« radical Chinese film director | Main | more of this »

October 5, 2007

no mother tongue?

"My best language is my third;
I know five and am learning another one."

Rhona Trauvitch complicates the usual equation that the first language learned establishes cultural ways of thought. Her spoken English rarely evinces signs indicative of a non-native user, although the trace of an accent suggests she did not learn English in the U.S. or United Kingdom.

We spoke after our professor promised to make her famous. Stephen introduced us to the thought of Matteo Bartoli, the figural teacher of Antonio Gramsci.

"Bartoli says all languages are the result of sociocultural conflict. Words are in competition with one another; words and languages are grammatical structures in competition with each other and cannot coexist: language is a battleground. There is always conflict between languages, and conflict within languages. Conflict conflict conflict, that’s what language is and what language is about. Words are always vying for position in language. [Bartoli] does not mean disembodied words, but that what we are doing in language is deciding ‘what will be the word for this? what will resonate?'" {From notes typed during lecture.]

Bartoli called his work neolinguistics, and then spatial linguistics. His phrase, "pattern of irradiations" caught my attention. Whatever the limitations of mathematical thinking (particularly its assumptions of permanence and predictability), physics is an amazing metaphor for human relations. Why irradiation not radiation? My own simplification: Radiation is the (natural) medium; irradiation the (man-made) use/effect. The term is applied in risk communication regarding food safety, industry (e.g., manufacture of foam, insulation, jewelry/gemstones), and medicine. Specificallly, irradiation refers to a process of ionizing radiation intended for a purpose, explicitly in contrast with the normal backdrop of daily exposure to background radiation.

In the context of this graduate seminar, Language as Action and Performance, Bartoli's combination of geography with language use is a revolutionary conception of how language makes human interrelations visible. The patterns of linguistic survival illustrate material conquest, yet - even more so - when one stops using the mother/native tongue, abandoning the cultural language in favor of the dominating language of power, then one has truly conceded to colonization. Ouch.

We spent some time discussing solutions (from Gramsci's view, linking with Bakhtin and Burke) to the dilemma of needing to learn the language(s) of power in order to work within them to preserve one's own heritage language(s) and the worldviews and wisdoms they contain. During class discussion, Gramsci's abhorrence of Esperanto was raised. His objection is rooted in the fact of Esperanto's formal rules: its refusal to accommodate innovation - the natural flexibility of languages to adapt and grow in accordance with human experiences. Rhona's moment of inspiration was describing Esperanto being "born a dead language." Her logic was comparing its rigidification to the stale preservation of languages no longer spoken - preserved only in ancient texts.

This particular session was one of the best to date. The subjectivity of my read is based largely on the subject matter: grasping ways of conceiving of languages (specifically when, how, and where they are used, by whom) as a way of mapping power relations and imagining how the continued use of diverse languages is a necessary and vital corrective to entrenched hegemony.


Rhona presented Flying Through Walls: Magical Realism in Literature and Advertisements this past April at Cross-Over Arts: Intermediality, a seminar in Puebla, Mexico that she attended with colleagues from the Comparative Literature Department at UMass Amherst. She placed 91st in her age/gender class in a 10km Road Race in Athens, 2005.

Professor Stephen Olbrys Gencarella is (among numerous accomplishments) a co-signer of a letter to Lingua Franca in defense of Folklore, co-author of Working with Tradition: towards a partnership model of fieldwork, and is a member of the editorial board for Liminalities: A journal of performance studies. Stephen describes his pedagogy in The Ivory Tower, Apathy, and the Art of Citizenship (available as a pdf from Best Practices).

On irradiation:

I came across a description: local image structure, and some definitions. Irradiation = "treatment with, or exposure to, any form of radiation. Cell cultures are often irradiated in the lab to induce the production of mutations" (QIMR), "Exposure to radiant energy, such as heat, X-rays, or light; the product of irradiance and time" (Laser Glossary), "the application of radiation for various purposes, including reducing levels or killing microorganisms and mould in foods, killing insects and pests that infest certain foods, and sterilizing food for specific medical applications" (Canadian Food Inspection Agency), "the crosslinking process that bonds the molecules of the polyolefin resin into a structure, giving the polymer increased strength and resulting in superior properties" (The ABCs of Foam}, "The use of radiation in food processing to lengthen shelf life by eliminating pathogenic microorganisms" (Rhode Island Food Safety).

Posted by Steph at October 5, 2007 9:51 AM


If that really was Gramsci's objection, then it has long been obviated by history. Like every living language, Esperanto constantly changes. It evolves as an inevitable consequence of usage in evolving contexts by a dynamic linguistic community.

A simple example is the lexicon: the majority of words in a modern Esperanto dictionary (see "La Plena Ilustrita Vortaro", for instance) were coined after the death of Zamenhof, the man who initiated the language. The evolution of grammatical and morphological trends can be observed in the literature. A good scholarly starting point is "Esperanto: Language, Literature and Community" by Pierre Janton, published by SUNY Press (ISBN: 0791412547).

Esperanto does have usage norms, of course, just like every living language. To conclude that such norms necessarily render a language inflexible, however, is like concluding that English is inflexible because one cannot just arbitrarily change the grammar while maintaining comprehensibility. Sure, I could decide that tomorrow I'm going to insert a new infix into all English verbs to indicate transitivity, but who on earth would understand me, much less accept such changes?

The comparison to "preserved" languages like classical Hebrew is also problematic. Such languages are unchanging because they lack a living community of speakers. A better comparison would be modern Hebrew, another planned language. Like modern Hebrew, Esperanto has roots in "dead" languages. But it also has a vibrant linguistic community (Ethnologue puts the figure at 2 million, with several thousand native speakers) who use the language for everything from technical manuals to religious worship to poetry to erotica.

Posted by: Hoss Firooznia at October 5, 2007 1:23 PM

Hi Hoss. Obviously you're a fan of Esperanto. I'm curious what motivated the need to create a new language? What was inadequate with the languages people already knew?

I appreciate the comparison with modern Hebrew as a living, planned language. Isn't there a distinction, though, between modern Hebrew as part of the revitalization of an historical cultural group? Whereas Esperanto has no such indigenous affiliation? I can imagine arguments in favor of the separation of language from culture, is that an articulated motive of the Esperanto movement?

Posted by: Steph at October 6, 2007 10:17 PM

Hi Steph. Great questions. I can't really do justice to them here, but here's a nutshell answer:

My understanding is that Zamenhof had two chief motives for creating Esperanto: one rather practical (the need for a democratic means of communication between people from different linguistic communities) and one more utopian (the hope that prejudices would be less likely to flourish when groups are able to freely communicate).

He was born in Bialystok, a city then part of the Russian empire and populated by mutually antagonistic populations of Jews, Germans, Poles and Russians. Not surprisingly, they all had trouble communicating with one another. Zamenhof surmised that the inability to communicate was a primary (though not necessarily the only) source of friction between the groups.

Explaining part of the motivation for his creation, Zamenhof wrote: "no one can feel the misery of barriers as strongly as a ghetto Jew, and no one can feel the need for a language free from a sense of nationality as strongly as the Jew who is obliged to pray to God in a language long since dead, receives his education and upbringing in the language of a people who reject him, and has fellow-sufferers around the world with whom he cannot communicate."

Then, as now, most of the languages people already knew -- the ethnic languages -- all made poor choices as lingua francas.

For one thing, they all gave a hugely disproportionate advantage to one group at the expense of all others. What German adult would want to spend years struggling with Polish lessons in order to be only a second-class speaker compared with native Poles -- who, without any effort on their part, would always speak the language easily and fluently? What Polish adult would do the same to communicate with Germans? What Russian would want to master Yiddish? And so forth.

Secondly, the ethnic languages were absurdly difficult to learn as a second language. They had countless irregularities and grammatical genders to memorize, nonsensical orthographies, complex systems of declensions, inconsistent morphological rules, largely redundant dictionaries filled with terms often having multiple, mutually unrelated meanings, and so on.

Esperanto was designed to solve -- as much as possible -- both of these problems. As a historical footnote, it's worth mentioning that Esperanto wasn't the only such effort. Since the 19th century there have been literally hundreds of auxiliary language projects with similar goals. Esperanto is the only one to have acquired a sizeable and enduring community of speakers, however.

As to modern Hebrew: you're right, of course. The analogy only goes so far, as there are very significant differences between these languages. I was merely trying to make the point that Esperanto -- like modern Hebrew -- is a vibrant, living language because it has a vibrant, living community of speakers and authors who use their language for just about every purpose imaginable.

As to indigenous culture: many people are surprised to learn that Esperanto has its own, distinct culture and an original literature to rival that of many ethnic tongues. Naturally, it didn't start out that way. But language is a bearer of culture. When you have a community bound by language language for so many years, it's probably inevitable that a culture will emerge from all that sharing of ideas.

And yes, the idea that Esperanto should be culture-free has long been a topic of debate in some corners of the Esperanto movement, though as far as I know that point of view has always been in a small minority. As far as I know, there's never been a consensus, much less an articulated goal, of separating language from culture. However, there has always been a very strong motivation among Esperantists to divorce their culture from nationalism and ethnicity.

You might be interested in a recent article by Esther Schor of Princeton University that details her immersion in Esperanto culture at a congress in Hanoi. She does a nice job of capturing the "interna ideo", a prominent thread of internationalism in the culture that is closely related to some of the motives we've been talking about here.


Posted by: Hoss Firooznia at October 9, 2007 5:59 PM

Post a comment yipee

Remember Me?


Type the characters you see in the picture above.