LINGUIST List 13.3386

Fri Dec 20 2002

Disc: Linguists and Advertising

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Joseph F Foster, Re: 13.3363, Disc: Linguists and Advertising
  2. Meryl Siegal, Language and policy
  3. Harold F. Schiffman, language and advertising
  4. Emily McEwan-Fujita, Re: Linguists and advertising (sent a letter)

Message 1: Re: 13.3363, Disc: Linguists and Advertising

Date: Thu, 19 Dec 2002 10:01:39 -0500
From: Joseph F Foster <>
Subject: Re: 13.3363, Disc: Linguists and Advertising

Dear Colleagues:

 The TV commercial under discussion I have not seen, so cannot
comment directly. I see very little on commercial TV except JAG --
not out of misplaced snobbery but just because I dont have much time
and have to grab TV as grab can. It sounds as though a fair summary
might be that the advertisement portrays a language with "clicks",
i.e. imploded stops, as "simple" or "primitive" and further that it
appears to leave the impression that only primitive languages -- or
maybe only languages of primitive cultures-- have such sounds, and
finally, to leave the impression that the language in question may
consist only of clicks.

I do agree with the comments that background material tends to be
taken seriously. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that most people
dont think about most things very much. Background is like a "Have
you decided to stop committing treason?" question. Anything other
than Y / N seems evasive and either a Y or a N is taken as an implied
a confession, at least a nollo contendere.

Some of you have proposed drafting a letter to the company envolved.
I would certainly join in signing such a letter -- this kind of ad
undermines a great deal our profession has tried to do. I would like
to see ithe ad first but it sounds pretty bad.

However, let me urge who ever drafts such a letter -- either
collectively or singly -- to keep it to language. One of the reasons
I tell my Cultural Anthropology students they have to study
linguistics is that linguistics helps cultural anthropologists keep
from making fools of themselves. But cultural anthropology can also
help keep linguists from getting into water over their heads.

For instance, the following was in one of the recent comments in this

At 13:58 19-12-02 +0000, you wrote:
>LINGUIST List: Vol-13-3363. Thu Dec 19 2002. ISSN: 1068-4875.
>Subject: 13.3363, Disc: Linguists and Advertising
>I have to say I'm pretty astonished at such ads (Linguist 13.3309). 
>You'd think that, in the age of "political correctness", ad
>agencies would know better than to suggest that _any_ culture unlike
>the American mainstream is primitive.

Now folks, we have very good reasons for thinking there are no
primitive languages. Certainly in the general scientific sense used
in Biology and in Anthropology, where the opposite of primitive is
complex, there are no primitive languages. I have suggested in an
article in Studies in the Language Sciences back quite some years that
there may be a very narrow and restricted sense in which there are a
few languages that have morphosyntactic structures especially adapted
to notions of a reciprocal kin-based social organization and economy,
but that's all. And those languages are in no sense simplex.

There are however primitive cultures. We know virtually nothing of
linguistic evolution, if there was any, from the languages of our
earliest paleolithic ancestors. We know a good deal more about the
evolution of cultural systems from those of simplex egalitarian
foragers through those of complex paramount chiefdoms and states, like
the Zulu -- with clicks -- under uShaka and his successors on to
modern highly complex industrial states. It is quite clear there are
evolutionary processes in culture, from the simplex, or primitive with
little differentiation among kinds of people to complex sociaties with
not only many people, but many kinds of people and several social
strata. Nor do we want to confuse primitive / simplex with "simple
minded". These are characterizations of cultures -- they have nothing
to do whatever with individuals' intelligence. No rational person can
observe a !Kung water pump in the manufacture and use and conclude
that the people who came up with that were "simple minded". But they
do, or did, have a primitive culture. They dont have a primitive
language in anything like the same sense.

So we better stick to language pretty much in this debate. One might
point out that clicks are found in languages that serviced complex
societies like the Zulu as well as primitive societies like that of
the Bushmen.

Joseph F Foster, Ph D
Assoc. Professor of Anthropology &
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Dept. of Anthropology
U of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA 45221-0380 
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Message 2: Language and policy

Date: Thu, 19 Dec 2002 10:09:34 -0800
From: Meryl Siegal <>
Subject: Language and policy

Regarding the discussion on the Ricoh advertising, I concur with all
the comments from my colleagues. I believe the comments point to a
bigger question faced by intellectuals, which is what do academic
intellectuals need to do to create change and influence in the world
regarding their expertise. As a member of AAAL and LSA, I know that a
few years back some of us gathered to decide how to respond to the
Ebonics debate and I also remember that a similar group gathered
during the linguistics meetings that year. Isn't there a way that we
can form a political arm of these academic professional organizations
that can take action quickly and publically on issues of broad
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Message 3: language and advertising

Date: Fri, 20 Dec 2002 09:00:12 -0500 (EST)
From: Harold F. Schiffman <>
Subject: language and advertising

Readers of this list may be interested in some work I've done through
a course I teach here at Penn called "Language and Popular Culture."
This course examines popular conceptions of language and students are
then tasked to contrast these (mis)conceptions with knowledge we have
about language.

One thing we concentrate on is the notion of "foreign branding" which
comes from advertising/marketing. There is a whole body of
"knowledge" done by these specialists that recognizes that some
products sell better if they are given "foreign"-sound names, or if
bits and pieces of foreign languages are used in the ad. This is
particularly true for luxury products, which sell better if they have
French names, unless it's cars, which then need German names, or
German words used in the ad such as "Fahrvergnuegung". (A recent TV
ad for a Japanese car, Honda I think, uses German in the ad--a CD is
inserted into the CD player and then a voice says things in German,
sort of like a "language lesson" only it says wonderful things about
the car, as if the Honda is praising itself, in German.)

My students usually do one project on foreign branding, in which they
test reactions of subjects (usually other students) by changing the
name of products with foreign names. Or, they make up 'foreign' names
for products, or put extraneous accent marks on the page. Their
results come back consistently that even when people know they're
being conned (and they know it because the test shows it) they still
prefer 'foreign' branding for certain products.

I have a bunch of stuff about this on my website at:

I also have a bibliography on foreign branding here:

There's also a TV ad for a another car, in which parents scold their
children in a number of different languages; the scene is repeated
with several languages--it's a long car trip, the kids are saying
"When are we gonna BE there?" in various languages, ending up with
people speaking a click language. The implication seems to be that
this last language is more effective at shutting up the kids than the
others. I haven't had my VCR on when this is running, so I don't have
a copy of it (yet).

Hal Schiffman

			 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor of Dravidian Linguistics and Culture 
Director Dept. of South Asia Studies Pedagogical Materials Project
University of Pennsylvania
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Message 4: Re: Linguists and advertising (sent a letter)

Date: Fri, 20 Dec 2002 16:12:15 -0600
From: Emily McEwan-Fujita <>
Subject: Re: Linguists and advertising (sent a letter)

Thanks to Linguist List members for bringing the Ricoh ad to our
attention (Linguist 13.3309). Thank you also to Martha McGinnis for
including the Ricoh e-mail feedback form in her message
( I think it's a good
idea to write as individuals, in addition to whatever can be
accomplished at the institutional level, since individuals can write
letters more quickly, and a large number of individual responses could
draw as much attention as a single letter from the LSA or AAA.
I also agree with some others who have pointed out that this kind of
stereotyping of languages and their speakers is nothing new. In fact,
if anything it would seem to be a norm for how lay people
conceptualize languages; even if most linguists and anthropologists
have moved on, most other people (including advertising execs and
journalists) have not. Judith Irvine and Susal Gal describe the early
European interpretation of clicks in similar terms in the article
"Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation" (In _Regimes of
Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities_, ed. Paul Kroskrity,
2000, pp. 35-83). As part of a section on the acquisition of clicks in
the Nguni languages, they note:
"Because they are conspicuous sounds that are unusual in the
phonological repertoires of the world's languages, clicks have drawn
the attention of many visitors and newcomers to southern Africa over
the centuries. Many early European observers compared them with animal
noises: hens' clucking, ducks' quacking, owls' hooting, magpies'
chattering, or "the noise of irritated turkey-cocks" (Kolben
1731:32). Others thought clicks were more like the sounds of inanimate
objects, such as stones hitting one another. To these observers and
the European readers of their reports, such iconic comparisons
suggested (before our more enlightened days, at least) that the
speakers of languages with clicks were in some way subhuman or
degraded, to a degree corresponding to the proportion of clicks in
their consonant repertoires." (pp. 39-40) Irvine and Gal also quote
Max Muller describing the clicks as "brutal sounds" which he hoped
could be eradicated through the influence of missionaries. (p. 40)
I have found exactly the same kinds of stereotyping in portrayals of
Scottish Gaelic in Scotland in 1999-2000. Since I feel strongly about
this issue, I have just sent the following letter to Ricoh:
To Whom It May Concern:
I have recently learned about a Ricoh television commercial featuring
a Khoisan speaker and some derogatory comments about how he
communicates with "simple clicks" that are not even language.

I believe that colleagues of mine who are linguists will be writing to
Ricoh to explain in detail exactly why the Ricoh commercial is grossly
inaccurate and offensive.

I am a linguistic anthropologist and I work on another endangered
language, Scottish Gaelic. My research on Gaelic has been funded by
the National Science Foundation and the Social Science Research
Council. In my research I have documented how commentators over the
past 300 years have inaccurately portrayed Gaelic as sub-linguistic in
nature, and have frequently compared the sounds of the spoken language
to various kinds of animal noises. These portrayals of Gaelic demean
Gaelic speakers and their intellectual capacities, and still
contribute to the social and economic subordination of native Gaelic
speakers in Scotland in 2002.

I am sure that Ricoh executives and the advertising agency Ricoh hired
to produce the "simple clicks" commercial can appreciate the close
parallels between its portrayal of Khoisan speakers and the portrayals
of Gaelic that I find in my research.

I understand that a slightly altered version of the commercial has
been aired recently, with one of the most offensive lines of dialogue
removed. However, I hope that you will come to appreciate that the
entire premise of the commercial is offensive, and it should be taken
off the air altogether. I hope that in the future Ricoh will be able
to find ways to advertise its products creatively without the use of
racist stereotypes of African languages and their speakers.

Emily McEwan-Fujita
Ph.D. Candidate
Dept. of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1129 E. 59th St.
Chicago, IL 60191
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