Military Whorfianism

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Like most people to the left of Genghis Khan, I find much of what appears on Michelle Malkin's blog rather strange, but Mojave Mike left a comment today that is really remarkable:

All the good armies of the world speak English. I’m serious. Think about it. It doesn’t surprise me that the taliban can’t maneuver worth crap, few armies can.

Is there really something about English that makes it uniquely suitable for military communication? The Israeli Army is arguably the best in the world on a per capita basis. Although English is widely known, communication in the Israeli military is in fact in Hebrew. Nazi Germany managed to run a very effective military organization using German. Napoleon got by with French. Genghis Khan used Mongolian. The conquests of Alexander the Great were carried out in Greek. Like most Whorfian claims, this one doesn't seem to do too well under close examination.


  1. Kenny Easwaran said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

    To be fair, it doesn't look like this person has said that all the good armies that have ever existed spoke English – it's just a claim about current armies. But I assume this person must have just completely forgotten about Israel, or treated it as an English-speaking army. At any rate, since it just seems to be a claim about current armies, I don't think there's any reason to read it in a Whorfian way.

  2. Alan Gunn said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

    What Kenny Eswaran said. Furthermore, Israel aside, are there any non-English-speaking countries today that have first-rate armies? I can't think of any, with the possible exception of France. (My son is a US Army officer: he has run across French troops in Afghanistan and they have impressed him with their toughness, anyway.) To be sure, there aren't a whole lot of English-speaking countries with terrific armies either–US, UK, maybe Australia.

  3. John Cowan said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

    The Swiss Armed Forces seem to have a considerable reputation, even though they haven't actually fought any wars; they use three languages, none of which is English.

  4. Mathias said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 9:51 pm

    To Kenny Easwaran: By adding "of the world", Mojave Mark made his statement sound quite all-encompassing to me. I also interpreted it in a way that includes armies in the past. "All the good armies" to me already means "all the armies of all countries", because saying "all the good armies" and just referring to the US Army and the Marines pointless, especially when discussing different languages.

  5. Chris Brew said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 11:43 pm

    Read about Ghengis Khan in Jack Weatherford's "Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World", and consider whether you still see him as a benchmark for right-wingness.
    Of course the political categories don't fit, but the book makes the case that GK's reputation as a proto-neo-theo-slaughter-con is mainly due to an ahistorical play by Voltaire, who used him as proxy for sly criticism of the King of France.

  6. Bill Poser said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:16 am

    I used the expression "to the left of Genghis Khan" as a fixed expression, without intending that it should be analyzed too much. (My father once described someone I was about to meet as "to the right of Genghis Khan" and "thinks that Ronald Reagan was a Communist".) That is partly because I don't consider a single left vs. right dimension at all adequate for characterizing political positions and partly because I am in fact familiar with his accomplishments and to some extent an admirer. It is true that he was not a theocrat and more important, he actually believed in the rule of law and created a legal code that was not bad for its day. He was also rather egalitarian in his treatment of different races, nationalities, and religions. He was brutal and cruel by current standards, but not in comparison to others of his day. Contemporary Europeans and Arabs were just as nasty. Maybe we should use Ivan Grozny as the epitome of the extreme right, but it just doesn't have the cachet.

    I suppose that there is some ambiguity as to whether Mojave Mike meant his comment to apply throughout history, but the statement that it doesn't surprise him that the Taliban can't maneuver worth crap suggests a causal relationship between the use of English and the quality of the armed forces.

  7. todd. said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:16 am

    What a disappointment. I had hoped this post might explain why anyone would ever read the comments on Michelle Malkin's blog.

  8. zoot said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:42 am

    I wonder if you can classify the Taliban as an army? Particulaely if you're going to compare them to the armies of the US, Nazi Germany and Napoleonic France.

  9. Mark P said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:43 am

    It's not so much Whorfism as not seeing things that aren't Anglophone.

    For example, I believe the Turkish army is fine. Sure it is hampered by lack of wealth to buy flash equipment, but it does well with what it has. What it doesn't get is much attention in the English-speaking world.

    If we take sub-armies, like the Marines, then throw in the French Foreign Legion too. It ain't particularly French, but it is entirely French speaking.

  10. Charles said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:47 am

    To be fair, the quote "All the good armies of the world speak English" is taken out of context, does not necessarily suggest these armies speak English *amongst themselves*… While the Israeli army certainly uses Hebrew for primary communication, it would not surprise me if most soldiers spoke a reasonable amount of English.

  11. Charles said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:48 am

    Clearly I did not finish editing that comment, and therefore failed to remove the extraneous "is taken out of context" – which I was going to remove because I read the original comment and saw that it wholly lacked additional context.

  12. Bob Borsley said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:49 am

    Winston Churchill thought that the Japanese language was partly to blame for Japan's defeat at the Battle of Midway:

    'The rigidity of the Japanese planning and the tendency to abandon the object when their plans did not go according to schedule is thought to have been largely due to the cumbersome and imprecise nature of their language, which rendered it extremey difficult to improvise by means of signalled communications.' (The Second World War, abridged edition: p.548.)

  13. Robert S. Porter said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:53 am

    South Korea anyone?

  14. Florence said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 4:17 am

    I'm rather amazed that anybody can take such a statement seriously. I don't know anything about military matters, but assuming that the armies of English-speaking countries are the best in the world at the moment, how can anybody assume that language has anything to do with it?

    Again, I don't know anything about military matters but I would assume that to function correctly, an army needs money, up-to-date and well maintained equipments and weapons, well-trained personal, and effective channels of command and communication.

    Well, of course a language is necessary for communication, but let me tell you something, if you take the French army for instance and change its communication language to English, it will NOT make it more effective. The main condition for a language to be effective is that all concerned parties understand it :-P

  15. Frank Oswalt said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 4:58 am

    It's interesting that no one questioned a basic assumption of the original quote: that the Taliban cannot maneuver. They may have been driven out of the cities by Western armies (not just English-speaking ones, by the way), but they still control large parts of the country and no Western army has even come close to capturing Bin Laden, who is quite successfully hiding in the mountains. Perhaps there is something evasive about Arabic?

  16. bulbul said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 6:32 am

    are there any non-English-speaking countries today that have first-rate armies?
    Depends on how you define 'first-rate'. I still remember watching the handover of Hong-Kong and the hundreds of Chinese soldiers in their parade uniforms (which included white gloves) standing perfectly still on the beds of their trucks waiting to move in. Dunno if they're first rate and I don't care to find out.
    As for Mojave Mike, I don't think he espouses Whorfianism. Like most fans of Ms. Malkin, he is a believer in American numberoneism. And since America is teh number one and people in America speak English (and only English, goddammit) in America, English must be teh number one, too.
    Come to think of it, maybe it's not something exclusive to Ms. Malkin and her ilk. Consider this bit from the opposite site of the spectrum: "Ever tried to buy a French copy of Roget's Thesaurus? Or Dutch, Portuguese, Lap? You can't, because those vocabularies are tiny. They're closed. English is open to the world." So it's not just that we're the best, but everyone else must totally suck, too.

  17. Tim said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 6:33 am

    I don't know how accurate or authoritative it is, but has a ranking that claims to include personnel, logistics, finances, inventory, and other resources.

  18. Tim said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 7:07 am

    That this question is even being considered on here gives too much credit to the question.

  19. marie-lucie said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 9:39 am

    Are the Taliban speaking Arabic, or Pashto (an Indo-European language)?

  20. Peter said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 11:26 am

    Didn't Alexander's soldiers mainly speak Macedonian, or was the distinction nugatory back then?

  21. Ray Girvan said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 11:35 am

    But which is the better army? There's only way to find out – FIGHT!

  22. Peter said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    Bob Borsely quotes Churchill;

    "The rigidity of the Japanese planning and the tendency to abandon the object when their plans did not go according to schedule is thought to have been largely due to the cumbersome and imprecise nature of their language, which rendered it extremey difficult to improvise by means of signalled communications." (The Second World War, abridged edition: p.548.)

    Winston (Nobel-Prize-in-Literature-1953) Churchill, of course, always thought very highly of his own language skills, and those of his ghostwriters. But to what extent could any language, let alone one with the long written and literary history of Japanese, be fairly described as "imprecise"? Does such a description even make sense for a language, as distinct from statements made in a language? In other words, is precision an attribute of a language?

  23. bulbul said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 12:54 pm


    during the civil war and pre-2001, Taliban recruits came mostly from Pashtun areas. In fact, Taliban reinvented itself more than once as a Pashtun nationalist/chauvinist movement and demonstrated this mainly by massacring Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks.
    What is the ethnic composition of what is usually referred to as Taliban now, if there even is such a thing as Taliban (a centralized movement as opposed to various local resistance groups united by name only), I do not know.

  24. marie-lucie said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:22 pm


    Thank you for the detailed explanation. I was reacting to an earlier comment which mentioned only Arabic in connection with the fighting ability of the Taliban. I am aware that there are more languages than just Pashto in Afghanistan, mostly from the same general family, but I also recall reading that many members of the Taliban had come from Arabic-speaking countries.

  25. Meep said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    I don't know why people blame everything on the Whorfian hypothesis… I'm going to take it home and give it a cup of soup. Poor baby :(

  26. lefty said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    Why would you want to talk about anything that happens on Michelle Malkin's blog? She's an idiot and I would assume that the folks that comment there are even dumber. English is the language of armies? Caesar may have disagreed.

  27. Yuval said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    "… While the Israeli army certainly uses Hebrew for primary communication, it would not surprise me if most soldiers spoke a reasonable amount of English."

    The question is whether the comment dealt with the, um, military faculties of persons capable of speaking English (perhaps vs those of "English-speaking peoples") vs the exclusive suitability of English for militaries. Most comments here adopt the latter reading. There's no clue in the text itself, but I think that the point of the article is right no matter which interpretation you favour — armies can do well enough even without the use of English. There's nothing special in the English language.

  28. bulbul said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 3:57 pm


    I also recall reading that many members of the Taliban had come from Arabic-speaking countries.
    Ah, you mean the Arab-Afghans. First of those started arriving in Afghanistan some time in 1989 to fight the Soviets, but not all of them stayed long after the Soviets were gone. Even Bin Ladin went back home and only returned 1996. And even though he and the Arabs around him were valuable to the Taliban, both the higher ranks and the general population regarded Arab-Afghans with suspicion and distrust. It's really hard to tell how many Arab-Afghans were there at any point in Afghanistan, but they were always a tiny minority and hardly had any influence on the Taliban movement, whether strategically or linguistically.

  29. Joshua said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 3:22 am

    I worked for an intelligence service last year in Afghanistan, and I can say that indeed the many languages of mujahideen/foreign fighters/Taliban create a serious problem in the command and control structure. Urdu, Tajik, Uzbek, Pashtu in dozens of dialects (some specific to a single valley or small geographic location), Arabic (generally Al Qaeda), Russian and so forth all exist within Afghanistan. Needless to say it is a complete pain trying to spy on them in any fashion. Tribal influence amongst the Pashtuns and Tajiks created major rifts and pretty much decentralized any coherent large scale network inside Afghanistan proper. NATO and the US are not just fighting the Taliban.

    As for the original statement: The reason most highly organized and functional armies speak English is horribly complicated. If pressed I would say it is because English speakers won the most recent wars. May change if China decides an expansionist plan is a good idea in the coming decades. Cheers.

  30. Bev Rowe said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

    I've heard that the Soviet army had some success at one time. Even beat the Nazis. In fact, didn't the US take tem quite seriously for quite a long time? So I guess they must have been using English.

  31. Scott Simmons said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

    Well, naturally, Bev. Didn't you ever watch any James Bond movies? The Soviets spoke English, just with a thick pseudo-Russian accent.

  32. Alpeter said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

    I believe that the Vietnamese have also been quite successful as soldiers.

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