On using italics and “othering” other languages

The Mail&Guardian recently published an op-ed telling readers that the paper would no longer italicise words in South African languages other than English (for the benefit of foreign readers, we have 11 official languages here).

You can read the piece on the M&G website, but you’ll need to create a (free) account to do so. While I understand, and have great sympathy for, their motives, the reasoning is muddled, and the conclusion incoherent.

I said as much on Twitter the other day, but now that the piece is out from behind the paywall, I’ll explain why I believe this to be the case.

The reason why I have sympathy for their motives is because it’s true that “not all languages are treated equally in our country’s media”, and you can imagine someone thinking that italicising words from non-English languages is a way of reinforcing that inequality.

But the muddled-ness in this thinking starts with the equivocation around the word “other”, or “othering”. “Othering” (at least, as used in social justice debates) is a process whereby we divide the world into “us” and “them” groups, and then use those categories to reinforce the dominant category and undermine the socially-downtrodden ones.

The other is not the norm, basically, and it’s of course taken for granted that the norm is good. So, discourse around othering reminds us that we can sometimes create the norm in spurious or unprincipled ways, and that the other is in fact entirely legitimate, or even superior.

But “other” can also be purely descriptive, and non-judgemental. Test cricket is an-other version of cricket to Twenty20 (or is it 20Twenty?). Green is an other colour to black, and so forth.

Green, black, test cricket and a host of other others are familiar to us, and don’t need to be explained or contextualised with different fonts, colours, or typographical tricks.

But in English, the convention is that foreign words are italicised as a way to say “hey, if you’re confused by this, the reason is that it’s not in your language”. After some time, if the word is common currency, we stop italicising it (for example, the word “bourgeois”).

The M&G mentions this, and asks

But to whom have these words become sufficiently familiar to lose their italics? Who decides to drop the italics? Who are we waiting for to be comfortable with such words?

I’d imagine the answers to these questions to be a) to Mail&Guardian readers, b) the Mail&Guardian, once (a) is established, and c) ourselves, because we don’t know or speak the language in question.

The decision seems to be a straightforward case of virtue signalling, because there’s no obvious truth to the idea that italicising non-English words demeans them in any way. It signals their “otherness” in the descriptive sense above, but not the normative sense.

To make the virtue signalling point clear, I think it’s notable that it’s only South African languages that have been singled out for de-othering. Will the M&G still be italicising Latin, or other languages?

After my tweet, Matt du Plessis of the Mail&Guardian responded to say

To which the obvious response is, if you did, why were they never mentioned or considered? It seems pretty clear that there wasn’t thought as to consistency here, regardless of whether it is indeed “othering” to italicise.

The M&G is an English paper, in South Africa. It’s not a “South African paper” in the sense that it published in all 11 languages. It can signal its respect and care for the other 10 languages by making sure that translations are accurate and so forth, but with regard to the italicisation thing: either italicise all non-English words that are also unfamiliar, or none of them, including Spanish, Greek, Latin, etc.

I wouldn’t go the second route, but some do – the AP style guide, for example, recommends dropping italics altogether. But if you do so only for South African languages other than English, on grounds that you are “othering” them, then surely you are now “othering” those poor Greeks (etc.)?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.