Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Cunning Linguists

As I come, rather later in life than is entirely seemly, to the business of picking up some minimum sense of some other languages (other than French, of course; speaking French badly with an atrocious accent is a core skill we Brits all pick up in school) -- I am struck by the fact that learning a language is a complex task: it requires a lot of effort, the mastery of difficult interlocking skills-bases to do with vocabulary and syntax, grammar and idiom; plus, of course, it's eminently practical. Like building a motorbike from scratch. It ought (it occurs to me, as I slip deliberately into self-consciously sexist mode) to be an archetypal manly activity. But it's not: on the contrary. The popular conception of the linguistically multi-skilled individual is either fey, effeminate and ineffectual, like this geezer:


Or fey and psychotic like this one:


I appreciate, of course, that I'm only talking about an Anglocentric position (of course things are very different on the Continent, for instance). But even so: I'm at a loss to explain the default hostility aroused by the individual who can speak many languages fluently. Is it that linguistic versatility is seen as being fundamentally slippery, evasive and so on? But that's bullshit.

6 comments:

Chardonnay Chap said...

I don't know that you're right here. (I'm not sure that you're wrong either.) Tony Blair spoke fluent French, and I don't think that was held against him. Nick Clegg is fluent in Spanish, and, I think, French too, but that's not among the reasons for his unpopularity. I don't think Ian Dury did himself any harm by singing in French and German on 'Hit me with your rhythm stick'. And not speaking other languages can just be comical, like the 'Hande Hoch' stuff in Dad's Army.

As for C3P0, he was invented by George Lucas, who is American and Jewish -- and lots of American Jews are multilingual (German, Yiddish, Hebrew, etc) being recent immigrants. I'm not sure he was thinking of C3P0 as stigmatised. After all, he's based on a Japanese character, and he's got to have some useful role in the films. If he wasn't a translator, what would he be for?

Adam Roberts Project said...

Clegg speaks English, French, Spanish and fluent Dutch. You're telling me he's a much-loved and trusted public figure, though? Ted Heath spoke good French and people mocked him for it. Blair kept his own fluency in French fairly close to his chest (it wasn't how he sold himself to the voters, for instance).

I'm not saying C3PO is stigmatised, exactly; but why do you think he is quite so, er, effeminate?

Adam Roberts Project said...

To be clear (re your that's not among the reasons for his unpopularity') I'm suggesting not that linguistic facility causes unpopularity, but that people associate it with a kind of plauisle untrustworthiness, a slipperiness, a dodginess: and that's how people feel about both Clegg now and Blair before him.

Chardonnay Chap said...

I wasn't telling you that Clegg is loved, only that being multi-lingual isn't one of the things held against him.

I suppose you're right about Clegg and Blair, but what about post-grad degrees? Gordon Brown, Obama (and most surprisingly GW Bush). Could you argue that they're held to be elitist or out-of-touch as a result? I'm sure there is academic inverse snobbery in the Anglosphere which there isn't on the continent (or in India, Japan, China, etc).

Back to Star Wars, Han understands the languages of Greedo and Chewbacca, yet while he's certainly slippery and criminal, he's not effeminate or ineffectual.

You've got an interesting theory, but I'm not at all sure it's right.

mahendra singh said...

In the USA, speaking a foreign language of any kind is still a bit suspect in many quarters.

I'm not sure why, but French is especially disliked. Yet speaking German (badly) is rather well regarded. Cryptoauthoritarnlingophoboa?

Canadians are far more relxed, except the anglo-french charabia/BS you encounter in certain quarters.


Why would want to speak anything but american anyway, huh?

Adam Roberts Project said...

Interesting stuff, CC. Yes, Han understands Gredo and Chewie. But he's too macho to speak their tongues. To talk in anything other than his own language would demean him, I'd say. Which is my whole point.

Mahendra: I suspect the entire USA dislikes the anglophone who can speak a bit of French, but likes a bit of German, because it knows *I* can speak a bit of French but not German. It's personal.