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April 25, 2004: Playing dumb - C'est affreux of course - but necessary...

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Playing dumb - C’est affreux of course - but necessary.


The necessary caveat: Language is something I’ve been curious about since the sixties. 

And one thing that interests me is each specific language and how it shapes thought.  As I’ve mentioned, my graduate work was on Swift, or more specifically on his ironic language.  How can you say one thing and your readers know you actually mean something else entirely, but not exactly the opposite?  There are seven or ten levels of other things you mean but you’re not saying.  They’re clear anyway.  Most everyone gets them just fine.  They laugh. 

But how did that happen?  This calls for careful examination of the workings of language itself.  So in high school I was reading the "New Critics" – Brooks and Warren – and then later it was off into the madness of semiotics and the deconstructionists – Derrida and that crew.  And don’t get me started on Chomsky - or even Benjamin Lee Whorf and the harmless Otto Jesperson. 

Anyway, I got hooked on the idea that if thought only occurs through the use of language, then what does any single syntax and grammar allow you to think?  What does it let you think?  What does it keep you from thinking? 

French is cool, for example.  Joseph, an expatriate American living in France, brought up the political implications of this in something he posted in January to a bunch of folks with whom I correspond. 


A topic that I have been intending to bring up, but have not had the time to develop, concerns a peculiarity of the French language.  Now all but dead in English, the "subjunctive" mode is still going strong in French.  For those unfamiliar, one could reasonably say that the French have an entire tense dedicated to doubt.  I can't help but see a connection between this and issues of national character and the impact that this has on political life. 

Does not the requirement that one use this mode after all kinds of expressions, which in English do not appear to contain any doubt, have an impact on discourse, forcing both speaker and listener to recognize the presence of doubt? 


Good question, and my friends kicked that about for a bit. 

I think now John Kerry worried about this.  Joshua Kurlantzick in the current New Yorker points out that in private settings Kerry has chatted in excellent French with Alain de Chalvron, Washington bureau chief for the French radio service France 2.  So?  It seems also that now, when asked a question in French at an open press conference, Kerry pretends not to be able to understand it, and doesn’t give an answer at all.  Curious. 

The Kurlantzick item is here:

Joshua Kurlantzick, The New Yorker Issue of 2004-04-19 and 26 - Posted 2004-04-12

Here’s some detail:


Alain de Chalvron, the Washington bureau chief for France 2, the French equivalent of the BBC, hasn’t had an easy time since he came to America, last fall.  He has had to endure a predictable barrage of remarks regarding freedom fries, Old Europe, and the “Axis of Weasel,” along with a reticent White House, which has made it hard for foreign journalists to get briefings.  So when John Kerry became the front-runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination de Chalvron and other French journalists in Washington were understandably excited.  They knew about Kerry: he went to a Swiss boarding school, he has a cousin who ran for the French Presidency, and he supposedly wooed Teresa Heinz by impressing her with his fluent French. 

For a time, Kerry seemed equally enthusiastic about the French reporters covering his campaign.  He was quite accessible in Iowa and New Hampshire,” de Chalvron said the other day, in his office in Washington.  He understands French very well.  His words are correct and sometimes even sophisticated.  I asked him, ‘How can you have this life?  It must be terrible, crisscrossing the country.’ Kerry answered, ‘C’est affreux’—‘It’s awful.’” De Chalvron’s voice rose with admiration.  Affreux, it’s not a very usual word.  It’s something a French person can use easily, but Kerry could have said, ‘Yes, it’s terrible,’ instead of going to pick a more difficult word.”


Well, that’s no more than amusing language trivial. 

Except for the months that followed.  Kurlantzick notes that Republicans have long suggested Kerry is too… continental?  And I have mentioned that in his daily Wall Street Journal column James Taranto always refers to Kerry as the "haughty French-looking senator, who, by the way, served in Vietnam."  This did all start when Commerce Secretary Donald Evans told reporters that Kerry “looks French.”  That stuck.  And Kurlantzick reminds us that conservatives complained about Kerry talking about endorsements of him from foreign leaders, and how right-wing talk-show hosts now refer to Kerry as “Monsieur Kerry” and “Jean Cheri.”

Kurlantzick adds there was a final straw, and a sudden shift:


A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French anthropologist known for identifying the subconscious associations that people from various cultures make in the “reptilian” part of their brains, had offered to become the Senator’s Gallic Naomi Wolf, devising ways for him to rid his speaking style of French influences. 

Suddenly, Kerry appeared to develop linguistic amnesia.  During a press conference, I asked Kerry a question, on Iraq,” de Chalvron recalled.  He didn’t answer.  In front of the American journalists, he didn’t want to take a question that was not in English.”   Loïck Berrou, the United States bureau chief for de Chalvron’s competitor, TF1, has been having similar problems.  Berrou chatted in French with Kerry on a commercial flight last year; the Senator reminisced about his family’s country house in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, a village in Brittany, where Kerry’s cousin is the mayor.  We’ve pushed hard to get an interview with him, and no answer,” Berrou says. 

Family members have apparently been put on a leash as well.  Kerry’s wife, Berrou says, “speaks with us in French with no problem, and her press attaché has to pull her by the shirt to get her away from us.”


Ah well. 

Kurlantzick lets us know this English-only rule doesn’t seem to hold when Kerry is speaking off the record.  In fact, he says on his campaign plane recently, Kerry carried on a lively conversation with de Chalvron in French. 


The other day, in his office, de Chalvron showed footage of Kerry bringing hot towels to foreign journalists in the back of the plane and bantering with Parisian reporters about his chances.  De Chalvron was perplexed.  For us, to speak any other language and have an open view of the world, for a President, should be a plus,” he said. 


Mais, non!  Kerry knows better. 

And this:


As for an on-the-record interview, de Chalvron is still trying, but Kerry’s campaign has not responded.  He did, however, recently land an interview with Pat Robertson, who told him, “Jean François Kerry will never be elected.”


You don’t mess with Pat Robertson.  Pat tells many people how to vote, and they do.  That has something to do with Jesus but I’m not sure what. 

Geoffrey K. Pullum over at the site Language Log (University of Pennsylvania) has a few comments on all this –


… The last thing you want in American politics, apparently, is to be captured on camera understanding French, let alone speaking it.  Rush Limbaugh would start portraying you as hardly American at all (he already does this with Kerry, in fact, having heard about these suspicious francophone abilities on the grapevine). 

Geoff Nunberg pointed out to me that in Nebraska they once passed a law making it illegal to teach foreign languages in the schools, period.  Foreign language learning is now, like sodomy, legal in all states; but these are not freedoms that a politician should brag about taking advantage of.  Such is the determined linguistic isolationism of the USA.  I would have thought that to have a US president (for once) who could argue fluently and convincingly in the native language of some other head of state would be a fantastic asset.  But instead it is perceived as a kind of disloyalty, evidence of being an untrustworthy egghead, and you would lose millions of votes over it.  It's both depressing and amazing. 


Yes, but I think it circles back to the comment from Joseph I cited up top. 

Learning another language can be dangerous.  I can have you thinking is ways that could be disturbing.  As I said, if thought only occurs through the use of language, then what does any single syntax and grammar allow you to think?  What does it let you think?  What does it keep you from thinking? 

I suspect someone knows if you learn French you might find yourself slipping into the subjunctive mode, as it were.  You might think new thoughts.  You might start doubting things.  And we cannot have that, can we?  Doubting is so very… French. 

The word nuance is French, and as Bush says, he doesn’t do nuance.  Most Americans don’t.  The language we use doesn’t as easily allow it.  Tant pis. 


Well, my friend Joseph in Paris had something to say about that –


No subtlety in English?  GETTAF**KOUTTAHEAIR!  Swift couldn't have pulled it off in French.  One has to be a bit more clever to achieve nuance in English, that's true.  But doesn't that structural lack of subtetly force both reader and writer to work between the lines?  Isn't it that limitation that makes  irony not only possible, but neccessary?


As for the rest, you must be joking.  Americans are not suspicious of those who speak any language more foreign than Spanish.  Americans are suspicious of those who learn one.  This doesn't spring from bubba's profound knowledge of linguistic, semiotics or polemics.  Were just back to what here I’ll dub the "bubba gap".  Bubba fears edumacation.  Might interfere with one's ability to enjoy NASCAR.  And might turn one in to an atheistic, sushi eatin' designer wearin' citified faggot.


I do think that this relates to Vidal's "Equality of sensibilities".  Now that every lifestyle, every stupidity, prejudice and vulgarity has found a place on television to be validated - no, glorified, bubba, and plenty of other undesirables are emancipated in their minds and spirits to the point

that they no longer aspire to be anything that they already aren't - except rich, and if possible, muscular.


In a "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" from my youth, I remember a claim that some 19th century president was ambidextrous and could write in ancient Greek with one hand, Latin in the other, simultaneously.  Don't remember which.  But it does seem to me that in a very short time we've become a county that  no longer admires, but now despises people who "know things"; tant pis, et degage toi.




Yes, Swift used English to say what I said couldn't be said in English.  True enough.


But the language has changed quite a bit since the early eighteenth century.  No one reads Swift much these days - they find his syntax arcane and incomprehensible.  The sentences are too long, the words odd, and he employs odd modes, like the subjunctive, and odd cases, like the dative.  No one does that now.  Even "Gulliver's Travels" is a stretch for most folks.  They don't read it.  They know about it.  Would that this were not so... but it is so. 


What Swift pulled off in English, in "Tale of a Tub" and "A Modest Proposal," was amazing.  But young readers today, almost any readers today, know this stuff from the concepts that you have to explain to them, not from reading the actual words.  Just as Dryden pulled English into its first modern prose, and Wordsworth made poetry sound like actual, real speech, now the language has changed again and become a crude, blunt tool.  Reading the old guys - Swift at his nastiest and most scathing - is almost like reading a foreign language.  When I was teaching, back in the seventies, even Dickens was Greek to most of the kids - I had to work hard at getting them to learn his "language."  Sad.  But language evolves, or devolves.  Either one.  It changes.


As for xenophobia in America?  Ah, yep.  I am always amazed at what really frightens people, and what does not.  Gore Vidal lives up the hill behind me.  I wonder what frightens him?  Well, the same thing that frightens many of us.  No point in driving up and asking.


And what about this xenophobia in America business?  Sally in Chicago adds this –


Yes, but il y a des cons et des patates et des têtes de béton in every country - not to mention xenophobes - I wonder if Jean-Marie Le Pen would like NASCAR?   Not a pretty thought to imagine him in a pickup truck.  He was not elected, however, and Bush was - yes ...  The nuances of the French language are, of course, well suited for ambiguities and equivocations, too - even a simple word like aimer - no wonder it's the language of diplomacy.  


Yep, my scheme had not accounted for Jean-Marie Le Pen, that ex-paratrooper who also knows little of nuance.  He would feel comfortable with Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and that whole crew, and they would be comfortable with him.  But, as Sally points out, this was not to be.  The French threw Le Pen out on his ear – even if the BNP – the far-right conservative British National Party - has Le Pen as a special guest speaker this weekend.  If you’re in Manchester, drop by.


Well, the elections in France actually seemed to work. 


Maybe ours will too.







The comment here on Wordsworth - that Wordsworth radically changed the English language when he suddenly up and made poetry sound like actual, real speech - was partly a memory of one of my first classes at graduate school at Duke in the early seventies when old, gray-haired, courtly Professor Patton sighed deeply and said English poetry simply ended in 1798 with the publication of "Lyrical Ballads."  Wordsworth ruined everything, along with his drugged up-buddy Coleridge with that long, ham-fisted poem about the grumpy sailor and that dead bird.  Such a shame, he muttered.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Paris readers add nine hours....