Thursday, June 17, 2010

Small People

The following excerpt is taken from The Huffington Post, June 17, 2010

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg gave a press conference after BP's four hour meeting with Obama at the White House. During his statement, he disputed the claim the the oil giant didn't care about gulf residents, stating that BP cares about "small people." English is a second language for Svanberg, who is Swedish, but reporters took note of his demeaning phrasing, and shouted questions about what he meant after he spoke, which he did not answer.
The exact quote was:
"we care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies or greedy companies that don't care, but that is not the case at BP. We care about the small people."

Classic ESL error in pragmatics. Yes, we can certainly describe people as small in stature but using the word small as an adjective when not talking about stature assumes one is greater than the other – a George Orwell “Animal Farm” if you will. There is one idea everyone agrees upon as one of the major tenents of the U.S.A. democratic system and that is that everyone is created equal. As an ESL learner, Svanberg might have considered running his statement past a native language speaker – anyone would do – who would have understood the significance of “small people”. Grammatically correct, small as the adjective in front of the noun people, but so very wrong when discussing a large multi-national corporation caring for “the common folk”. Svanberg should have paid a little more attention to President Obama’s speeches: “the common folk”, or even “Joe the plumber” would have been a better choice of words.

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