Secrets of Language
1st of June 2018
Language and politics
I’ve been meaning to write about language and Northern Ireland for some time. It’s taken a while, the reasons for which the ensuing will shed some light on. Being the language nerd that I am, I didn’t think twice last year when I lived in Sweden to learn the basics of its language and play around with it a bit. It made sense, it was fun, and it gave me some new words for my collection of ethno-linguistic field notes.
Here in Northern Ireland it’s different. I’m hesitant to go near the native language, apart from the fact that Irish is impossibly complex, an unintelligible jumble of random letters. Swedish, triangulated with Dutch, English, and a bit of German, held pretty much no surprises. Irish on the other hand… “Mo sheacht mbeannacht ort.” I mean, what?
But apart from all that, I hardly dare touch it. As so much else in this corner of the world, from colours to musical instruments, language has become weaponised, simultaneously appropriated and repelled to one side of a polarised divide. Irish has come to be seen as the language of the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican side of this segregated society. Even though many of the Scottish settlers in Northern Ireland in the 1600s had no English. Even though the Presbyterian general assembly in 1833 declared Irish ‘their sweet and memorable mother tongue’. Even though the unionist crowd greeted the Queen of England with “Céad Míle Fáilte” when she came to visit in 1953, Irish for ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’. Even though the language is the very thread of the fabric of this place, with virtually all landscape, place and street names deriving from it (Belfast comes from Béal Feirste – Irish for mouth of the sandbank ford) (1).
But to show interest in the Irish language is a political act. To prefer it over Ulster Scots, another minority/marginalised language that the unionist community claim as theirs, is a political act. To have the presumption to know anything about it as a foreigner when so many disenfranchised Irish have lost their own ancestral language, is an ignorant stab. Though I deeply respect languages as the ultimate doors into their nations, I don’t want to burn my fingers on this one’s white-hot handle.
And yet each language holds such unique nuance to the universally relatable human experience. Each language is a databank of attempts at transposing into verbal communication the compendium of a people’s experiences throughout the ages. And the Irish Gaels had an unusual respect for language. Poetry was considered a form of magic, and their seanchaí storytellers enjoyed a social status second only to kings and chieftains.
Irish has ‘craic’ to teach us about quick wit and companionship, ‘plámás’ to teach us about the pleasantness of receiving compliments, even when insincere, ‘aoibhneas’ to teach us about the overwhelming joy music and breathtaking scenery can bring, ‘dúchas’ to teach us about our sense of roots and belonging, ‘suaimhneas’ to teach us about inner peace, ‘croíúil’ to teach us to recognise things that have heart in them, ‘meas’ to teach us to respect things greater than us, and so much more (2).
We each have an equally rich, vast inner universe, replete with a trillion galaxies, crushing supernovas and black holes, spellbinding starry swirls and untravelable distances. But language is a crucial key to access our own interior. I wrote about it before, three months ago:
“Where would we be without language? In a state of sleep paralysis, subconscious slumber, struggling to claw our way out of the tangled nameless mess of impressions weighing down upon us, to the lucid surface and out into the light. Bawling thrashing babes we are, without the ability to name, unsure of what we want and choking on our frustration.”
Those with a limited vocabulary of emotion words may describe similar unpleasant emotional states as ‘angry’, perhaps only dimly aware of any difference, and are left to be buffeted and baffled by a bewildering emotional storm. As our emotion vocabulary expands, however, our internal perception is honed to distinguish finer nuance in contrast, subtler contours in our emotional landscape. It’s called emotional granularity (3), and it’s been my new favourite concept since I learnt, a year ago, of Tim Lomas’ project of collecting positive emotion words from across the world’s languages (4). “The longest journey is the journey inward”, said Nobel peace prize winner Dag Hammarskjöld. And words can lead the way.
Not only is language the key to our interiority. It is also the key to the outside world.
The theory of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis after the two linguists who first proposed the idea in the 1920s, posits that our perception of the world is influenced, if not determined, by the language we have for it5. Basically, if we don’t have a word for it, we can’t think about it. I’ll never forget a story my Latin teacher told me in school, that when Columbus’ ships first arrived in the Americas, the indigenous inhabitants allegedly didn’t see them come in. Having no other concept, no reference for the large looming white sails, they saw strange large white clouds.
Another, more common example of linguistic relativity is that of colour naming in different languages. In the 19th century, former British prime minister William Gladstone noticed that Homer mentions the word blue not once in the Iliad nor Odyssee, despite his elaborate descriptions of the sea, which he called ‘wine-red’. When Gladstone saw that pattern repeated in all of the classical texts he studied, he concluded that the ancient Greeks were colour blind, seeing the world in black and white and a spot of red, straining perhaps to see other colours just out of reach. Two decades later, philologist Lazarus Geiger found the same: no blue in any of the ancient texts he studied, from Hebrew to Old Norse to Sanskrit. “Brimming with descriptions of the heavens” but never a mention of the colour blue. Words for that colour category entered the world’s languages later in history, after red, green and yellow had entered the stage. One theory that tries to explain this weirdly obvious oversight, argues that people only needed a word for that colour as they began to discover blue dyes. Now they could make blue, and had a new product to trade, they needed a word. Without the word though, even with the same human eyes as us, it is a question whether they ever really saw, noticed blue (6).
Through words, reality is laid bare to our awareness. Language is the great knife with which we cut up and order reality into bite-size chunks to feed to our consciousness. It is the vehicle for categorical perception, which is reinforced through our brain’s reticular activating system: when we decide to put things together in a category, suddenly everything in that category jumps out. If you’ve a new lover named Steve suddenly you’ll see the name Steve on all graffiti and advertisements in the streets. Colours stand out to us as distinct from each other only because and when they are named categorically.
Dropping the storyline
Not only though is language the key to our outside world. It shapes it.
I’ve recently become intrigued by the Enneagram (7), a mapping based on sacred geometry of the diverse manifestations of the human psyche that traces its (uncertain) origin back into antiquity, in part to the Middle East where its predecessor may have been developed as a pastoral tool for Sufi priests. I identify strongly with the number 4 of the Enneagram, which describes the type of people adept at making sense of their rich and deep experience of the world through narrative. I have been a reflective person all my life, and continuously imbue my experiences and observations with meaning and purpose that spin together an evolving story about who I am, who other people are, what we’re doing and why. The language I put to my life determines how I see it and how I live it. Through narrative, I weave together my past, present and future. I have a deep ‘meas’ for history and the importance of remembering and chronicling it, and am actively involved in a continuous process of midwifing my own emergent future. But of course, narratives are not the reality and can become misguided. Narrating my own unfolding life story is an expression of creative imagination, of an awe-inspired dialectic with my own existence, and of maintaining control. The most existentially terrifying thing you can ask a number 4 to do, is to drop the storyline.
Social constructionism it’s called in sociology when we talk about how collective narrative does not describe but create our social reality8. We do not see reality, so much as a set of mental artifacts we have, for the time being, collectively agreed to see as reality. But of course, social narratives are not the reality and can become misguided. The most existentially threatening thing to ask of a society is to drop their storyline. Seeing the ‘brute facts’ of existence without a consensus interpretation, without the sheen of meaning and purpose, could tip a society into chaos.
Not only though is language the shaper of our outside world. It shapes our interiority.
No other language can approximate your mother tongue, no matter how much you master it. Native language flows and spills from the tongue like the fresh trickle of a wellspring, free and unobstructed.
Whenever I live abroad and spend all my time conversing, thinking and dreaming in English, I live perpetually a little out of character. Whenever I live abroad in a foreign language I miss that part of my personality which I feel I can only express in my native tongue. Being Dutch, it’s the Dutch bluntness, crassness, directness that I miss, the ability to take the piss out of myself and my situation when things get too heavy and morose. I miss the dry, level-headed irony of ‘o ja joh’, ‘doe normaal’, ‘moet kunnen’, ‘genoeg geluld’ en ‘nee gek’. I miss the opportunities to throw in words like haarbal, snotjoch, zeikwijf, bilnaadacrobaat. It’s this mentality, these words shared in loud unflattering abandon with other loud unflattering girlfriends, throwing nuance and thoughtfulness to the wind, that balance me back out into levity. Without them, I can become just a tiringly verbose, intense thinker person on a slippery slope to gloom, thinking myself into a stun.
I’m not the only one intrigued by the connection between language, nationality and personality. Wilhelm von Humboldt saw, in 1820, language as the essential expression of the spirit of a nation. These national worldviews had previously popularly been termed ‘Volksgeister’ (5). Unfortunately, Wilhelm von Humboldt appears to have been a bit of a raging nazi, and thought some languages were über languages with superior morphology revealing superior national worldviews. The idea of Volksgeister does indeed lend itself well to a national romanticism that can deteriorate into delusions of supremacy and sanitised identities, where language becomes weaponised as a tool in a divisive political cause.
We really should guard our languages from falling into the oppressive hands of divisive politics. Their causes aren’t worthy of the wonderful titan creatures languages are. Those haphazard but bountiful repositories of human experience. Those keys to inner universes of star clusters and meteor showers, and outside worlds of unnamed colours and categories.
“All religious wars are in essence a ‘linguistic problem’,” writes Elif Shafak in a book about Shams of Tabriz and Rumi. “In a world beset by mistranslations, there is no use in being resolute about any topic, because it might as well be that even our strongest convictions are caused by a simple misunderstanding. In general, one shouldn’t be too rigid about anything because ‘to live means to constantly shift colors’.” (9)
If we can’t trust our eyes to see blue for blue, or our words to pinpoint our emotional states, or our reality to be more than a shape-shifting story we tell ourselves to comfort us in an unintelligible universe, or our personalities to fully translate to a foreign context, any reality is so plastic we might as well abandon any attempt to monopolise it, and meanwhile enjoy as many words as we can find.
9Elif Shafak. The Forty Rules of Love. Viking: 2010