Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: June, 2016

Language of the departed

Writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung before the Brexit referendum, German linguist Florian Coulmas noted that whether the British were in or out of the European Union, the English language would continue to play the key role that it has acquired since the British joined.

More and more English is spoken in the corridors of Brussels, he says – but in a discreet undertone, because officially the peoples of Europe have to get everything in their own languages. This has made Brussels a paradise of translation, he points out, whereas many there secretly doubt the necessity of translating between Estonian and Maltese.

If the British go, he says, they will leave one thing behind: their language. This he compares to the postwar process of decolonization. The newly independent nations of Africa and Asia got rid of their European masters, but they kept the imperial languages as a tool for communicating with the outside world. Francophone Africa is now acknowledged to carry the future of French. Coulmas gives the example of India, where even Gandhi hoped that the English language would decline after the country got its independence, but where it turns out to be an economic advantage on the world stage to speak English, let alone within the multilingual subcontinent itself.

Of course, the European Union was no colony, and Coulmas admits that the role given to English is more due to the leading role of the USA in the postwar world than to the importance of Britain itself. Still, having Britain as a high-profile member of the Union provided a good enough excuse.

If and when the British go, Coulmas writes, it will be harder to justify this leading role being quietly granted to the language of a state that is no longer even a member. He jokes that Ireland, which is staying, can be the excuse.

Over and (not) done with

Metaphors are very powerful. We take over the assumptions that go with them without even realizing it. Yet how could we get by without metaphors – especially when we need to let the tangible stand for the intangible?

Consider the past. We think of it as something previous, over, finished. But, influenced by writing and books, we think of it spatially, “back in time”: to the left of where we are now (to the right, if we use a Semitic writing system, I suppose). Yet we recognize two kinds of past. There is the past that is over and done with. We just register that it happened: “I saw the house” (and then I looked at something else). But there is a past that still has an effect; we express it by the perfect tense: “I have seen the house” (and now it is part of my knowledge).

Further spatial metaphors are used to express this still-effective, immanent past and its effect on the present. We think of it as either “below ground” or “upstream”. It is either like an archaeological dig in the middle of the modern city, or a hydrographic chart of a river system in a valley.

We know that the very language we speak has a history. The initial metaphor for this from Indo-European studies is the family tree. The branches are the modern European languages, the trunk is the classics like Latin, Greek and Sanscrit, and the roots, which we cannot see, are the conjectured protolanguage supposedly spoken by wandering Aryan ancestors.

We can think of it in archaeological terms too. If we dig down below our modern languages, we find their ancestors, or what is left of them in terms of written texts and inscriptions.

Yet the ongoing relationship of dead and living languages in the Western world is so real that we have come to think of the classical languages and IE itself as being somehow “upstream” from all the the modern languages. In other words, what is historically earlier is “above”, “on the high ground” like the source of a river. That hydrodynamic metaphor does a better job of capturing the idea of a past that continues to influence and shape the present.

We think of all our rivers of language as coming from a single source, the IE protolanguage. Tribes and nations like to trace their origin to a common ancestor. This single-source IE model provides a myth narrative for a unitary “Western civilisation”. But of course we have known for quite a while that the single-source model is an oversimplification; we should be thinking of the contribution of a mass of tributaries as well.

In Chomskyan Generative Grammar, the historical metaphors are recycled in accounting for how language is generated in the present moment. The “surface” structures of speech are created out of “deep” structures; theoretical items not empirically evident are said to be “underlying”. Then again, the other metaphor is used in talk of an abstract, “higher” level, a “higher order of abstraction”, from which the empirical “lower” level is “derived”. The clash of dead metaphors reveals our struggle to express the idea of the past that is ever virtually contained in the present.

The end of “we”

It is often said now that we are witnessing the decay of “mass society”. In the 20th century, it is reasoned, the mass media reflected, and to some extent created, the preferences, values and tastes of the man-in-the-street. Today such homogeneity is neither desired nor required. With the help of newer technologies, there is a proliferation of different media content, and these media can be directed to the groups who want to consume them. Everybody can be freer in their tastes and have their needs met.

I wonder if people who argue this way are aware of the full implications. When the consensus of media disappears, other forms of consensus disappear too. For consensus is cultivated and nurtured by mass media. The American historian Benedict Anderson called modern nations “imagined communities”, as they consist of people with a fellow-feeling but who don’t know each other personally like the members of a clan. “Imagined communities”, as Anderson pointed out, are communities of readers: they depend on sharing things like newspapers and books. That is what forms “public opinion”, a phrase more and more neglected because it has become so problematic. The great imagined communities of the past are crumbling at the edges. That is what is really meant by the end of “mass society” with its homogenized consumer tastes.

Previously in this place I mentioned Popper’s idea of the “abstract society”, where no-one knows anyone else personally. In an abstract society, ultimately, there is no “we” left. There is no common ground. It’s every man-in-the-street for himself. Popper’s 1950 vision of a future society is now coming true thanks to computers. There is a whole shadowy world out there of people with computers (and similar devices) all on their own. I notice I am a part of it. I look at the morning papers on the Internet, and I shake my head. They don’t speak for me with their pretended consensus. Some of us have ducked out of the meeting and cannot be spoken for. We are flying under the radar. We may not have extreme ideas, but we do not subscribe to the usual blah-blah. Politicians can’t hook us. Advertisers either. Just count us out.

Ironically, I find myself saying “we”. But this is no basis for an imagined community, a cohesive group – any more than people with blue eyes, or people suffering from a particular disease. It is just a growing fringe of people who don’t fit into to the mainstream. Whether this augurs well or not for the future of society, I do not dare to think.




Alternative realities

Renaissance philosophers, basing themselves on an ancient tradition, identified a basic parallelism between the macrocosm, the world or universe, and the microcosm, man. In our own time, this idea continues to be fruitful, at least when it is applied to social macrocosms.

There is a definite parallelism to be observed between contemporary accounts of national cultures, corporate cultures, work styles, and personalities. Whether they are talking about different societies or different types of individuals (and anything in between), observers seem to identify the same patterns and even use the same vocabulary. Exponents of the Enneagram, for example, have not been able to resist applying the personality types occupying the nine positions in the model to whole countries, which is sometimes enlightening, sometimes not. Among writers on management, Charles Handy’s “four gods” model has shown itself to be a neat and witty approach to types of organizations (or sub-parts of organizations) and the types of individuals who fit into them (or fail to do so). He, too, has not resisted the temptation to applying the “four gods” to whole countries, perhaps less convincingly.

A more radical approach was taken by the late Will McWhinney, who had his own four-quadrant model of work styles, which he applied to organizations and individuals. He saw the basic problem of getting anything done as involving people’s “alternative realities”: exponents of different work styles live in different worlds. This bears a striking resemblance to Whorf’s perspective on language and culture. Anyway, the upshot is that these different kinds of people can’t talk to each other. Success in business organizations, according to McWhinney, requires putting together the different realities, harmonizing them; then going upstream and putting them together on a “grand path of change” to solve the organization’s problems and challenges.

If I may be permitted to apply this organizational-level approach to the level of national cultures, it suggests a way of resolving conflicts in intercultural communication. Often today in large organizations, there are different national cultures involved. It is proverbial that these constituencies “can’t talk to each other”, although using English as a lingua franca may for a time create the illusion of communication. The problem is not language, but culture. On the other hand, cultural difference may provide a useful mosaic of “alternative realities”, if only you can give them their due, and try to translate them into one another without giving any one of them the preference. To meet your organization’s challenges, you could map out a “grand path of change”, McWhinney-style, but you would have to know the cultures involved very well. If you do it right, problems and conflicts in the organization could be resolved by bringing the viewpoints of different cultures to bear on them. At a world level – and now we’re really getting to the point – international problems and conflicts could be resolved by bringing the viewpoints of different cultures to bear on them. Instead of trying to find common ground in “universal principles” which are usually just a rationalisation of one culture’s development, you would create a dialogue between the “alternative realities”, each one being as entitled to contribute as any other.