The power of words: What the ‘revolution’ in Egypt illustrates

Cairo skyline in the morning

Image by StartAgain via Flickr

 It has been a while since I jotted something down for the blog, wishing you all a wonderful new year both Gregorian or Chinese and I pray that peace comes to all peoples of the earth and that we all live our lives happily. I have a few topics to write about over the next few weeks, today I am revisiting one of my favourite topics (still trying to understand it in its true meaning) the power of language or more precisely the power of words.

As a linguist there is always that need to understand the power of words or the power of how people use language in all spheres of their life, and inevitably the effect of those words. One of the topics I have discussed on this blog time and time again is the fact that language is more than mere words and that these words have far reaching meanings and implications this was done most notably through the ever recurring ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ posts. In looking at the current events in Egypt (that at times are hard to watch because of the unbelievable violence, and the hurt of looking at such a beautiful country fall apart) one thing is clear language clearly plays a major role.

Dubbed as a revolution, we know that all revolutions whether intentionally organised or spontaneously supported and joined by people, have or move on what is termed as ‘slogans’. Slogans have a few characteristics: they are usually short this ensures that remembering them will not be hard, and depending on the language of the so called slogans they might rhyme, a further aid in helping people remember them. They are words that are repeated again and again to reinforce the feelings and stance(s) of the ‘protesters’ (not sure if that’s the right word- words can be sensitive! If they are called protesters or revolutionists what are the implications??) Slogans were very prominent in the French, Grenadian, Chinese and Russian revolutions, simple words to move the emotions the simple people who wanted more justice in their lives as they saw it at the time (See: The Power of words- Literacy and Revolution in South China 1949-95, by Glen Peterson, 1997). There were three common Bolshevik slogans during the 1917 revolution: 1. Factories for the workers, land for the peasants. 2. All power to the soviets. 3. Bread, and freedom! Short and easy to remember and I am sure even in non-technology days, these words spread fast because of the power of words.

 In Egypt they have new simple slogans created at every step through this uprising of theirs, everyday new slogans appear and sometimes more than one in a day. What is amazing is that once it is uttered in Cairo, you find it is also uttered in Alexandria, Suez, Luxor, London, Washington, Indonesia, Malaysia, France, Belgium, Beirut, Amman (I could go on) and even Japan –all in the same Arabic words, in the same tune and vigour. Is that the power of words or what? When looking at these people outside Egypt chanting these slogans one can see their seriousness and earnestness in repeating those words, perhaps it’s the association they attach to the words?! This is something that has intrigued me for days and caused me to write this post, how the whole world has viewed the unfolding of events in Egypt in an unprecedented manner, and at the centre of it all language plays a major and central role (maybe for a linguist that’s the case and for a politics student it isn’t?). It’s almost as if those outside Egypt in their solidarity marches feel as the people feel in Cairo, any new slogan they repeat it, translate it and spread it. This reminds me of the basis of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) in which language, its repetition and what one associates with those words can help transform a person’s life for the better (maybe a topic for another post).

We cannot ignore the role of technology in all this, it is through the satellite TV stations that (live news coverage) people see the slogans or hear them chanted that they can then re-chant them. I do not think there has been anything like this in the history of popular uprising, revolutions or whatever one wishes to call them, where the words and aspirations of a people uttered in one corner of the earth are reiterated across the globe in the same tune, style and sincerity. I am not a historian (though history interests me) but I cannot remember of ever reading anywhere how the slogans of one group were reiterated and reverberated across the world in this way. In addition to the spoken slogans and the mimicking of those, there is also the power of the written words. Over the past fourteen days some pictures usually with a man or woman or child holding a banner with a message have become iconic in representing the events in Egypt. These same words are then take and re-written across the world by supporters of the people in Egypt, the power we are talking about here is doubly strong: speech and words. This was a short note on how I see language plays a major role or rather a powerful role in events such as these and that what is happening in Egypt is unprecedented on many fronts and one of those is the use of language (intentional or unintentional).

 I don’t know how things will end in Egypt (though tonight we are hearing different things?) but I hope that peace and security will be restored in Egypt and that the wonderful kind-hearted Egyptian people will be at peace soon- Allah yahmeeki ya Masr wa yahmee sha3b Masr (May God protect Egypt and its people). Please share your views on this post as always I look forward to them, I am open to suggestions or ideas, and if I have not replied to any recent messages I apologise will do so soon.



Sources: Peterson, G (1997) ‘The Power of words- Literacy and Revolution in South China 1949-95’.

Wiki-answers: For Russian and French revolution information (slogans).