ruled or owned by a prince — despite the fact that it has not been that for nearly 800 years. This is not Monaco or Liechtenstein but a constituent country of the United Kingdom.

It does not help that the main rugby stadium in Cardiff, formerly known as the Millennium Stadium, was renamed the Principality Stadium as part of a sponsorship deal brokered with an insurance company of the same name.

This affects how a population thinks about itself. If you are led to believe that you live somewhere ruled or owned by someone that is actually from another country, then your attitudes towards self-determination and independence shift as well.

Given that the etymology of the very word ‘Wales’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘foreigner’ or ‘land of foreigners’, you can imagine what kind of feelings this issue can generate. This column will do its best to refer to that country as ‘Cymru’ from now on.

Even Ireland, independent for more than 80 years, still has to put up with writers and pundits squeezing ‘British’ into their writing. Just ask actor Paul Mescal, who isn’t quite famous enough yet to have escaped the default-Brit setting.

If tech optimists are to be believed, we are on the cusp of a scary revolution when it comes to the written word. ChatGPT, the now infamous mega-autocorrect programme that will supposedly replace all us scribes out there, is a good example.

Programmes like that ultimately rely on what has been written before to come up with ‘new’ content. If you give it a big enough database, chances improve that it will reply with something coherent and correct.

This is how automatic translation works and the reason why Google Translate seems to get better with every passing week. Forget about artificial intelligence, it is a matter of training the system to give you an answer that is right.

So that means that whatever we write now will be important in the future, because it is likely to be copied at some point by a machine and presented as fact.

There have already been warnings regarding how gendered language will affect this process, for example when it comes to professions. Doctors are always male, nurses are always female, according to some programmes, because that is the information that they have been fed.

‘Second mentions’, the journalistic art of coming up with synonyms for terms and concepts so you do not repeat yourself and add flavour to your writing, is an artform, one which has a fantastic twitter account dedicated to it.

Like any artform though, it must not be abused. There is a near infinite amount of language out there to summon from the ether and weave into a narrative for the reader.

So be careful what you write, not because you don’t have a right to say whatever you want, but because language and people deserve the respect of accuracy.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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