Saturday 17 March 2012

You speak so, therefore you are so.

Seneca is credited with stating that “Where the speech is corrupted, the mind is also”. He chose to speak his mind from the perspective of corrupted rather than pristine speech, following the time-tested strategy of steering attention away from what we might be doing, right or wrong, by calling attention to what others are doing wrong. Such choices are generally meant to entail that we are doing things right, and that we therefore have the right to proffer comments about what is right and what is wrong, because we know the difference.

“You are what you speak” matches popular You-are-what-you-X generalisations about people’s identities – including those of people we’ve never met in our lives. Speech-wise, the causality that is inherent in these assertions may not always be straightforward (you are so because you speak so, as the title of this post suggests, or you speak so because you are so?) but our linguistic signals go on eliciting rulings about us. This is one argument I develop in an article dealing with clinical assessment of multilingual children, but which applies to language uses across the board. The point I make there is that “Whether linguistic and cultural behaviours are intentional or not, they project images of the user as belonging (or not belonging, or wishing to belong) to a particular social group, which in turn prompts personal judgements about the user and associated linguistic responses from the interlocutor, including a clinical interlocutor.”

Equally popular is the idea that it makes sense to speak of degenerate vs. unsullied uses of language, which draws on the assumption that languages can suffer injury. On this assumption, languages are identifiable objects (containers?) with a life and possessions (contents?) of their own. Our job as users is to pick and choose from within these carefully preserved preciosities the dainty morsels which will hopefully do justice to the dainty intellects we wish to project as we express ourselves linguistically. Seneca dixit.

This ain’t easy. Being ordered around by languages, I mean. Some of us go through our entire lives cringing at our own ways of using our own language(s), native languages included, because we apparently do things that “the languages” do not allow us to do. Assigning decision power of this kind to “the languages” is of course a good way of skirting the issue that whatever evaluative benchmarks we’re using are man-made.

So, who are you, and who’s telling on you? For users of foreign languages, the benchmark is commonly taken to be a “native” standard, but it turns out that even claiming nativeness won’t do: natives also get judged by their primi inter (not so) pares, other natives. If you read Danish, have a look at the Lexiophiles post Lyder din dialekt begavet eller bare underholdende? (If you don’t, no problem, the page has a link to an English version, ‘Does your dialect sound bright or just funny?’). Or check out G. Bernard Shaw’s Preface to his Pygmalion, where he says that “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” In Act 1, in turn, Henry Higgins claims that he can place a man’s accent “within two streets” of London. Big Brother may be watching you, in other words, even on the street where you live.

The fear of the judgemental ear/eye, or shyness before it, may well be the reason why some of us avoid using our foreign languages. We know we don’t do it like them because we’ve been told so, time and again. Some of us don’t mind speaking foreign, though – or have no other choice, because we do have something to say and those to whom we want to say it don’t speak our languages. One example of this prompted an inspiring comment from Rebecca Helm-Ropelato, about an interview in English given by Italian show-biz man Roberto Benigni a few years ago: Speaking in a second language. Rebecca warned me that the video links at this post no longer work, unfortunately, but she sent me a link to another interview of Benigni speaking in English (grazie!!) – where, besides, both interviewer and interviewee start off giving evidence that we can *both* talk about different ways of using a language *and* have loads of fun about it, without injuring either “the languages” or anyone’s feelings.

This is easy. Using civilised tones to talk about our differences, I mean. Not mistaking difference for inability, I also mean. Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis once said that “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you”. Neither are other ways of using languages – or other languages, for that matter. Everyday things and everyday behaviour are not everyday to everyone. Next time, I’ll try to explain why so many of us think that they are.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Attitudes towards language uses. Wednesday 28th March 2012.

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