MML – Me & My Languages

I’ve had actual language lessons in maybe four non-English foreign languages at various times, studied a couple more as a precursor to needing to learn them and looked-up some basic vocabulary in a couple more for travel reasons. More generally, I’ve taken longer term interest in etymology, particularly from Proto-Indo-European roots and sometimes Sanskrit sources as well as the ubiquitous Greek and Latin classics. Any written language I can decipher phonetically, I can usually make a stab at the gist of an English translation.

On the only two occasions I’ve both learned a language and had the opportunity for immersion amongst native speakers, I’ve been in project working environments where the technical language of the main topic has been English and/or the native speakers have preferred to work on their English. To my shame I can’t speak or listen at conversational speed in any language other than English beyond a few basic context-specific sentences with a few key words. My own rationalisation of that failure is that on top of the technical interest in language, my priority has always been impatiently wanting to get on with whatever our topic is, at the rate the English thoughts run in my head, rather than use of the language itself. Anyway, at my age, I’ve no doubt paid that price.

My original loose interest in etymology has of course been focussed by my researches into epistemology and the philosophy of mind and in the reading in English translation of “great books” of literature with a philosophical bent. I was able to appreciate Andy Martin’s “MML The Film” Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge Uni back in 2011 which I came across after having already being a fan of the engaging and linguistically playful writing in his books and his blog.

I noticed Martin’s latest “long-read” in The Independent on “Speaking in Tongues” was on the the value of speaking a foreign language, in extending one’s monoglot appreciation of the world, more than the obvious and immediate multi-lingual communication value. I’d noticed the connection and the thought had crossed my mind to link to it when I mentioned the limits of exclusively anglophone thinking in this recent Pirsig Meets Foucault piece. However, by then the scope of that piece was set and there wasn’t room for the wider acknowledgement of lessons I’d learned from Martin’s appreciation of the French existentialists that really needed to be added to the French post-modernists I’d already name-dropped. Everything’s connected you know, world without end.

Well now I have read Martin’s latest.

In mentioning the value of some original linguistic appreciation in understanding the conceptual thought processes in Greek and French philosophy, I’d used the Savoir / Connaître distinction to make the crack about the difference between being acquainted with someone and “knowing” the same person biblically. Andy’s piece has an orgasmic thread running through it, from the Sonata Erotica to Last Tango in Paris. Couldn’t help but be reminded of my previous reference to Lacan’s use of “Jouissance” – the pleasure principle in the games we play with ourselves and each other.


Specifically Martin says “language was always an evolutionary mash-up of random phonemes” which resonated with my view that all language started out onomatopoeic and variously metaphorical body-language-by-association (after Lakoff), before it was ever formally captured as vocabulary with definitions and grammar with rules

His further quote “English doesn’t contain all the words you need” is so like the salutary Korean reaction to Pirsig’s suggestion that our 26 letter English alphabet was so marvellous and flexible we could express anything we needed. Martin goes on to reference the early and late aspects of Wittgenstein’s work before and after the Tractatus whereby the impression that language can somehow logically describe the whole enchilada is replaced by the idea that it’s all word games we play with each other. I go further and suggest that even Tractatus was a mind-game at the expense of Russell and the logical positivists. Cruel to be kind, pleasure in pain.

Your thinking necessarily stops when you’re lost for words since “words represent thoughts you otherwise can’t have”. In any event there is far more in heaven and earth Horatio than your language can capture.

Whilst obviously intellectually knowing, Martin’s language and turn of phrase is as ever witty even hilarious. A recommended read.

I have a friend in New York who tends to hark back to the good old days of truth-speaking. Yes, he lives on the eleventh floor of a tall building in Manhattan, but he occasionally looks out of the window at Central Park and he dreams of being a hunter-gatherer.

Ostensibly Martin’s piece is driven from the nostalgic idea that somehow our “post-fact” world is less concerned with truth and that the closing of our borders (eg with the EU) is closing channels of communication, but the fact is that whilst language enables both thinking and communication,  a single language really does restrict our own thoughts.


[Post Note: Reminds me I’ve still not read Martin’s piece on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which he mentions in this piece in terms of the power of her multi-lingual understanding. Certainly a crossing of contents I’d not envisaged.]



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