Languages and realities

This is not America

‘I’m used to thinking that stories in English are so much richer or more important than stories I hear in my own language.’

Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man

Oppression, subjugation, subordination—no one who experiences these conditions has any difficulty recognizing them. A position of dominance, on the other hand, can be hard to acknowledge. It seems to be normal. Indeed, it is in the interest of the dominant to believe—and to make others believe—that their power, and the privileges it brings, is simply how things are. It is the natural order. It is common sense. You can’t buck the market.

It is a dangerously short step from survival of the fittest to might is right.

English dominates the world today, as Latin once dominated Europe. A language is a system of thought, a way of interpreting reality. Latin became the language of Christianity when it was adopted as a state religion in 380, and it shaped European reality for a thousand years. It is no accident that the Reformation occurred when—and depended upon—the translation of Christian faith into other languages, including English.

As the language first of the British Empire and then of American economic and cultural power, English has become the lens through which the world is projected, particularly now onto the screens of televisions, computers and mobile phones. Native English speakers are a small minority of the world’s population, though many more people have English in varying degrees as a second, third or fourth language. But the native speakers are, in global terms, the powerful people: 58% of them are American.

Those for whom English is a first language naturally imagine that the way it describes the world is true, that it is the norm from which all other linguistic realities are variations. They may be more or less interesting or attractive, but they remain variations: subordinate. And when those whose mother tongue is not English, like Henning Mankell’s Swedish policeman, Kurt Wallander, in the passage above, believe that stories in English are so much richer or more important than stories they hear in their own language, cultural hegemony is complete.

But at least those of us who, by the accident of birth, live within the world’s dominant culture can try to be aware of that, and try to catch something of the realities that exist in other, alternative cultures. They are also true.

It’s just somewhat paradoxical that Mankell’s truth had to be translated into English before I could glimpse it.

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