The identical cameleon

chameleo_parsoniiNow that I have started to acquire some degree of mastership in several languages, I am beginning to wonder about the side-effects of being a polyglot. Googling the term “polyglot” I came to the wikipedia page dedicated to multilingualism. According to some studies, there is a difference being made between “compound bilinguals” and “coordinate bilinguals”. The difference is that the first group understand the two words in two different languages designating the same thing as referring to the same concept or thing, while the second group would associate these two words with two different concepts. In the second group, people will tend to express two different personalities in these two languages. However, this is an ideal-type and bilinguals are a bit of both. I would certainly be in the middle, with a tendency to being a “coordinate bilingual”. I find the distinction rather strange and unclear. According to this distinction, only the first group is a group of fluent speakers in both languages. I wonder if the classification is not made by monolingual people. It seems to me that the first group is very likely not to be bilingual. To take the example given, a “chien” and a “dog” are the same for them. But this is non-sense. Sure a dog is a dog is a dog. But there are so many different cultural references associated to the dog in each language, that it just does not make sense to associate the two words with the same thing, when they have two different lexical fields associated with them. “Dog!” is not a very strong insult in English, whereas “Chien !” is definitely a powerful expression of disgust towards a person’s behaviour in French. Furthermore, the British tradition for pets would also certainly add different dimensions to what is associated with the word “dog” than in French. And, finally but not exhaustively, I could think of one’s own personal experience in England or France related to dogs, and appreciation of the treatment given to dogs in each culture.

I was not particularly good at school in languages, but I realise now that it may have been because languages are taught in school in one’s mother tongue, and people are forced to be “compound bilinguals”. I am now much better at learning languages, because I am learning on my own, and with my own method. I try to learn a language as a native would, and embrace the whole culture that comes with it, rather than trying to think in my referring mother tongue and translate systematically with the idea that all the words designing concepts in my “own” language have a translation.

Doing so, I have come to develop different personalities, and undermine or loose the original one. I grew up in France, and sometimes I do not even know how to express myself in French any longer. I left France and kept a literary connection with French. Coming back to France, it seems to me that no one speaks French correctly, and that French is and should only be a written language, since it is so demanding. I have for instance a hard time being funny in French, unless I have to write. On the contrary, English seems to be the language of humour. Perhaps, the reason is that I enjoy all the American situation comedies, and the satirical shows, as well as the English ones.

In Danish, I am still wondering how to be. It is still difficult finding the Danish me.

Of course, learning languages this way is much more fastidious, but I think it is the only way to truly learn them. One could say that I am monolingual in several languages, with more or less vocabulary. I enjoy particularly the way a language sounds, and learning how to pronounce correctly. It demands a lot of effort and concentration however, and often it is easier to start from reading out loud a text, than actually uttering a thought, as it drives the attention away from the sheer pronunciation. The shift from one language to the other is not easy however. It requires a few minutes of adaptation, and sometimes I may even sound foreign in my own mother tongue.

There is a new wave of cosmopolitan writers writing in a foreign language, or mixing foreign languages with their native language, or again re-inventing their native language with forms of expressions and thinking that are foreign. There is surely a lot to develop for a cosmopolitan literary theory.

From the nation-state to the cosmopolitan-state: politics and culture for the 21st century

Thank you Peter for commenting on “Polyfonias” and delving into literary analyses.

brueghel-tower-of-babel1I would like to add to your comment on monolingualism. It seems that today we have forgotten our past when it comes to language. Our past was Babelian (but not in the sense that the myth should serve the construction of a universal homogeneity — a powerful Judeo-Christian myth), Babelian in the sense of the plurality of languages. This proximity without a nation-state to impose one national “mother tongue” involved a necessary understanding of other cultures and languages, when exposed to them.

This is not talking about any “intellectual elite”. Central and Eastern Europe, what in the USA has been called the “new Europe”, but which is not a good description of this part of Europe, one should rather speak with Czesław Miłosz of the “other Europe” (bad French translation of “Rodzinna Europa” or “family Europe”). If one looks at a map of all the historical frontiers drawn for the past 150 years in Europe, one is struck by the fact that this “other Europe” is completely dark. Cross-cultural and multilingual exchanges have been common to most of the populations there, outside any overarching authority. Simple peasants were multilingual by birth and by necessity, simply because people were living together speaking different languages.

Even inside centralised countries such as France, it is only because of jacobinism, and the late 19th-century construction of the national state with a national culture that French and a “French identity” took over regional languages and cultures. So much so, that it has long been considered archaic and un-modern to nurture such regional cultures. But why would they be? In Spain, it has not been so and Catalunya is for instance much more recognised as a culture and language. After all, there are more inhabitants in Catalunya than in, say, Denmark. Why would one be only a region and the other a nation-state?

The congruence between culture and politics is an invention of the late 19th century national-state construction. The imposition of a single language, and by there a single culture, supposedly national is con-substantial with this form of nationalist project.

“Cosmopolitanism” need not be an elitist project. First, cosmopolitanism has been labelled elitist and utopian by nationalists themselves in the late 19th century. “Cosmopolitans” were labelled as some dangerous enemies of the national unity, and the “patrie” because of Montesquieu’s theory that a democracy can only survive if its members love the laws and cherish the res publica. During the 18th century the “cosmopolitan” is labelled as a traveller, touring Europe, and having no fixed “patrie”. Therefore, how could he/she be a good patriot? The term symbolised the aristocrats, married to several European aristocratic families. These people were rejected during the revolution, as “tyrants”, and Sieyes and others replaced the King with the “nation”. However, the “nation” at that time was a very cosmopolitan one, it included just any freeman in the world. The French revolution was supposed to be a beacon for freedom. So much so that foreigners were included, and became members of the “national assembly”. So much so that some of these “foreigners”, like Anacharsis Cloots, would proclaim humankind the sole sovereign, and the only possible nation. The concept of “nation” at that time was thus not yet “nationalised” into a French, a Danish or a Spanish nation. This came later. Soon enough however, the idea of nation became exclusive. Cosmopolitan “idealists” like Cloots were sent to the guillotine — this wonderful modern invention used in France until 1981 (1977 last execution).

However, this position of opposing nationalism and cosmopolitanism is not tenable and confusing many things. First, it assumes that cosmopolitanism is based on the idea of a cosmopolitan, and nationalism on the idea of nation. Then it assumes that a cosmopolitan is a traveller, elitist because multilingual, and without a fixed “patrie”, while the national is more concrete, fixed identity, monolingual. The idea of nation, however, can be cosmopolitan, as the concept was during the French revolution.

The real problem is when the nation is understood as a fixed concept around one language, one culture, one country, exclusive of any other, and that it is an ideology in the service of, and policy of a state — the owner of legitimate violence over individuals. In many ways, the nation-state has been and still is a necessary political and social organisation. It has created modern democracies, justice, flourishing cultures. But if understood with concepts of the nineteenth century, it is doomed to fail in a globalized world.

We need to reinvent our nations, and replace the nation-state with a cosmopolitan state, which would live more peacefully in cross-cultural co-existence with other cosmopolitan states, and inside a European Union of cosmopolitan states. Monolingualism would no longer be the norm, and everyone should be taught several languages at school and have the chance to live in other countries during their life. In other words, what the nation-state did to populations, the cosmopolitan-state should now do.

Ottmar Ette (University of Potsdam) The Scientist as Weltbürger: Alexander von Humboldt and the Beginning of Cosmopolitics

Excellent article on Humboldt and cosmopolitanism, arguing that the ‘Weltbürger’ was a scientist and the scientist a ‘Weltbürger.’ This reminds me of my own research on the use of the term cosmopolitan and citizen of the world in eighteenth century France. Very often people would use it as a moniker to claim a position of universal truth, a certain neutrality of view in international debates, and certainly a position of positivity as a subject. Very sketchily this position was made possible — this is my contention — because of the central position that humanity took in the discourse, and the general belief in the universality of reason. Every person through reason could ponder the laws of universal truth, without any particularistic bias. This is the fundament of positivity and its connection to the cosmopolitan. However, I argue that cosmopolitan and cosmopolitanism are two different things, and cannot be equated to one another. The apparition of the word ‘cosmopolitanism’ is a late nineteenth century invention, contemporary with the social embeddedness of nationalism. Since nationalism claimed the particular, the fixed, the boundary, cosmopolitanism, based on the travelling cosmopolitan became the general, the world, the moving, the boundaryless. Some US/THEM differentiation.

Here is the link on Humboldt and cosmopolitanism:

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