Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: December, 2015

English on the Edge

English has entered uncharted waters. It is now no longer a national language; but it still has a character. Yet this character is in peril, even as English seems to triumph on the world stage. It is spreading itself too thin and losing its substance. As the quantity in terms of spread and speakers is going up, the quality is going down.

A lot of books have been written on “good English” in the past, and used by writers as a sort of Bible. Graves, Gowers, Fowler might be cited. But their world was different. They were all Englishmen. Essentially, they were trying to get other English, or British, or Commonwealth writers to say what they meant in clear and simple English. (They left the Americans to their own devices.)

Things are different now. Not only are English speakers struggling to write quality English, but also people who have learned English and find themselves needing to write in it. The focus has shifted to the periphery of the English-speaking world. And what counts as the periphery? For many of the British, the periphery would include North America, still considered as “mission territory”; for everyone else, it would include continental Europe, India, the rest of Asia, Africa, and South America.

What is now called “world English” masks a development which native English speakers anywhere are not going to like: a version of the language without their input and not even intended for their use or consumption.

As the number of learners (ESL speakers) gains on the number of native speakers, soon to overtake them, as English writing has increasingly to be aimed at the ESL speakers, and even produced by them, the language is in peril of losing its… soul, perhaps?

This can be stated almost as a law: in proportion as a language expands its geographical reach, the quality of the language declines. What happened to Latin is a cautionary tale. The Latin that spread around the Roman Empire eventually broke up into separate languages in medieval Europe. This was presumably because, as the Empire fell apart under the pressure of migrating tribes, most of the speakers of Latin were now second-language speakers. But there is also something more subtle involved: the loss of a centre, the fact that the centre loses control of the periphery.

Coming back to our present situation, English needs not just to adapt itself ceaselessly to the periphery; this adaptation needs to be balanced by constant surges of re-energization from the core. And what is the core? For the English, it is the standard language in England; but I would make so bold as to say that it is also the racy, sinewy, conservative dialects in Britain and Ireland.

Injecting energy from this neglected dialect core can bring about a badly-needed reform of English usage. The language has grown so cumbersome and wordy that it needs to be weeded out. Writers have forgotten the skill of calling a spade a spade. As George Orwell said decades ago, our use of language is becoming more and more unconscious; we speak unconsciously and in shallow shopworn terms, because we are really not thinking for ourselves; we are numbed where once we were expressive.

To my mind, our goal ought to be to put some life back into English before it is too late – to struggle against the inertia that tends to turn it into a dead weight, a characterless muttering, a language that no longer expresses anything that really matters to the human soul.


Siberian dreaming

What is the country that is most like Canada? Easy. It’s Russia. They are both huge countries that get snowed in for the winter.

Yet Canadians never think of Russia as a twin country, a mirror of their own. They are only interested in the US and to a lesser extent England, and French Canadians are interested in France. Yet the unexplored parallels with Russia are undeniable. The feeling of a vast country that stretches as far as the Pacific, and that in the middle lies under an endless expanse of winter snow. A country so big that it could only be united by railways, beginning as a string of lonely, snowed-in colonial outposts along the endless track. And yes, a colonial nation, a European order imposed by conquest on the scattered tribes of native peoples who had once been its only inhabitants.

Canada seems vast to Europeans. But Western Europeans have always got the same feeling of a vast country when they go to Russia.

It’s a funny thing about Russia. It is “Eurasian”. We talk about Russia in Europe and Russia in Asia, like we do about Turkey, but whereas Turkey only has a tiny foothold in Europe, Russia has a huge European land-mass and an even huger Asian one. Russia is a mirror-image of what we usually now think of as “the West”, namely Europe and North America, two continents that would be joined were it not for the inconvenience of the Atlantic.

Russians are a part of Europe, yet they feel the centrifugal pull of the steppes. That is why they like to talk about “Eurasia” as being their destiny, and fancy they are as much Asian as European, whereas their heritage, all they have culturally and historically, comes from Europe: literature, music, religion – even Communism. It just so happens that their writing system and their brand of Christianity came from Greece and not Rome, which fact has created an apparent exoticism and links that would not otherwise be there.

What is Canada, then? Has it got an equivalent of Russia’s “Eurasian” identity that it could adopt or invent to distinguish itself from its European founders or its dominant neighbour to the south? When the Canadian Pacific train crosses the Rockies and gets down to the Pacific Coast, Asia is still an ocean away. But Asia has also been coming to meet the Europeans who came out to the West Coast. Vancouver could yet be a new Hong Kong – China’s foothold on the North American landmass. So Canada could be a kind of Eurasia too, a place where the peoples of East and West are destined to meet and at last create a new form of culture.

But perhaps this is just dreaming on a walk in the snow, in the darkest days of winter…

World of objects and traces of bodies

This week I visited an important exhibition of Chinese writing currently on display at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich. The whole tradition is represented, from the ancient to the modern, from the monumental to the dancelike, from the power of the imitations of the “Stone Drums” to the tremendous energy of the “mad cursive”. There are hanging scrolls with poems and pictures, and open, extended scrolls with Buddhist sutras. It is also quite an experience being up close to ancient inscribed objects, notably bronze sacrificial vessels with text intended to be seen by gods and ancestors alone.

Modern Chinese artists are also represented here. Seeing the contemporary artists linking to the old tradition gives a feeling of continuity, although they perhaps find their tradition as oppressive as modern Western artists find theirs – “I feel the urge to paint, but what is there left to paint about?” To say nothing of the competing virtual reality offered by computers and associated visual media.

Chinese calligraphy, like all calligraphy, belongs to a world of things, not of virtual reality like the text I am writing and you are reading now. It involves brushes, and more or less resistant, more or less absorbent surfaces, ink that flows unctuously or runs out at the end of a character, and written text that enters into dialogue with pictures and decorations that share the same surface. It belongs to the world of things, of tangible objects, but also the world of the human body: the spontaneous but disciplined movements of the hand at a particular moment on a particular day leaving an ink trace that may last a thousand years.

Virtual reality has its uses, as this exhibition reminds us. One of the good innovations here is being able to see projected film of the artist at work making the brush strokes for the various styles. This is very valuable and informative. If only virtual media could be at the service of the world of things, helping us to understand it, without supplanting that world and making us strangers to it…





Giving up on changing China

Canadian newspapers have been reporting on a publication “The Future of Canada’s Relationship with China” by academics Wendy Dobson and Paul Evans, the aim of which is “to stimulate constructive public discussion of a forward-looking framework for consideration by the new government in Ottawa”.

The authors say that the approach taken by the previous government “focuses narrowly on our economic interests in a complex and multidimensional Asian region in which growing strategic rivalry between the United States and China is shaping the future”. They add, ominously, that “growing strategic rivalry is making Asia’s middle powers increasingly concerned that they will have to pick sides between the two global powers”. Canada, as a middle power, they say, could somehow be involved. How this would happen is left vague. All they can think of is that China’s continued growth “could open significant new business opportunities”, which is the only way most Western decision-makers see China.

Speaking to Vancouver Sun journalist Chuck Chiang and others, co-author Evans likened past initiatives from Ottawa, to “throwing rocks at a wall.” He said Canada needs to change its approach to dealing with China — “as it is, not as what we want them to be”.

“Canada’s past engagement with China was ultimately largely about changing China,” he said. “I think that narrative, as appealing as it is, no longer applies. Expectations that China would eventually become more like the United States and Canada are not happening. Canada needs to look at a new initiative in dealing with China without making ‘changing China’ a priority.”

This is interesting, and seems to go beyond the blah-blah formulations in which bureaucratic-academic discourse on such matters is habitually couched. He seems to be conceding that the Western powers are not pulling the strings within Asia in any real sense. Yet people should have realized this once and for all with Japan in the 1980s. Japan gave the example of a country that adopted Western innovations but adapted them to its own culture. Japan became modern in its own way and on its own terms. China is now doing the same. Convergence theories, anyone?