Mon, Jun 24, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Language wars: Sixteen of the greatest linguistic spats of all time

Words are ever evolving — but not without controversy. From creative applications of an apostrophe to the overuse of literally, what makes you rage?

By David Shariatmadari  /  The Guardian

Five years later the Cuban missile crisis brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war.


Richard Nixon was foxed by elaborate Japanese politeness in 1969. Prime minister Eisaku Sat visited the White House amid a trade row over textile imports. Nixon’s job was to get him to agree to restrict them.

According to the New York Times, “Mr Sato replied as he looked ceilingward, Zensho shimasu. Literally, the phrase means: ‘I will do my best,’ and that’s how the interpreter translated it. What it really means to most Japanese is: ‘No way.’” When the Japanese government did precisely nothing, Nixon was furious, branding Sato a liar.


There’s often a dark side to disputes over language: they are often the medium through which inter-ethnic conflicts are brutally expressed.

Linguists Marko Dragojevic and colleagues recount the story of a cafe in an area of Bosnia and Herzegovina controlled by Croatians during the 1992-95 war.

“On its menu, the cafe offered its customers coffee at three different prices, depending on which pronunciation customers used to order the item. Kava, indexing a Croatian, and by extension, Catholic identity, was sold for the modest price of 1 Deutsche Mark. Kafa, indexing a Serbian and Orthodox Christian identity, was not available for sale. Finally, kahva, indexing a Bosnian Muslim identity, cost the customer a ‘bullet in the forehead’.”


In 1840, the British government and more than 500 local chiefs signed a bilingual agreement that made New Zealand a colony. English missionaries had translated the draft of the Treaty of Waitangi into Maori but the two versions had important differences. The New Zealand Ministry of Culture explains that “in Maori it gave Queen Victoria governance [kawanatanga] over the land, while in English it gave her sovereignty over the land, which is a stronger term”.

The English text also assured the Maori that they would have “undisturbed possession” of all their “properties,” whereas the Maori translation merely gave them tino rangatiratanga (full authority) over taonga (treasures) — a more nebulous term.


If you’re a ruler with absolute power there’s nothing to stop you issuing any manner of linguistic decrees. Turkish leader Ataturk, for example, masterminded the abolition of the Arabic script and the adoption of a Latin-based alphabet in 1928.

In 2002, in another country where a Turkic language is spoken, a more eccentric set of reforms failed to meet with universal approval. Turkmen president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov decided to rename the months and days of the week according to some of his favorite things: April changed from Aprel to Gurbansoltan, which happened to be Niyazov’s mum’s name.

January was no longer Yanwar, but Turkmenbay, which means “leader of the Turkmen” and was one of Niyazov’s self-bestowed titles. A Turkmen source told the BBC: “It seems like he lives on another planet,” and the changes never gained popular legitimacy. They were reversed in 2008, two years after his death.

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