I am very excited for the today’s lecture in the Culture and Communication class at the University of Texas at Austin that I am going to give: “Anthropology and Poetry: Different Languages (Or Not).” 9/28/2017
I am going to upload the text of the lecture later on my page on the Academia.edu.
Wish me luck!
In the journal of proceedings of the linguistic anthropology symposium in 2016 at UT, my first writing on Nabokov out there.
He is at the interception of identities, which coincides for the writer with the interception of languages and ways of writing: English as opposed to Russian but also as opposed to American (as opposed to French).
Certain ways of speaking, not only in terms of content but also prosodywise, are gendered as feminine, and, accordingly, stigmatized as degrading, condemned, castigated, censured, disapproved, publicly subjected to improvement and extermination, and reprimanded.
“Schoolgirl speech” in Japan, as Miyako uncoveres, was reconstructed as having a number of characteristics polluting the purity of educated Japanese speech: “From approximately 1887 through World War I, a surge of commentaries were written and circulated in the Japanese print media about the “strange” and “unpleasant” (mimizawarina) sounds issuing from the mouths of schoolgirls. Male intellectuals of various affiliations located the source of their dismay in utterance-endings such as teyo, noyo, and dawa which schoolgirls used. They called such speech forms “schoolgirl speech” (jogakusei kotoba). It was jarring to their ears; it sounded vulgar and low class; its prosodic features were described as “fast,” “contracting,” and “bouncing with a rising intonation”; and it was condemned as “sugary and shallow.”” (Miyako, 2006, 37).
Such telling examples do not belong solely to the pre-WW 1st Japanese past, they also mark the Western present. The discussion around “uptalk” bears remarkably misoginystic overtones. “Uptalk,” the employment of rising intonation in statements, supposedly transforming statements into questions, is intensely gendered as characteristic to women’s speech. Highly gendered public spheres of modernity intensely police feminized ways of speaking.
A brief overview of youtube videos regarding uptalk would yield to “The Weird Way Women Downplay Their Success” (https://youtu.be/fs9QhpmjWLs), a nameless video about “degradation of English language” (https://youtu.be/hjKMNyZ2oTc), and multiple videos of young women “uptalking” (for example, https://youtu.be/Tj4EIGje4dA) with comments as follows (numbers below the comment indicate “likes”):
“Tavor Runner 274 months ago
If you are contemplating suicide, this vid may very well push you over the edge.
echolot1 month ago
as annoying as they talk, i’d still love to be the meat in that sandwich.
væmpaɪər Lestat2 weeks ago
makes me wanna cut their fucking throat”
Women, on one hand, are socialized into presenting their opinions as ready to be retracted any moment, but on the other hand women are ridiculed exactly for that. Language ideologies of modernity require women to employ cadences of speech reconstructed as men’s cadences, as well as men’s manner of talking, in order to be construed and recognized as a confident, “successful” speaker.
Miyako, Inoue. Vicarious language: Gender and linguistic modernity in Japan. University of California Press. 2006
I think Voloshinov expressed the pathos of the philosophy of language in one phrase:
“We addressed ourselves to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of the word. But what is language, and what is word? We do not, of course, have in mind anything like a conclusive definition of these concepts.” (Voloshinov, 1973, 45)
He, of course, does not end here, but proceeds with outlining the four basic principles of language:
“1 . Language is activity, an unceasing process of creation (energeia) realized in individual speech acts;
2. The laws of language creativity are the laws of individual psychology;
3. Creativity of language is meaningful creativity, analogous to creative art;
4. Language as a ready-made product (ergon), as astable system (lexicon, grammar, phonetics), is, so to speak, the inert crust, the hardened lava of language creativity, of which linguistics makes an abstract construct in the interests of the practical teaching of language as a ready-made instrument.” (48, cursive is the author’s here and further unless otherwise noted.)
I find the idea of Vossler, in regard to grammar, particularly appealing. In Voloshinov’s formulation, it sounds as follows:
“Everything that becomes a fact of grammar had once been a fact of style.” (51)
That speaks to the notion of grammar with which Becker is occupied, in a somewhat opposing manner. If for Becker (1995) grammar precedes the utterance (which it does in any given respect), Vossler brings us to the realization that grammar categories are malleable, and the forms of expressions particularly economical, practical, and efficient, emerge and become day-to-day choices of speakers’ self-expression over other grammatical constructions. Thus the “individual creative acts of speech” all play out in the societal language production, influencing the norms and changing grammatical structures which are considered to be normative, over time.
Voloshinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Harvard University Press, 1973.
Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995
Agha Asif, by analyzing the emergence of a particularly privileged way of speaking British English, so-called “Received Pronunciation,” shows the close, indivisible relationship between the way language is performed and cultural value ascribed to this performance. Not only “received pronunciation” of the speaker marks her social, economic, and educational high status, but it also shapes discursive practices in which she participates.
The variety of versions of speaking English has always been my fascination, probably because it is a personal matter of an English speaker whose speech is marked with accent. My accent defines not only the way my interactions go in the English-speaking environments, but also the very content of these interactions, for instance requiring me to unfold a variation of a personal story providing my interlocutor with information he requests from a foreigner to define the character of emerging communication and to ascertain my identity.
Despite that Agha dismisses the term “accent” as a folk concept, accent marks the belonging of the speaker to “some other group” (a remarkably precise Agha’s formula); it organizes daily experiences in a variegated assortment of unprecedented ways within a continuity of discovering foreignness, otherness, and difference.
The accent is a heavily loaded marker of a social, national, cultural identity, and it comes with a system of assigned meanings “through the use of identifying labels” (Agha, 2007, 233). I would add, that the normality, or unaccented way of speaking, is unmarked in social imaginary, and therefore is taken as default. Speakers sharing the same accent (for example, in any class of second-language learners), would not construct hierarchy based on shared characteristic. The sorting property of any quality emerges in a group who do not share it. Among those who speak differently, some pronunciation would be marked as normal and some as deviating, accented, impaired.
The case of the British “Received Pronunciation” is unusual in this respect. It still marks the identity of the speaker, but in a favorable way. It marks her as different but belonging to a privileged class. RP is understood by everyone who lives in Britain, but “the competence to speak it” (Agha, 2007, 234, the cursive is the author’s) is a prerogative of a small powerful minority. The power of PR is evident not only in the fact that it is translated through media in Great Britain, but also that it is one of the best-studied accents.
As a marker of higher status, it is inevitably under the scrutiny of purification, of which the culmination is the doubt that the Queen herself could perform it properly, expressed rather funny in the quoted by Agha article which appeared in “The Independent” newspaper on 21 December, 2000:
“Her Majesty may not be so amused to find that a team of linguists has found her guilty of no longer speaking the Queen’s English. A group of Australian researchers analysed every Christmas message made by the Queen since 1952 and discovered that she now speaks with an intonation more Chelmsford than Windsor. . .” (226)
Agha, Asif. The Social Life of Cultural Value in “Language and Social Relations.” Cambridge University Press, 2007
Becker provides us with a powerful description of language acquisition: “One learns these texts in action, by repetitions and corrections, starting with the simplest utterances of a baby. One learns to reshape these texts to new context, by imitation and by trial and error. One learns to interact with more and more people, in a greater and greater variety of environments.” (Becker, 1995, 144).
Grammar, therefore, is a set of rules not imposed on the speaker by books, but acquired as the structures of spoken, heard, and talked language.
The language is an intricately, infinitely complex system of clichés. To be understood, one has to rely on what has been already said billion times. There is a certain space for novelty but it is a regulated space.
Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995
“Scholars in the philosophy of language have understood incommensurability to refer to a state in which an undistorted translation cannot be produced between two or more denotational texts.” (Povinelli, 2001, 320)
So the question would be, why do scholars think that any “undistorted translation” could be produced? It seems pretty clear that that’s beyond the realm of possibility. It is feasible that some translation have more distortions that others, and that in some cases translation is altogether inaccessible, but the translation as such is a process that consists of selections of admissible distortions in order to combine them into the unity that would still be identifiable as a source text but anyone familiar with the language in question.
“How could the Hawaiians have understood James Cook, or Cook the Hawaiians, without producing serious distortions (Sahlins 1995, Obeyesekere 1997)?” (Povinelli, 2001, 321)
The dispute on Cook’s regrettable end involved the conversation about colonial discourse, the Western inevitable enthnocentrism, the researcher’s positionality, and glocal ecologies of language and communication. Whereas translation is impossible without distortions, it functions as a distorted reflection quite effectively. And as Foucault remarked that starting from a certain point, the question of authorship is not about the author’s romantic subjectivities, but about the contexts, intentions, power dynamics, contested discourses and such, in the discussion of which the author is not a point of departure, similarly in the circulation of translated communication the question of “distortions” is not of fatal significance. Perhaps the essence of communication is happening on a less linguistic-heavy level as we came to suggest. Perhaps sub-, overly-, nearly- and paralinguistic means of communication are the gist of it, which if not nullifies the problem of distortion, then at least makes it far less ominous.
The interpretational endeavors in which we engage, is the series of “passing theories” (Davidson quoted by Povinelli), which are generated, come to appear veritable, fade out and die as communication unfolds.
The perfect illustration of the inevitable ethnocentrism is the famous Quine’s example illustrating the inaccessibility of the true meaning of the utterances based on the sounds and the connection of said sounds with the established by the anthropologist meaning. How do we know that gavagai is a rabbit and not the rabbit’s sudden appearance?
“A rabbit scurries by, the native says “Gavagai,” and our jungle linguist notes down the sentence “Rabbit” (or “Lo, a rabbit”) as tentative translation.” (Quine, 2000, 94)
Of course native people would say “lo, a rabbit.” That is just what should be expected. They might also say “lo and behold, the rabbit.” That would be more like it.
Not so much the impossibility to establish the correspondence between rabbit and the word supposedly meaning it, is the case of difficulty, as the fact that properly established rabbit is woven into the text written by the anthropologist, in all the poetics and politics of the text, reaffirming the politics of subjugation by means of studying, or enlightenment, or educating.
To return to Cook’s end conundrum, Marshall Sahlins’s piece (Sahlins, 1985) opens up not only the question “What really happened to Cook?” as the question, akin to Quine’s wonder, “How do we ever know what has ever really happened?” And although Sahlins is extremely persuasive given the intricacies of his writing style, he indulges into Roman-style mythologies only Western mind is capable of producing, and in this divide I am rather on the side of Gannanath Obeyeskere who stated: “I doubt that the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them.” (Obeyeskere, 3). Not to suggest that something that might be described as “the natives creating the god” did not happen, but the way it was framed and became stitched into the political imaginary, was inescapably fraught with “distortions of translation.”
Marshall Sahlins. (1985) “Captain James Cook; or, The Dying God.” in Island of History. University of Chicago Press.
Obeyesekere, Ganannath. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook. Pp.3-22.
Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2001. “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability” Annual Review of Anthropology, 30: 319-334.
Quine, Willard V.O. (2000) “Meaning and Translation” in L. Venuti (editor) “The Translation Studies Reader”