First published in Modern English Teacher, 2002
I was watching BBC News on TV, and listening to the Ayatollah Mahdi Tehrani (14 May 2002). He spoke excellent English, but surprised me by saying repeatedly ‘Israelian’. Why? The error was well below his level of English. In discussing the politics of the Middle East, ‘Israeli’ was no doubt a frequent word for him to employ. It was a logical mistake, and he was trying to apply a perceived rule. But he had presumably never heard the word ‘Israeli’ because it never appears in ELT books. Go and check! I was looking at a recent textbook which includes a free dictionary. Under ‘Nationalities’ there is a long list of words which includes Guatemalan, Kazakh, Moldovan and Montenegrin.
The same list excludes Palestinian, Israeli, Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Afghani, Korean and Taiwanese. These words are excluded for fear that they might cause offence in other countries either opposing them, or denying their existence. You can add Falklands Islander and Gibraltan.
On the surface, this seems an odd policy by publishers. If I were a Palestinian, I think I’d want and need to know the word Israeli (and vice versa). If I were a Moslem, I would want to know that cracklings, bacon, chitterlings and ham were all forms of pork. The knowledge would enable me to avoid them. Many textbooks avoid any reference to pork products. I’d also want to know the words cider and shandy and know that they are alcoholic drinks. Many textbooks avoid alcoholic drinks. If I were Spanish, I don’t think that the use of the word ‘Gibraltan’ would imply my acceptance of the political situation. Whatever the future holds, it will always be a place with a name for its inhabitants, just as London has Londoners and Liverpool has Liverpudlians without anyone regarding it as a sign of nationhood (or not) – these comments have no political significance either way!
The policy is designed at sidestepping criticism, or worse a ban from censors who will eradicate the words from textbooks, or more likely the textbooks from the classroom. Censorship doesn’t always mean legal bans. It often means word-of-mouth comments that a book is ‘unsuitable for this country’ from important inspectors. On my own website, I have daily requests from teachers for ‘original colour copies of Streamline because we can only get the censored black and white government copies in (my country).’ I can’t oblige. I don’t have spare copies any longer for a start. And those governments as well as censoring the books, are pirating the books and I have never seen a penny in royalties. I have a pirated Cambodian Streamline, with the pictures roughly traced as black and white line drawings. The bizarre bit is that the pirates decided to add poems to the beginner’s level.
I have to say that I’m as guilty as any other ELT author. There’s a publishing folklore about unacceptable words, and tales of books being rejected because of certain words. One country objected to Streamline way back in the early 80s because it contained the words ‘guerilla’ and ‘vote’ (both unacceptable in its schools). A major dictionary was supposedly avoided for containing the word ‘Falklands.’ Another failed to sell at all in several countries because of its definition of ‘Israel’. I tend to take publisher’s advice without thinking about it too far – these censors are irrational, and publishers are fully aware of that.
But is the publishers’ attempt to appease a sane or sensible policy? Couldn’t the publishers add (in 6 point type) “The nationality words in the list are those in common use in English, and in listing them here, we are not making any political judgment.” The airlines do it all the time – ‘These maps have no political significance.’ As ELT teachers, we are doing an honest job. We are teaching what is said rather than what should or shouldn’t be said. The only way to reach so many nationalities is to put all politics outside the window, but that doesn’t mean denying that certain words exist. They are words our students will hear on the news every night .