Reading Anna Wierzbicka’s IMPRISONED IN ENGLISH (2014)

“English is not a neutral instrument or one that, unlike other languages, carves nature at its joints; and… if this is not recognized, English can at times become a conceptual prison.”  Perceptions of environment, animals, human relations and emotions, and more, may all be seen differently by speakers of different languages.  The rationalism, empiricism, kinship words, color words, and much more in English disable it as a means of understanding (translated) aspects of experience and the world as it that experience and perception are lived by peoples speaking other languages–especially languages outside (so far) (or at least partly) the re-categorization of so much, imposed by English.


Wierzbicka quotes Emile Benveniste (try buying a copy of his Problems in General Linguistics, 1973–an amazing book that is nearly impossible to find):


For the speaker there is a complete equivalence between language and reality.  The sign overlies and commands reality; even better, it *is* that reality […] [T]he point of view of the speaker and the linguist are so different in this regard that the assertion of the linguist as to the arbitrariness of designation does not refute the contrary feeling of the speaker.


By “the linguist” he must mean Saussure.  Back in the years of “theory wars” when it was so often claimed that there is no thinking outside language and that the arbitrariness of the word (the sign) is absolute, when language is looked at as a system, it was nearly impossible to be heard if one said that for the *speaker* of a language, there is very little that is arbitrary–perhaps almost nothing–in how one *feels*, which is to say, how one thinks at least somewhat holistically, in everyday life, using language.  (And of course there was all that other thinking too that was going on without language: numerical, geographical, visual, etc.


Another great example examined by Wierzbicka is politeness.  “How to be polite–in Anglo English,” turns out (as many travelers have experienced) how not to be polite at all.  Being with other people in a language that has no word for politeness is part of the dissonance; insisting on an English-language idea of politeness in such a context is another part.


And only bilingualism begins to disclose the hidden assumptions in us all about the relationship of thinking and speaking.  Here’s one of Wierzbicka’s quotes from Edward Sapir, who saw this in the early 20th century (her own research is very up-to-date!):


To pass from one language to another is psychologically parallel to passing from one geometrical system of reference to another.  The environing world which is referred to is the same for either language: the world of points is the same in either frame of reference.  But the formal method of approach to the expressed item of experience, as to the given point of space, is so different that the resulting feeling of orientation can be the same neither in the two languages nor in the two frames of reference.  Entirely distinct, or at least measurably different, formal adjustments have to be made and these differences have their psychological correlates. 


An example, quoted by Wierzbicka from Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language:


The words I learn now [in English] don’t stand for things with the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue.  “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essences of riverhood, of my rivers, of being immersed in rivers.  “River” in English is cold–a word without an aura.  It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation.  It does not evoke. 


Hoffman’s bilingualism allowed her to see *English* words as arbitrary, as a linguist would, but this enforced arbitrariness is linguistically enervated as the language of daily life.  Learning English teaches Hoffman was it *not* arbitrary about her native language, in her being–in a writer’s being, I would say.


Which is not to argue that a writer can’t become immersed in a new language and remove the cold arbitrariness of its naming, and gradually inhabiting a new language in which words have gained their “aura.”  Conrad in English, Nabokov in English, Beckett in French, and others….


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