Thursday, December 4, 2008

No Ingles aqui: When does language become political?

One of the best things about cities is the bistro. That small bistro, squeezed between a shoes shop and a travel agent, loudly featuring a lunch menu for 9Euros. Last week, we had lunch in one such bistro in a fairly touristic area of Barcelona, right by Placa d'Espanya. I do not speak Spanish (at least not enough to understand the various types of food available), so I asked for an English-language menu. "No Ingles aqui!", the waiter shouted harshly and left the table. Shocked more with the body-language than the actual statement, we started talking. But we didn't speak English among ourselves, and as soon as the waiter in question noticed that, he came back with a big polite smile on his face and handed us the English-language menu.

There's something so 19th century about this... The debate on English as an imperialistic language aside, I kept on wondering just what makes us turn language into a political issue in everyday life encounters. I know we cannot fully divorce this from the power context, but I've always wondered about the irony of trying so hard to create and distinguish languages from each other instead of rejoicing the benefit of being able to communicate. When I was young, I couldn't possibly understand why Serbs and Croats would insist on building two separate languages - Serb and Croat, out of the Serbian-Croat linguistic field. I remember the mix of envy and amazement I felt when my Armenian friend started negotiating the price with the Bulgarian merchant in Plovidv. I couldn't do that; but here were people who shared one or two words or sentences, who were communicating.

But in modern times, language is not about communication. It is about politics. Language authorizes speakers: to be listened to, to be respected, one has to talk in the right language. The clever politician talks in Catalan in Barcelona, in Spanish in Madrid and in English in London. We frown upon 'improper' uses of language. Just what the heck is 'whadda' or 'kinda'? We insist on the 'right' way of talking, on constructing grammatically correct sentences, and, occasionally, on avoiding the use of imported words. Au revoir email, bien venue courrier electronique. Language sets symbolic boundaries and symbolic borders. It differentiates between 'us' and 'them', between 'natives' and 'second-language' speakers. We are taught, from an early age, that our language defines us. That's where you can find the metaphysical connection to your soul: in the language which makes you more profound, more sensitive, more poetic or more rational (depending on the national rhetoric...). Romanian-born and raised writer Emil Cioran refused to speak and write in Romanian after he set his residence in Paris. Maybe he instinctively knew what Bourdieu had to say about language: that it not only confers symbolic power. It becomes the locus of such power, and thus a political issue.

No comments:

Add to Technorati Favorites