More on Auditory Imperialism

After a couple of good Twitter conversations about my idea of “auditory imperialism,” with good questions that really made me think why I used “auditory” instead of maybe “discourse” or “linguistic” imperialism, I feel like I want to add more to my earlier post. So consider this post an addendum, in which I aim to be clearer on my choice of words (and in an argument that dives so deeply into the use of language, this seems important).

I chose “auditory imperialism,” because I use an expanded definition of what it means to “hear.” When we read a text we are, in an important sense, hearing what the creator of that text says. I want to highlight the active, dialectical nature of that process. We hear what people say; when we summarize a historical document, for example, we often say something to the effect of “in this letter, the Governor said…” I think this is important, because it really conveys the ways in which we experience texts–it’s more akin to the process of auditory listening than we perhaps have realized. In a larger, figurative sense, I am also striving for an “actions speak louder than words” type of connection in arguing that the ways in which we choose to represent historical events are ways that speak so that our audience(s) listen and hear what we say. To me, then, auditory imperialism is a way to get at what happens when people or groups attempt to shape what their audience(s) “hear,” in this multidimensional sense.

But auditory imperialism, as I hinted at in my last post, can of course be auditory in the more narrow, spoken-and-heard word, sense of the term. Some of us are of the age to remember the ways in which George H.W. Bush mangled the pronunciation of Saddam Hussein’s name any time he referred to the Iraqi dictator (“SADDIMOOSSAIN”), even as it became the butt of late-night TV jokes. But the point for Bush (trying to overcome “the wimp factor”) was that this insouciant butchering of Hussein’s name was an assertion of masculine power over him. “I’ll pronounce your name however I damn well please, and there’s not a damn thing you’ll do about it.” The way we name things, pronounce other people’s names or place-names–in short, the manner in which we speak is fraught with significance. The “Ebonics” brouhaha of several years ago, when a ginned-up controversy over language lessons became the occasion for multitudes of privileged white pundits to lecture African Americans on how they should speak “correctly,” is an excellent example of this. In the areas taken from Mexico in the nineteenth century, those that retained their Spanish names were still called something different by Yankee occupiers; indeed, this has become common throughout the United States. I used to live near Buena Vista, Virginia, which was–I was firmly told–pronounced “Byoona Vista.” In one sense, it’s an amusing example of southern accents mangling words. But in a larger and more important sense, it’s an assertion of power. THIS is what we’ve named it: Byoona Vista. WE’LL PRONOUNCE IT LIKE WE WANT. It’s Los Angeles, not Lós Ángeles. It’s “Rio Grand,” not Rio Grond-ay. “San” whatever has a short-a sound, not the accent. As the land is occupied, the places are named in the occupiers’ dialect. They “sound right” to the newcomers. Spanish words are stretched and massaged to fit into American-English pronunciation conventions.

And when mainstream audiences read about these places, they “hear” the occupiers’ pronunciations.  Californios and Indians had to navigate a new postwar landscape after 1848, a landscape where the once-familiar now sounded different from the lips of the people who now held power. Who was “correct?” It’s like the old joke about the “real” golden rule: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” Power is mapped auditorily.

Pronunciation changes are but one aspect–albeit the most notable one–of auditory imperialism. Changing place names is another. Using certain words to describe historical process, and/or not selecting certain words in doing so, is another. What do we hear when we listen to history? It’s whoever speaks with the loudest voice (in all senses of both terms). But the loudest voice isn’t the only voice, nor is the newest, the most convenient, or the least inflammatory. What is said and how it’s said: these are of crucial importance in mapping the landscape of history–for ourselves, our students, our audiences. They are listening. What are we saying?

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