Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Neighbourly matters

At the turn of last century, in his book The Mystic Rose, the British anthropologist Ernest Crawley described human relationships as characterised by a “taboo of personal isolation” which, together with natural egoism, leads to feelings that “all society, as such, is dangerous”. My interpretation of Crawley’s observations is that we shape our socialisation strategies through selfish assertion of our uniqueness, because we feel alone against others, rather than with them.

Sigmund Freud later drew on Crawley’s analysis to support what he termed our “narcissism in respect of minor differences”, whereby we tend to create gaps of difference, or widen existing ones, between us and those who are very similar to us. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud noted that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other – like the Spaniards and the Portuguese, for instance”. As a native Portuguese, I can attest to the accuracy of this statement, and I’m sure nuestros hermanos will nod in reciprocal recognition too.

Freud’s observation may at first sight appear paradoxical. Why should we nitpick for differences just for the sake of nitpicking, where commonalities outnumber differences? Physical nearness tends to have the effect that you become like those near you, but this is precisely what you don’t want to happen, if nearness involves chance rather than choice: you want to promote group uniqueness instead. This being so, who better to vent this inborn urge to exalt ourselves by demeaning others, than on our neighbours? They are irresistibly near at hand, and they are a constant reminder of ways and habits of our own that we may judge to be less than flattering to ourselves. Within the smaller circle of parent-child “neighbourhoods”, I cannot be the only one who’s reacted to funny and/or downright unpleasant quirks of my children’s behaviour, which nevertheless felt strangely familiar, only to realise that they were modelled on my own. The point is that our neighbours may be like us but they are not us. They are a they which happens to be too close to a shared sameness for comfort, embodying the disruption of an “integrity” whose distinctiveness we wish to claim for ourselves. (This may well be why “Love thy neighbour” entreaties strike a chord with the bad conscience of so many of us – in theory, at least.)

Terry Pratchett puts it another way, referring to neighbourly matters within the boundaries of a single country. In his Discworld novel Unseen Academicals, one character wonders why Ankh-Morpork’s paired football teams, which are so close to one another, hate one another so much. The answer is that “It’s hard to hate people who are a long way away. You forget how dreadful they are. But you see a neighbour’s warts every day.” My interpretation of Pratchett’s observations is that we’re all dreadful, and what makes us bearable is distance.

Physical distance, that is. I’ve often wondered why hearing tomayto or tomahto can either delight you or risk causing you apoplexy, depending on how close you feel to whoever uses different versions of the same words. I take this as a side effect of multilingualism in a single language. Many Portuguese, for example, think that Brazilian cadences and vowel qualities are simply endearing, but if, and only if, they come from Brazilians. Those Portuguese who use them in their Portuguese dialects are just speaking hilarious Portuguese. Many Americans (or so I’m told) fall for the charms of British accents any time, including those accents where the sound represented by ‘r’ in words like party and dear is not pronounced, while cringing at similar accents from fellow Americans. If you’re interested in English ‘r’ matters, incidentally, look up rhotic vs. non-rhotic accents, the terminology proposed by British phonetician John Wells which became standard for discussion of this issue. 

Our neighbours’ behaviours seem to strike us as funny versions of our own behaviours, rather than genuine behaviours in their own right. A bit like looking at ourselves in those distorting mirrors at amusement parks – whereby we can probably guess how we strike them, too. All this got me thinking about those of us who may feel the need to promote or even impersonate neighbouring behaviours, accents included, in our professional lives. Language teachers are a case in point, and I’ll have something to say about this in the next couple of posts.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Teaching to the standard. Saturday 11th August 2012.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Intelligibility rules

Fitting in involves making ourselves intelligible to other people. If we wish to bond with those who appeal to us, it makes no sense to not make sense to them. Conversely, if those people also find us appealing, they will want to make sense to us too.

As we grow up, we develop fluency in what characterises our linguistic territories. We speak the languages that speak to us, and we use them in ways that match our “self”, as we grow in and out of identities, in time, and step in and out of them daily, in space. You are not the “same” person(a) when you’re being a mother, a linguist, a wife, a teacher, a sister, a student, and so on. We act our parts by impersonating ourselves as we see fit, in order to fulfil the different roles that we play in life adequately.

Attempting to impersonate other people may meet with less success, however. When we make ourselves intelligible to someone else, by adopting their language(s) or their ways of using them, we’re also signalling belonging to a shared home. But linguistic competence comes complete with command of linguistic strategies which accommodate (or not) to the diversity of language uses around us. That is, awareness of our linguistic territories involves awareness of our power to refuse entry to them. The issue is that imitating someone else’s behaviour means that someone else is being imitated. Not everyone is pleased with having outsiders hijack their trademark idiosyncrasies: we’re trespassing.

Many of us react accordingly. One very effective way of asserting whatever privileges we associate with our hunting grounds is to put them in their place through deliberate creation of unintelligibility: we refuse to make ourselves intelligible, or to acknowledge others’ attempts at intelligibility. I’ve had native speakers of my non-native languages pretend not to understand me and comment instead on my abstruse misuse of them, or repeat verbatim, only louder and more impatiently, what they said that I failed to understand; and I’ve had fellow native speakers behave in exactly the same way towards my native uses, in academia, in public or private offices, or wherever and whenever anyone has felt the need to assert their power over me. A long time ago, I saw an interview on TV which describes quite accurately what I mean. The interviewee (a politician, granted) rambled on about a completely irrelevant issue, in reply to a question. The interviewer finally managed to point out that “That’s not what I asked”, to which the interviewee replied “But that’s what I answered.”

Bullying takes many forms, in other words. Human beings excel in the art of excluding other human beings, because we all know how deep the pain of rejection runs, and so how effective it is as a deterrent to further trespassing. Linguistic power arguably tops the scale of power relations: your quest for membership in exclusive clubs of friends or colleagues may fall short because of lacking credentials in the way you use your languages, in the languages that you use, or both.

An alternative way of dealing with what looks and feels like gaping differences is to bridge them. There’s always a shared way to come across, if we care to take the trouble to find it: what looks and feels different may in fact be same-same. One example (one of my favourites!) is this Singaporean approach to Christmas and Chinese New Year celebrations:

Photo: MCF

It takes two to tango, in short: the key to fitting in is mutual intelligibility, something I’ll come back to in a future post. We human beings are also experts at creating intelligibility – if we so wish. If we can and do make ourselves understood in tourist-brochure places whose food, entertainment and souvenirs appeal to us, and if we can in turn understand those who provide those exotic goodies that we desire, there’s no reason we can’t do it with anyone – if we so wish.

There nevertheless seems to be one intriguing exception to whatever goodwill we choose to exercise towards promoting mutual intelligibility, elsewhere. This is when, somewhat paradoxically, the “otherness” of particular groups of people strikes us as a form of modified “sameness” rather than legitimate otherness. Namely, with our neighbours. I’ll leave this matter for my next post.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Neighbourly matters. Wednesday 25th July 2012.


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