languages


Since my first degree was in the Western Classics, I have always been fascinated by its relatively recent origins, the myths it tells about itself, and its fate.

After claiming the scene in the German states, in France, and elsewhere, Classics finally arrived in that imperial latecomer, the British Empire. Understood as a ‘liberal education’, Classics provided the core of the educational curriculum in elite schools. With the bourgeoisie newly wealthy and increasingly powerful, new markers of class identity were needed to distinguish itself from both the moribund aristocracy and working class:

It is hardly coincidental that it is just at this time that several of the decaying provincial grammar schools were revived as public schools – that is, as boarding schools with a nonlocal clientele. Rugby in the 1780s, Shrewsbury the following decade, were the leaders of an expanding group. It was in these schools that the sons of prosperous bourgeois fathers learned how to read and write Latin and Greek, to lose their regional accents and to behave as gentlemen. The curriculum was almost totally dominated by classics: in the lower forms, grammar learning took up much of the time, together with mechanical exercises in verse composition (Stray 1996, 79).

Indeed, the sign that one had been to such a school was an intimate knowledge of the Classics, down to the skill of composing verse or prose in the classical languages. Such knowledge indicated one’s class status and thereby ensured one a key position in the imperial administration. This persisted even when the patronage system of appointments was abolished with the reforms of the Indian Civil Service in the 1850s, for the examination questions were geared to favour those with a classical education.

The genius in this whole system was that classical study was presented as non-utilitarian, necessary for the formation of the whole person, cultured and erudite – unlike the workers who apprenticed for a trade. The calling of Classics was meant to be greater than any worldly concern (so it was presented to me when I began its study). Nonetheless, it was precisely that approach to the world of politics and commerce that rendered one eminently worthy for leadership in that world. This was marked by a hegemonic vocabulary, saturated with classical languages and texts. The ability to engage in classical repartee, to appreciate the subtlety of a classical allusion, to put down those with no or limited knowledge of the Classics by such means, provided a distinct ruling class code.

As Thomas Gainsford stated from the pulpit: ‘the study of Greek literature … not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but not infrequently leads to positions of considerable emolument’.

LATIN. Language natural to man. Harmful to good writing. Is useful only for reading inscriptions on public fountains. Beware of Latin quotations: they always conceal something improper.

Flaubert, Dictionnaire des idées reçue

I am thinking here of two groups who work overtime to distinguish themselves from one another precisely because there is so little separating them. Above all, they assert that their ‘languages’ are distinct, whether Danish or Norwegian, Serbian or Croatian. The catch of course is that there is more variation across the dialects within those countries than between them. So Danes and speak with Norwegians, Serbs with Croats and vice versa. Languages? Only in political terms. Compare the fact that some of the ‘dialects’ in China are as distinct as, say, English is from French.

Anyway, who makes up the ancient version? Philistines and Israelites of course. Or is that Phoenicians and Canaanites, Sea Peoples and Hill Peoples? Their ‘languages’ were hardly that at all, for they could understand each other when they spoke their own dialects.

‘Were you born in Berlin?’ I asked her after she sat down next to me. We were both on the train from Berlin. Thrilled to find someone from Australia since she had lived there recently, she was keen to talk.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘So do you speak the Berlin dialect – Berlinerisch?’ I said.

‘Only when I am angry’, she replied. ‘My mother was from outside Berlin, so she made sure that I did not grow up speaking the dialect. But my father, he is from Neukölln and he speaks it well and truly’.

‘But why do you speak it only when angry’, I said.

‘It’s not a good dialect’, she said.

‘But why not?’ I said.

‘It’s a working class dialect’, she said. ‘In the west, it was very much the dialect of the lower class, while the upper class looked down on it’.

‘What about the east?’ I said.

‘There it was the official language, spoken by everyone’, she said.

‘Is that still the case?’ I said.

‘Of course, east and west no longer exist as they did’, she said. ‘But these differences are still present’.

‘Yeah, I guess such deeper differences don’t disappear overnight’, I said. ‘But do you think that’s a result of the emphasis on workers in the communist east? The language of the working class becomes the official language’.

‘I suppose so’, she said. ‘But now that difference, between a capitalist west and communist east, is overlaid by the difference between middle class and working class’.

‘So a double condemnation’, I said. ‘It marks one as either from the old east or from the working class, or both – at least in terms of the ruling class’.

‘Yes’, she said, laughing. ‘But it’s still not a good dialect’.

Failure is an orphan; success has many fathers.

One of the weird things you notice about many people in Europe or those who have moved elsewhere is what can only be called a strange type of tribalism. You know the picture: Germans are neat and tidy, if somewhat authoritarian; the Dutch are stingey, even more than the Scots; the English are repressed and don’t wash; the French are arrogant; Italians are corrupt; Greeks are lazy; Turks are losers; Serbs are thugs; Russians are alcoholics; Finns are quiet and carry knives; Swedes are ‘easy’; Arabs are dirty terrorists who oppress women; Australians are primitive and uncultured and the country has roos on every street and doesn’t have ATMs, etc (add others).

At another level, you usually find in everyday conversation that a person is identified by their country of origin: ‘the German across the street’; ‘that Chinese women at the shop’; ‘you mean that Turkish man?’ And on it goes.

Why? Given that I come from a family of European background, I have grown up with this in some way or another. I would suggest that it has to do with the fact that Europe is this weird collection of tiny countries, with myriad languages and ethnic groups – tribes really. (Forget that fact that it impossible to find a pure Dane or Dutch person or Spaniard …) So the way you map the world is in terms of ‘national’ identifiers. As soon as you can name a person’s background, you have him or her pegged into a certain behaviour – as if one’s place of birth has a direct bearing on one’s psychological makeup.

I came across this at a different level in a debate in Bulgaria last year. The others in the group wanted to argue that the definition of a ‘nation’ is ‘one ethnic group’ and ‘one language’. That position quickly becomes unstuck in, say, Canada or even Belgium, let alone an immigration nation like Australia. But they held to it. I was reminded of the debate in Russia before the Revolution and afterwards concerning the ‘national question’, which was tied up with language and ethnic identity. But why was it a ‘national’ question? Same reason, since nation, language and ethnic identity seemed to be inseparable.

How to make sense of this skewed perspective on the world? Apart from the primitiveness of a European perspective on the world, I keep being reminded of Igor Diakonov’s observation in his Paths of History. Viewed from a global perspective, European history and attitudes comprise a huge anomaly that has somehow been asserted as a norm. Maybe it’s time we recognised the anomaly for what it is.

Danish churches (Lutheran) are a fascinating refit of pre-Reformation churches. The images might have largely gone, but in their place are endless texts from the Bible. But at Jesuskirken, in Valby, Copenhagen, one enters the church and encounters these:

Apart from the surpise at finding out that Tacitus and Suetonius wrote in Danish, these texts are the two external references to earliest Christianity. But I can’t help wondering why a church needs needs external evidence for such a thing. Is not the Bible, if not faith itself, enough?

Date: Monday 25 October 2010

Time: 6:00-8:00 pm

Place: Kælderbaren, Det Teologiske Fakultet, Købmagergade 44-46 (Copenhagen) – that is, the student bar, which every theology faculty or department should have.

Talks: a short one by me, a reponse by Geert Hallbäck and an autograph from the translator (CP)

Feature: discount versions of this Danish bestseller

Subsequent interesting activity: drinks out on the town (Copenhagen)

(A few weeks before this, there is a book launch in Sofia for the Bulgarian translation of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – more info soon for those of you who will happen to be in Bulgaria, 26 Sept-2 Oct.)

Every language I know has them: the same word with wildly divergent meanings, so much so that lexica list them as I, II, III … But I always wonder at the connections between these words, especially in light of what might be called the semantic cluster. For example, in Danish, kort means map, card and short. Why short? Or nød means necessity (cognate with ‘need’), emergency and nut (cognate again). But why nut? Or rather, to ask the lateral question: why necessity and emergency, for they are by no means primary meanings?

I recently had the opportunity to read Bruce Lincoln’s Theorizing Myth (2000). The most fascinating part of the book is the reinterpretation of  the infamous ‘Greek Miracle’ in which logos is supposed to have risen from the depths, clung onto a piece of dry earth and eventually ousted mythos from its throne. The catch here is that we assume we know what these terms mean: mythos is the fabled and fabling speech of poets and story-tellers, speaking of the gods and earth and men, of theogony, cosmogony and anthropogony, in particular in those texts of Hesiod and Homer from the ‘heroic’ age of Greek history; logos, by contrast is rational speech, the word of the philosophers such as Plato against the poets and dreamers. Not so, it seems, for mythos itself has always been a contested term, and logos has not always held the ground of straight, rational speech.

As Lincoln argues, contrary to what might be expected, mythos in the work of Hesiod and Homer is not the realm of fiction and fantasy, nor does it designate stories of the capricious gods, and it is far from the sense of a symbolic or sacred story, one with a deeper meaning than everyday language. Mythos is actually strong speech, muscular, forthright and brave. It is uttered by heroes and warriors, leaders among the ruling, propertied elite. Powerful males, arrogant and brutal, speak mythoi in the heat of battle or in struggles over opinion in the assembly. By contrast, logos is often laden with some telling adjectives and companions: seductive (haimulios), evil (kakos), falsehoods (pseudea) and disputes (amphilogia). Logos turns out to be the weapon of the weak. Wily, deceitful, seductive and quarrelsome, it is the mode preferred by those without power, such as women, slaves, peasants, children and outcasts. Unable to match the brute force of powerful men, those who deploy logoi do so in order to win by other means. Needless to say, in the works of Hesiod and Homer logos does not have a good press, for in logoi the strong do not speak.

How then did Plato (and indeed Heraclitus) manage to sweep the field and bring about a complete revaluing of these terms? Lincoln traces in detail how the two terms were discursively contested over the centuries from Homer to Plato, how the supreme position of poetry in an oral culture held its place long in Greek history, and how mythos maintained its place as the weapon of the strong until quite late. But eventually, with the shift from an oral to a written culture, from an archaic economy to a slave-based one, from isolated city-states to modest empires, the mythoi of the poets came to be seen as deceitful, their words weaving spells rather than speaking the truth, and logos took its familiar place (at least to us): the straight speech of truth, the voice of reason and thought, the preferred mode of speech of that new breed who called themselves philosophers. The first signs appear with Pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus and Democritus, who favour logos and simply neglect mythos, but it is Plato who enables to significant if contested victory of logos. However, the fact that Plato had to banish poets and playwrights from his Republic, that Socrates (even if he was a construct of Plato’s writing) was condemned for corrupting young wealthy men with his logoi indicates that the terrain remained deeply contested.

Going beyond Lincoln, three points emerge. As for the first point, let me put it this way. Inevitably in discussions over myth, one interlocutor will knowingly speak up and say that ‘we’ know that myth doesn’t mean a fictional fairy tale, unlike the common folk. Instead, myth really designates a way of speaking about a deeper truth – usually these knowledgeable types are theologians. But that very objection actually narrates a historical progression in the understanding of myth, passing from the ‘common’ understanding of myth as fictional tale to one that has a deeper meaning, which is precisely the way myth was recovered in the eighteenth century. Not only is such an argument truncated, but it also misses a crucial ambivalence in myth, for it is not a case of either fiction or deeper truth, but very much both/and.

Second, mythos and logos are deeply political terms, not only in their usage in the texts, but in the struggles over the dominance of one over the other in the context of changing political and economic circumstances. Third, I would suggest that what happened with the transition between the time of Homer and Hesiod and that of Plato we have not only a contested shift in the fortunes of mythos and logos, where they seem to exchange places and then mutate again, but also a mutual absorption of their contrasting senses within one another. So myth comes through as ambivalent, if not multi-valent: language of both the strong and the deceitful, of both the brutal and the spinners of tales, of the forthright and the deceptive. In short, both myth and logos can be truthful speech and wily tale, club of the strong and hidden weapon of the weak.

One last point: myth was finally recovered and Plato’s championing of logos contested only towards the end of the eighteenth century in the wake of the Renaissance. In the intervening period, myths (Latin fabulae) were treated as amusing, if somewhat childish stories, folktales of a dim and distant past, contrasted with both philosophy and the authoritative story of Christ. But the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman texts produced some unexpected outcomes, one of which was the reshaping of the sense of myth as a valuable story of one’s own past, none more so than that of Northern Europe. Now it becomes a symbolic and sacred story, one with deep import, expressing a truth as no other can. As economic and political power gradually shifted northward and as the shackles of the Mediterranean were thrown off, myth became tied up with the issue of the Volk, asserting an ancient superiority and power that eventually became the Aryan and then Indo-European hypothesis. Civilisation, argued the new narrative, began neither in the Mediterranean, nor in the ancient Near East, but further north or perhaps further east, anywhere from India to the Caucasus to the Arctic Circle (favoured by the Nazis).

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