13 October 2006

The couscous was delicious

Last night at a lovely French-Moroccan restaurant called Ca Va Se Savoir, M and I along with a good friend of ours (R), and two Italian women (one is a politician here in Brussels, one is a visiting professor), had a conversation that was definitely skewed in the 4 against 1, "you are so wrong, 1" direction. The latter was the Italian politician in Brussels, and the topic was language.

Let me set the scene a bit. At the table we were speaking various languages. Catalan, between M and I and R (is the initial thing going to get tedious?). French between everyone else, and I could sort of follow especially because there were no native speakers. Italian between M and the Italians, and R and I could sort of follow. English between Italian 1 and M and I and the others could follow. Rapid veering between languages occurred throughout the evening.

This sort of thing, I think, is wonderful. I first remember experiencing it at Taizé, in France, where there were thousands of young people (does it put me in "old person" land to say "young people"?) from America, Canada, eastern and western Europe. Everything was in many many languages, and it intoxicated me. It is delightful to me when no one language dominates in a group of friendly people. Inevitably you learn a lot about the languages you understand less, and have fun in the meantime. It is, I think, a European reality.

Back to yesterday evening. Beginning innocuously, we started asking 1 about her local dialect, and comparing it with Catalan. As always with these sorts of games, surprising similarities come up. But then we got onto the question of defining a dialect vs. a language, and she was insistent: there is only one language in Italy, and that is Italian. Why? Because it is the state's language, everyone learns it in school. Fine, but what if the state decides to say that some languages are not languages (thinking of Catalan here, during Franco)? For her, then they are not languages. She insisted, "that's politics." M responded, "no, it's violence."

And it is, because once a given language is equated with power, there is automatically a dynamic created that leaves its speakers with leverage (perhaps innocent, perhaps "merely" political or class-based, perhaps literally violent) over those who do not speak it, or do not speak it well. Read Rita Dove's poem "Parsley," which is precisely what I'm talking about. (You can read it here: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~hbeavers/281/dove-parsley.html) In this poem the word "parsley" is a shibboleth, a word you can either pronounce or not, a word used to control others and assert dominance. Trujillo killed 20,000 blacks who could not pronounce the letter "r" in the word perejil, parsley. Of course, last night this woman would insist that the practicalities do not lead us this direction, that this is an extreme, but the truth of it is that they could.

Further, her solution to the polylingualism of the new Europe is to set up a standard language that everyone should be able to speak in order to communicate with one another; whether it's English or French, make it the lingua franca. Now, if this happens spontaneously, fine. If it happens as a matter of practicality in the EU institutions, fine. But to insist that superimposing an additional language resolves problems of state and culture ignores the reality of the close link between identity and language. As the professor pointed out, identity is multiple and complex, and always changing.

For me, the table at which we sat itself was a refutation of her position. We communicated in many languages, in many different directions and levels of fluency. It was about multiplicity, and conversation, and the give and take of generous interaction. She would say that she wasn't discussing the personal level, but the meta level inevitably affects the micro, day-to-day level.

But this is why I could never be a politician. I am not good at direct disagreement. I kept saying, "no, but it's interesting," so as to, in my pitiful way, defuse the "situation." When what I really meant was "no, you're wrong." The others, of course, do not back down and are not afraid to show their incredulity by

a. knocking knuckles firmly on the table,
b. shaking head sadly,
c. deep sighs,
d. wagging fingers at each other,
e. saying "wait!" or "attends!" or "aspetta!" when a disagreeing party shows herself eager to disagree,
f. leaning forward intensely in display of body-language intimidation.

The conversation was perfectly civil, but I, being shy, shy away from these things. In this regard, I admire my husband for his debating skills. I'll save my indignation for when I'm alone with him, or when I'm with close friends, or when venting on the comfort of an anonymous online weblog. Anonymous, that is, until I get around to sending the link of this blog to my friends and family...

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