What Language Does Your Apple Speak?

I’ve posted earlier on this blog about the banalities of sovereignty, with reference to the problems encountered wiring money to Greenland. Now, a few words on the banality of hegemony, and, in particular, linguistic hegemony.

One of the perks of my new job at Durham is that I’m getting to buy a new computer, something that I badly need because my current MacBook Pro is near the end of its life. Also, it’s technically the property of Florida State University (although I doubt that they’ll want me to send back a 3-year-old computer).

US Keyboard

US Keyboard

UK Keyboard

UK Keyboard

Looking at the Apple website to select the specifications for a new MacBook Air, I was faced with an identity question: US Keyboard or UK Keyboard? I’ve long since set my computer to default to British spellings (hence the British autocorrections that on occasion lead my friends in the US to rib me about having gone native), but my external keyboard is still American. When I have occasion to type on British keyboards the funny shape of the ‘Enter’ key drives me nuts. I keep typing apostrophes (sorry: ‘inverted commas’) by mistake at the end of my paragraphs. Plus the ‘@’ really belongs above the ‘2’…nowhere else.

The British Apple website gives you the following choice of keyboards:

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 09.07.03

A few things are interesting here. First of all, ‘British’ and ‘US’ are keyboard styles, but ‘English’ is a language. It’s unclear if the documentation for these keyboards is in British English or US English or if there are different versions of the documentation depending on the nationality of your keyboard (although probably not). More interesting is that there’s an acknowledgment that you might want your keyboard and your documentation to be of different languages. You might, for instance, be a French speaker who’s wanting a second, British, keyboard for all that typing that you do to associates in Britain. Or you might be in England wanting second, German, or French keyboards for typing to people in those countries. Arabic and Spanish speakers, are, however, apparently more monolingual: Someone wanting an Arabic or Spanish keyboard has no choice but to receive their documentation in that language.

The US website has some telling differences:

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 09.07.26

First of all, there are several new language options: Danish, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, and ‘Western Spanish’. Regarding the added languages, it’s not clear why people wanting these keyboards would end up at the US site rather than their home-country’s site; I doubt there’s a big market in the US for Danish keyboards. Unlike many companies, however, Apple doesn’t automatically direct you to the ‘correct’ national website based on your IP address (for more on this, see my now-horribly-dated article in New Media & Society). Secondly, ‘Western Spanish’ is a really strange term. Presumably they don’t mean Galician but rather Latin American or American Spanish. I guess ‘Latin American’ would have led to confusion regarding Latin (although Vatican City always struck me as more of a Microsoft/PC kind of place) and ‘American Spanish’ would have taken Apple down the uncomfortable road of deciding when ‘American’ means ‘US’ and when it means something more. Thirdly, either monolingualism is so entrenched in the US that, unlike in Britain, it can’t be imagined that you might want a keyboard of one language but documentation in a different language, or the US is so used to serving a global market that the user’s guide is automatically printed in many languages. And finally, and probably most glaring, there’s only one, normal kind of English out there: ‘English,’ which, of course, is US English. If you want British English (and if you’ve got a razor-sharp pinky that’s perfectly suited for that little tail sticking out of the ‘Enter’ key), then you have to specify ‘British’. As hegemon, US English is the default.

Of course, Apple has a long history of negotiating (and reinscribing the meaning of) national borders and identities, from the ‘Designed in California’ logo that it proudly displays on all its products, to its legendary success in sheltering profits in shell-subsidiaries based in off-shore tax havens, through its latest campaign publicising that the new MacPro is being assembled in the United States out of (partly) US-made components.

Phil S.


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