Wednesday 25 July 2012

Neighbourly matters

At the turn of last century, in his book The Mystic Rose, the British anthropologist Ernest Crawley described human relationships as characterised by a “taboo of personal isolation” which, together with natural egoism, leads to feelings that “all society, as such, is dangerous”. My interpretation of Crawley’s observations is that we shape our socialisation strategies through selfish assertion of our uniqueness, because we feel alone against others, rather than with them.

Sigmund Freud later drew on Crawley’s analysis to support what he termed our “narcissism in respect of minor differences”, whereby we tend to create gaps of difference, or widen existing ones, between us and those who are very similar to us. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud noted that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other – like the Spaniards and the Portuguese, for instance”. As a native Portuguese, I can attest to the accuracy of this statement, and I’m sure nuestros hermanos will nod in reciprocal recognition too.

Freud’s observation may at first sight appear paradoxical. Why should we nitpick for differences just for the sake of nitpicking, where commonalities outnumber differences? Physical nearness tends to have the effect that you become like those near you, but this is precisely what you don’t want to happen, if nearness involves chance rather than choice: you want to promote group uniqueness instead. This being so, who better to vent this inborn urge to exalt ourselves by demeaning others, than on our neighbours? They are irresistibly near at hand, and they are a constant reminder of ways and habits of our own that we may judge to be less than flattering to ourselves. Within the smaller circle of parent-child “neighbourhoods”, I cannot be the only one who’s reacted to funny and/or downright unpleasant quirks of my children’s behaviour, which nevertheless felt strangely familiar, only to realise that they were modelled on my own. The point is that our neighbours may be like us but they are not us. They are a they which happens to be too close to a shared sameness for comfort, embodying the disruption of an “integrity” whose distinctiveness we wish to claim for ourselves. (This may well be why “Love thy neighbour” entreaties strike a chord with the bad conscience of so many of us – in theory, at least.)

Terry Pratchett puts it another way, referring to neighbourly matters within the boundaries of a single country. In his Discworld novel Unseen Academicals, one character wonders why Ankh-Morpork’s paired football teams, which are so close to one another, hate one another so much. The answer is that “It’s hard to hate people who are a long way away. You forget how dreadful they are. But you see a neighbour’s warts every day.” My interpretation of Pratchett’s observations is that we’re all dreadful, and what makes us bearable is distance.

Physical distance, that is. I’ve often wondered why hearing tomayto or tomahto can either delight you or risk causing you apoplexy, depending on how close you feel to whoever uses different versions of the same words. I take this as a side effect of multilingualism in a single language. Many Portuguese, for example, think that Brazilian cadences and vowel qualities are simply endearing, but if, and only if, they come from Brazilians. Those Portuguese who use them in their Portuguese dialects are just speaking hilarious Portuguese. Many Americans (or so I’m told) fall for the charms of British accents any time, including those accents where the sound represented by ‘r’ in words like party and dear is not pronounced, while cringing at similar accents from fellow Americans. If you’re interested in English ‘r’ matters, incidentally, look up rhotic vs. non-rhotic accents, the terminology proposed by British phonetician John Wells which became standard for discussion of this issue. 

Our neighbours’ behaviours seem to strike us as funny versions of our own behaviours, rather than genuine behaviours in their own right. A bit like looking at ourselves in those distorting mirrors at amusement parks – whereby we can probably guess how we strike them, too. All this got me thinking about those of us who may feel the need to promote or even impersonate neighbouring behaviours, accents included, in our professional lives. Language teachers are a case in point, and I’ll have something to say about this in the next couple of posts.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Teaching to the standard. Saturday 11th August 2012.

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