The Dark Side of
Propaganda for Kids
A Letter from
α-Betty Abū Gida
Ask any child to recite their ABC’s, and immediately a familiar sing-song melody fills the air, invoking associations with youth and innocence. Beyond the oft-unrecognized yet deeply sketchy “musical polysemy” of the ABC song, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and Baa Baa Black Sheep—the ABC song is not at all as innocent as it might seem. Curiously, while this open musical secret is generally known among the intellectually inquisitive, the astounding ancestral link to Ah ! vous dirai-je, maman is usually overlooked—and, alas, beyond the scope of the current discussion. Disturbingly, the repetitive rhythm can encourage a mild hypnotic trance in small children, perhaps disengaging their particularly undeveloped higher brain functions. Even darker still, the intellect-bypassing uniformity of cadence in this deceptive ditty may engender a conformity of thought, and a docility of spirit in weak-minded individuals (e.g., our children!).
Pierre Larcher, 2001, “Moyen arabe et arabe moyen,” Arabica 48.4, pp. 578–609
Chiasmus of the Month
Further evidence of the indoctrinational effects of this song upon our children is manifold and manifest. Glaringly, toddlers can easily be triggered into chanting the alphabet after hearing a mere snippet of the song, perhaps in response to the embedded non-alphabetic recruiting message it contains: “Next time won’t you sing with me?” How such an effect in children—suspiciously similar to that of the most notorious brainwashing techniques used on adults by cults—goes unremarked upon is frankly confounding. Insidiously, the song is often sung in the “gloomy” key of F♯ Minor, or even A♭ Major—the “key of the grave”—either of which can have only negative effects on the most frequent listeners.
Juxtaposed to this external musical manipulation, the internal injustices wrought by the song are less egregious, but unjust nonetheless. Key to the innocuous image the song presents is a veneer of egalitarianism, as though all letters are equal. Likening the situation to that of a well-known farm full of animals is all too easy, as some letters are clearly more equal than others—after all, alphabet refers to only two letters, and it’s not called “The ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ’s Song”. Many of the youngest indoctrinees (a.k.a., our children!) are not even aware that the middle fifth or so of the alphabet isn’t a single letter with the sesquipedalian name of “elemenopee”. Nary a trace of the once-present ampersand—nor it’s etymological phrasal forebear—is to be found, yet the duplicitous ⟨w⟩—doubly usurping the name of ⟨u⟩ while doubly draping itself in the vestments of ⟨v⟩—remains present and unchallenged!
Orthographic and onomastic imperialism—of a moderately American flavor, naturally—saturates the song as well. Pronouncing the name of ⟨z⟩ as the Commonwealth’s preferred /zɛd/ would be rhymingly awkward, further entrenching the orthoëpistic hegemony of /ziː/. Questing to adapt the song to the alphabet of other languages is akin to tilting at musical and lyrical windmills—it has been done, but it has never been particularly successful. Related Latin alphabets—with similar letter names and no extra letters—lack the individuality and distinctiveness that guarantee failure, which is likely a dominion-inducing feature rather than a unity-inspiring bug. Stepping further away from Latin, adapting the song to a truly distinct αλφάβητο, алфавит, այբուբեն, or ანბანი has little practical prospect of producing anything but a clownish aping of the original.
Tactical and strategic options for effective action are thin on the ground, given the diffuse nature of the enemy. Undoubtedly, “Big Spelling”—i.e., the Orthographic–Industrial Complex that Ladefoged warned us against in his Farewell Address upon leaving UCLA’s English Department—is happy with the existence and impact of the ABC song, but can hardly claim credit for it. Vast and deep would be the conspiracy that could intentionally craft, across the generations, such a perfect mind-worm with which to infect our children. What we see is more likely a simple, but oh-so-effective freak of mimetic evolution. (XIVth-century philosopher William of the Razor has given us the tools we need to see that no other explanation is necessary, though that fact is cold comfort.)
You may feel hopeless, but know that there is a solution to this pedagogical, sociological, and linguistical miscarriage of justice... albeit one that will not scratch the instant-gratification itch the modern world has instilled in so many of us.
Zero tolerance (with the multi-generational goal of extermination) is the only rational response—do not listen to the ABC song, do not sing the ABC song, do not teach the ABC song, and do not suffer those who would do so—making the continued infliction of this barbarously brainwashing ballad something up with which we, a burgeoning movement within a withering society, will no longer put!