Sun, 31 May 2009

One Perspective on North Korea

In his book, "Outliers, The Story of Success", Malcolm Gladwell argues that one of the reasons that Korean Air Lines had such a dismal safety record in the 1990s and prior was the Korean cultural deference to authority implicit in the Korean language (which apparently has six different levels of hierarchy). (In the intervening time, Korean pilots are now expected to converse in English, and the safety record of Korean airlines has normalized).

To be sure, there are many criticisms of Gladwell's observation, and I'm equally skeptical that the single shift from Korean to English in the cockpit is a principal, or even secondary, reason for the improvement (at the same time the Koreans underwent a shift to English in the cockpit, they employed a sweeping set of changes in training and certification as well).

Still, to me it's an intriguing question... Could language be a key reason for socio-political norms? Take, for example, one of the most successful transitions from east-to-westernization, Turkey. After the war of Turkish independence which simultaneously pushed out the Western allies and the old norms of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk practically singlehandedly transformed Turkey into the best example (by my estimation) of a muslim Western democracy.

Part of this transformation was the repudiation of many Arabic words in favor of their Turkish ones. And certainly a major part of it was the rejection of the Arabic alphabet in favor of a modified Latin one. Today Turkey remains the a key Western ally whose democracy is comprised of a 97% sunni muslim populace. Coincidence?

Perhaps, but I for one am a little hesitant to dismiss so quickly the influence that language has on our culture. I suspect that properties of our languages, from flexibility to ease of learning, the cultural morays that they often exhibit, and the emotions that are conveyed when reading, writing or speaking them likely have a far greater influence on our modern world than we give them credit for.

Khan Klatt

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