Saturday 14 July 2012

Intelligibility rules

Fitting in involves making ourselves intelligible to other people. If we wish to bond with those who appeal to us, it makes no sense to not make sense to them. Conversely, if those people also find us appealing, they will want to make sense to us too.

As we grow up, we develop fluency in what characterises our linguistic territories. We speak the languages that speak to us, and we use them in ways that match our “self”, as we grow in and out of identities, in time, and step in and out of them daily, in space. You are not the “same” person(a) when you’re being a mother, a linguist, a wife, a teacher, a sister, a student, and so on. We act our parts by impersonating ourselves as we see fit, in order to fulfil the different roles that we play in life adequately.

Attempting to impersonate other people may meet with less success, however. When we make ourselves intelligible to someone else, by adopting their language(s) or their ways of using them, we’re also signalling belonging to a shared home. But linguistic competence comes complete with command of linguistic strategies which accommodate (or not) to the diversity of language uses around us. That is, awareness of our linguistic territories involves awareness of our power to refuse entry to them. The issue is that imitating someone else’s behaviour means that someone else is being imitated. Not everyone is pleased with having outsiders hijack their trademark idiosyncrasies: we’re trespassing.

Many of us react accordingly. One very effective way of asserting whatever privileges we associate with our hunting grounds is to put them in their place through deliberate creation of unintelligibility: we refuse to make ourselves intelligible, or to acknowledge others’ attempts at intelligibility. I’ve had native speakers of my non-native languages pretend not to understand me and comment instead on my abstruse misuse of them, or repeat verbatim, only louder and more impatiently, what they said that I failed to understand; and I’ve had fellow native speakers behave in exactly the same way towards my native uses, in academia, in public or private offices, or wherever and whenever anyone has felt the need to assert their power over me. A long time ago, I saw an interview on TV which describes quite accurately what I mean. The interviewee (a politician, granted) rambled on about a completely irrelevant issue, in reply to a question. The interviewer finally managed to point out that “That’s not what I asked”, to which the interviewee replied “But that’s what I answered.”

Bullying takes many forms, in other words. Human beings excel in the art of excluding other human beings, because we all know how deep the pain of rejection runs, and so how effective it is as a deterrent to further trespassing. Linguistic power arguably tops the scale of power relations: your quest for membership in exclusive clubs of friends or colleagues may fall short because of lacking credentials in the way you use your languages, in the languages that you use, or both.

An alternative way of dealing with what looks and feels like gaping differences is to bridge them. There’s always a shared way to come across, if we care to take the trouble to find it: what looks and feels different may in fact be same-same. One example (one of my favourites!) is this Singaporean approach to Christmas and Chinese New Year celebrations:

Photo: MCF

It takes two to tango, in short: the key to fitting in is mutual intelligibility, something I’ll come back to in a future post. We human beings are also experts at creating intelligibility – if we so wish. If we can and do make ourselves understood in tourist-brochure places whose food, entertainment and souvenirs appeal to us, and if we can in turn understand those who provide those exotic goodies that we desire, there’s no reason we can’t do it with anyone – if we so wish.

There nevertheless seems to be one intriguing exception to whatever goodwill we choose to exercise towards promoting mutual intelligibility, elsewhere. This is when, somewhat paradoxically, the “otherness” of particular groups of people strikes us as a form of modified “sameness” rather than legitimate otherness. Namely, with our neighbours. I’ll leave this matter for my next post.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Neighbourly matters. Wednesday 25th July 2012.

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