Cultural Chauvinism at the University of Colorado (updated)

Thomas Lifson
The University of Colorado at Boulder is known for being one of the most politically correct campuses in the United States, particularly when it comes to Native American cultures. Academic poseur Ward Churchill thrived there for many years claiming NA heritage and spewing forth hatred, including referring to 911 victims in the World Trade Center as a "technocratic corps" and "little Eichmans" before getting busted on plagiarism.

Now, CU is renaming two dormitories after Native American chiefs, but doing so in a half-assed PC fashion. The Boulder Daily Camera reports:

Next spring, two dorms in the University of Colorado's Kittredge Complex could be renamed Nowoo3 Hall and Houusoo Hall, after the native Arapaho spellings for Chief Niwot and Chief Little Raven.

Campus officials announced a proposal earlier this year to rename Kittredge Central and Kittredge West after the two chiefs, but after some discussion with CU faculty members and the chiefs' descendants, Housing and Dining Services officials are moving forward with a plan to rename the buildings in the Hinono'ei, or Arapaho, language.

"Using the Arapaho language really stressed the fact that the Arapaho were a different people that had their own language, and it reinforces the sense of their independence and the uniqueness of their presence in Colorado," said Andrew Cowell, chair of CU's linguistics department.

Nowoo3, which is Chief Niwot or Left Hand in Arapaho, is pronounced "Nah-wath," according to Cowell. Kittredge West, soon to be Nowoo3 Hall, was built in 1982 and recently renovated.

Houusoo, or Chief Little Raven, is pronounced "Hoe-soo," Cowell said. Kittredge Central, which may soon become Houusoo Hall, was constructed after crews demolished Kittredge Commons to make room for the new dorm.

Though these names might trip up a few parents or prospective students on campus tours, the university plans to create plaques explaining the pronunciation and significance of the names. (snip)

"There are tons of examples where you have names in Spanish or French where it could be mispronounced, but if we're going to name a building for someone French, we wouldn't respell it in English," Cowell said. "We would look really stupid and ignorant to do that. Why would we do that with Arapaho?"

In a letter to the Board of Regents from members of the CU Native Studies department, the faculty members explained that using Niwot instead of Nowoo3 would be the equivalent of spelling Charles de Gaulle's name phonetically as Sharl duh Gahl, "which is culturally chauvinist and clearly primitivizing in a Native American context."

I think it is absolutely fine to name the dorms after the chiefs. My problem is with the pretensions of fighting "cultural chauvinism" and "primitivization." The plain fact is that the Araphao or Hinono'ei Language was a preliterate language, unlike French. Any rendering of the language into Roman letters should qualify as "cultural chauvinism."  There is no way at all to put into a foreign system of writing a preliterate language without crossing that line of authenticity. The analogy to French is completely inappropriate because the French have used Romanization since French evolved out of Latin as a separate Romance Language.

If CU wants to be fully culturally sensitive, it ought to have no rendering at all of the names in Roman alphabet, respecting the preliterate heritage of the tribes they honor. That is the true logic. Of course that would be stupid.  But stupider still is the phony guise of sensitivity in using a Romanization that is so incomprehensible to the people who will be living in and visiting the dormitories that an explanatory plaque will be necessary.

Let's face it: being authentic and pure in the age of political correctness is tough. There are too many embarrassing facts out there.

Hat tip: David Paulin

Update:

Timothy Usher writes an intelligent and helpful critique of my points on Romanization. My response follows.

 Dear Mr. Lifson,

Re your piece "Cultural Chauvinism at the University of Colorado":

I'm as opposed to political correctness as anyone you'll meet. I'm also a linguist specializing in the historical phonology of aboriginal, especially New Guinean, languages. Anyone with an area of special expertise is accustomed to seeing their subject mangled in the press on the few occasions it comes up, but since this is the central point of your piece:

If Arapaho were truly not a written language, as you say, it would be written phonetically, either using the international phonetic alphabet or an equivalent set of conventions prevalent in the regional academic literature. For linguists, these transcriptions are superior, so I'm always translating materials from practical orthographies to standard IPA.

And you're right that Arapaho *wasn't* a written language when it was first documented. But the fact that there is any native Arapaho transcription to discuss is proof that it is one now. There are many languages in this situation, which are historically unwritten, but now have their own orthographies. In New Guinea, these have usually been designed by missionary-linguists for the purpose of translating the gospel into native tongues in combination with literacy programs. The situation in America spans a much bigger timeframe and is more complicated, and I'm not sure what the history of Arapaho is here, but I know there are still some native speakers, and this is the system they use.

The fact that Ward Churchill was teaching there (or really anywhere) is a disgrace, and makes a mockery of their professed concern for American peoples. But I'm afraid I have to back the University of Colorado here: if dorms are to be named after these Arapaho figures - and I'm not sure they should be, but if they are - then using Arapaho transcription (which fortunately is latin based as opposed to, say, devanagari) is the only correct decision.

So I think your column is very unfortunate, in having attacked these morons on the one issue about which they happen, probably by accident, to be correct. And, though I'm sure it wasn't your intention, probably insulted Arapaho speakers in the process.

Tim


My experience with the politics of Romanization has colored my sense of the notion that a standardized system of Romanization is nothing more than an arbitrary and sometimes politically capricious orthodoxy.  Two examples directly affected me directly in my academic career as an East Asia Scholar.

I studied Chinese and had to learn two different systems of Romanization.  The Wade-Giles system, was the most widely used in the English speaking world for most of the twentieth century. The other system, the Pinyin, was imposed by the Communist regime, in part because  Wade Giles had been created in the late 19th century by Thomas Francis Wade and Herbert Giles, two British diplomats.  The very same British who had previously fought the Opium War, had enjoyed extraterritoriality, and ruled concessions in China. Miserable imperialists to the Chinese, in other words.  Pinyin was developed in the 1950s by Chinese, and was pushed by the mainland Chinese government.  

I much preferred Wade Giles which made more sense to ne phonetically (though it was not without problems),  to Pinyin, which specified that xi be pronounced "she" and other conventions which struck me as artificial. When I studied Chinese at Harvard in the early 1970s, all my Chinese language texts were Chinese government-compliant, using Pinyin. Meanwhile, nearly all of the existing English Language sources on China I read used Wade-Giles.

In that case, it was clear that politics was at the root of the double system of nomenclature. Since then, Pinyin has triumphed, and has been adopted even by Taiwan and Singapore. Might made right when it came to Romanization of Chinese.

Japan, where I spent years of my life and whose language I began studying in 1967, had its own Romanization duality, also highly political. The most common system, called both the "standard" system (Hyojun in Japanese) was also called the Hepburn system. In 1885 during the Meiji Restoration, reacting to the confusion from existence of multiple systems of Romanization, a meeting of experts was called, bringing together interested Japanese and foreigners, including one Curtis Hepburn, a missionary and physician. Because Hepburn subsequently published a popular Japanese-English dictionary using the system the joint Japanese-foreigner group had recommended, the system popularly became known as the Hepburn system. It is the most readily-grasped and intuitively phonetic of any of the systems ever developed.

During the dark days of ultra nationalism in Japan, an alternative system developed by a Tokyo Imperial University professor named Tanakadate Aikitsu (who also participated in the 1885 meeting) was ordered to be used instead. The September 1st, 1937 order was an "official authorization" (kokurei  -- literally, "country command"), so the system came to be called the Kokurei system. It became unpatriotic to use Hepburn

The Occupation used the Hepburn System, but some government ministries, including the Ministry of Education, which formally oversees the Japanese Language, insisted on Kokurei.  However, the Foreign Ministry and the Japan Railways (formerly government-owned) used the Hepburn system, precisely because it made more sense to foreigners.  Kokurei requires an eccentric usage -- that the letters "tu" be pronounced tsu. Thus, "matsu" (pine tree) must be written be written "matu."

Thus Matsushita Electric, the parent company of Panasonic and other brands, would be written Matushita, and the city of Hamamatsu be spelled Hamamatu. Both the private firm and the city use the Hepburn system. But schoolchildren in Japan, under the thumb of the Ministry of Education, learn the Kokurei System, and most importantly, the National Diet Library in Tokyo uses it for its index and other applications.

So I naturally see Romanization as an arbitrary game with often capricious rules that often put the user's interest in clarity and recognizability beneath the bureaucratic and political imperatives that drive official bodies and educational institutions.

Now, as Mr. Usher's points, I am persuaded that I was incorrect in attributing the naming practice at CU purely to political correctness. It was both a product of academic formalism - the Native American Studies people after all have a stake in the standardized form of Romanization of the Arapaho Language - and political correctness, contained in the impulse to put the preferences and interests of the tribe above the need of the users - the members and guests at the University who are unfamiliar with the notation. Because CU is an academic institution, academic formalism is to be expected.

As a recovering academic, a man who does not accord automatic acceptance to all academic conventions, I reserve the right to be skeptical of the choice to put formalism and PC before user friendliness.

My intent was primarily satiric, pointing out that if you are going to purge a language of foreign influences, consistency would require the eschewing of Romanization, which after all is the product of Western Civilization. As student radicals have been known to chant on various campuses, "Hey hey, ho-ho, Western Civ. has got to go."

Where Mr. Usher is indisputably correct is the point that Arapaho no longer is a pre-literate language, once it has a system of writing, even if that system came from foreign sources. It originally was one.

On these points, I stand corrected. And I want to thank Mr. Usher for his email, a model of civil disagreement and erudition.

The University of Colorado at Boulder is known for being one of the most politically correct campuses in the United States, particularly when it comes to Native American cultures. Academic poseur Ward Churchill thrived there for many years claiming NA heritage and spewing forth hatred, including referring to 911 victims in the World Trade Center as a "technocratic corps" and "little Eichmans" before getting busted on plagiarism.

Now, CU is renaming two dormitories after Native American chiefs, but doing so in a half-assed PC fashion. The Boulder Daily Camera reports:

Next spring, two dorms in the University of Colorado's Kittredge Complex could be renamed Nowoo3 Hall and Houusoo Hall, after the native Arapaho spellings for Chief Niwot and Chief Little Raven.

Campus officials announced a proposal earlier this year to rename Kittredge Central and Kittredge West after the two chiefs, but after some discussion with CU faculty members and the chiefs' descendants, Housing and Dining Services officials are moving forward with a plan to rename the buildings in the Hinono'ei, or Arapaho, language.

"Using the Arapaho language really stressed the fact that the Arapaho were a different people that had their own language, and it reinforces the sense of their independence and the uniqueness of their presence in Colorado," said Andrew Cowell, chair of CU's linguistics department.

Nowoo3, which is Chief Niwot or Left Hand in Arapaho, is pronounced "Nah-wath," according to Cowell. Kittredge West, soon to be Nowoo3 Hall, was built in 1982 and recently renovated.

Houusoo, or Chief Little Raven, is pronounced "Hoe-soo," Cowell said. Kittredge Central, which may soon become Houusoo Hall, was constructed after crews demolished Kittredge Commons to make room for the new dorm.

Though these names might trip up a few parents or prospective students on campus tours, the university plans to create plaques explaining the pronunciation and significance of the names. (snip)

"There are tons of examples where you have names in Spanish or French where it could be mispronounced, but if we're going to name a building for someone French, we wouldn't respell it in English," Cowell said. "We would look really stupid and ignorant to do that. Why would we do that with Arapaho?"

In a letter to the Board of Regents from members of the CU Native Studies department, the faculty members explained that using Niwot instead of Nowoo3 would be the equivalent of spelling Charles de Gaulle's name phonetically as Sharl duh Gahl, "which is culturally chauvinist and clearly primitivizing in a Native American context."

I think it is absolutely fine to name the dorms after the chiefs. My problem is with the pretensions of fighting "cultural chauvinism" and "primitivization." The plain fact is that the Araphao or Hinono'ei Language was a preliterate language, unlike French. Any rendering of the language into Roman letters should qualify as "cultural chauvinism."  There is no way at all to put into a foreign system of writing a preliterate language without crossing that line of authenticity. The analogy to French is completely inappropriate because the French have used Romanization since French evolved out of Latin as a separate Romance Language.

If CU wants to be fully culturally sensitive, it ought to have no rendering at all of the names in Roman alphabet, respecting the preliterate heritage of the tribes they honor. That is the true logic. Of course that would be stupid.  But stupider still is the phony guise of sensitivity in using a Romanization that is so incomprehensible to the people who will be living in and visiting the dormitories that an explanatory plaque will be necessary.

Let's face it: being authentic and pure in the age of political correctness is tough. There are too many embarrassing facts out there.

Hat tip: David Paulin

Update:

Timothy Usher writes an intelligent and helpful critique of my points on Romanization. My response follows.

 Dear Mr. Lifson,

Re your piece "Cultural Chauvinism at the University of Colorado":

I'm as opposed to political correctness as anyone you'll meet. I'm also a linguist specializing in the historical phonology of aboriginal, especially New Guinean, languages. Anyone with an area of special expertise is accustomed to seeing their subject mangled in the press on the few occasions it comes up, but since this is the central point of your piece:

If Arapaho were truly not a written language, as you say, it would be written phonetically, either using the international phonetic alphabet or an equivalent set of conventions prevalent in the regional academic literature. For linguists, these transcriptions are superior, so I'm always translating materials from practical orthographies to standard IPA.

And you're right that Arapaho *wasn't* a written language when it was first documented. But the fact that there is any native Arapaho transcription to discuss is proof that it is one now. There are many languages in this situation, which are historically unwritten, but now have their own orthographies. In New Guinea, these have usually been designed by missionary-linguists for the purpose of translating the gospel into native tongues in combination with literacy programs. The situation in America spans a much bigger timeframe and is more complicated, and I'm not sure what the history of Arapaho is here, but I know there are still some native speakers, and this is the system they use.

The fact that Ward Churchill was teaching there (or really anywhere) is a disgrace, and makes a mockery of their professed concern for American peoples. But I'm afraid I have to back the University of Colorado here: if dorms are to be named after these Arapaho figures - and I'm not sure they should be, but if they are - then using Arapaho transcription (which fortunately is latin based as opposed to, say, devanagari) is the only correct decision.

So I think your column is very unfortunate, in having attacked these morons on the one issue about which they happen, probably by accident, to be correct. And, though I'm sure it wasn't your intention, probably insulted Arapaho speakers in the process.

Tim


My experience with the politics of Romanization has colored my sense of the notion that a standardized system of Romanization is nothing more than an arbitrary and sometimes politically capricious orthodoxy.  Two examples directly affected me directly in my academic career as an East Asia Scholar.

I studied Chinese and had to learn two different systems of Romanization.  The Wade-Giles system, was the most widely used in the English speaking world for most of the twentieth century. The other system, the Pinyin, was imposed by the Communist regime, in part because  Wade Giles had been created in the late 19th century by Thomas Francis Wade and Herbert Giles, two British diplomats.  The very same British who had previously fought the Opium War, had enjoyed extraterritoriality, and ruled concessions in China. Miserable imperialists to the Chinese, in other words.  Pinyin was developed in the 1950s by Chinese, and was pushed by the mainland Chinese government.  

I much preferred Wade Giles which made more sense to ne phonetically (though it was not without problems),  to Pinyin, which specified that xi be pronounced "she" and other conventions which struck me as artificial. When I studied Chinese at Harvard in the early 1970s, all my Chinese language texts were Chinese government-compliant, using Pinyin. Meanwhile, nearly all of the existing English Language sources on China I read used Wade-Giles.

In that case, it was clear that politics was at the root of the double system of nomenclature. Since then, Pinyin has triumphed, and has been adopted even by Taiwan and Singapore. Might made right when it came to Romanization of Chinese.

Japan, where I spent years of my life and whose language I began studying in 1967, had its own Romanization duality, also highly political. The most common system, called both the "standard" system (Hyojun in Japanese) was also called the Hepburn system. In 1885 during the Meiji Restoration, reacting to the confusion from existence of multiple systems of Romanization, a meeting of experts was called, bringing together interested Japanese and foreigners, including one Curtis Hepburn, a missionary and physician. Because Hepburn subsequently published a popular Japanese-English dictionary using the system the joint Japanese-foreigner group had recommended, the system popularly became known as the Hepburn system. It is the most readily-grasped and intuitively phonetic of any of the systems ever developed.

During the dark days of ultra nationalism in Japan, an alternative system developed by a Tokyo Imperial University professor named Tanakadate Aikitsu (who also participated in the 1885 meeting) was ordered to be used instead. The September 1st, 1937 order was an "official authorization" (kokurei  -- literally, "country command"), so the system came to be called the Kokurei system. It became unpatriotic to use Hepburn

The Occupation used the Hepburn System, but some government ministries, including the Ministry of Education, which formally oversees the Japanese Language, insisted on Kokurei.  However, the Foreign Ministry and the Japan Railways (formerly government-owned) used the Hepburn system, precisely because it made more sense to foreigners.  Kokurei requires an eccentric usage -- that the letters "tu" be pronounced tsu. Thus, "matsu" (pine tree) must be written be written "matu."

Thus Matsushita Electric, the parent company of Panasonic and other brands, would be written Matushita, and the city of Hamamatsu be spelled Hamamatu. Both the private firm and the city use the Hepburn system. But schoolchildren in Japan, under the thumb of the Ministry of Education, learn the Kokurei System, and most importantly, the National Diet Library in Tokyo uses it for its index and other applications.

So I naturally see Romanization as an arbitrary game with often capricious rules that often put the user's interest in clarity and recognizability beneath the bureaucratic and political imperatives that drive official bodies and educational institutions.

Now, as Mr. Usher's points, I am persuaded that I was incorrect in attributing the naming practice at CU purely to political correctness. It was both a product of academic formalism - the Native American Studies people after all have a stake in the standardized form of Romanization of the Arapaho Language - and political correctness, contained in the impulse to put the preferences and interests of the tribe above the need of the users - the members and guests at the University who are unfamiliar with the notation. Because CU is an academic institution, academic formalism is to be expected.

As a recovering academic, a man who does not accord automatic acceptance to all academic conventions, I reserve the right to be skeptical of the choice to put formalism and PC before user friendliness.

My intent was primarily satiric, pointing out that if you are going to purge a language of foreign influences, consistency would require the eschewing of Romanization, which after all is the product of Western Civilization. As student radicals have been known to chant on various campuses, "Hey hey, ho-ho, Western Civ. has got to go."

Where Mr. Usher is indisputably correct is the point that Arapaho no longer is a pre-literate language, once it has a system of writing, even if that system came from foreign sources. It originally was one.

On these points, I stand corrected. And I want to thank Mr. Usher for his email, a model of civil disagreement and erudition.