[Marxism] Dying languages - the ambiguities of Kenan Malik

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Mon Mar 1 12:53:58 MST 2004


What a lovely topic. I just have this picture in my mind of somebody left
speechless by an earthquake. Actually,
Kenan Malik argues specifically in 8 premisses in his schoolboyish essay at
http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/die.html that:

(1) The purpose of a language is functional: to enable communication.

I think this is simplistic and question-begging because it fails to specify
exactly what a language and communication are, or the ways in which language
enables communication. Language is also required to articulate and express
concepts and ideas, and may satisfy needs which have nothing to do with its
specific communication
function. Really what Malik seems to be saying is that language "should be"
functional in enabling communication, but that is a different argument. If I
am home alone listening to a CD where an artist is singing a particular
lyric, language is being used, but it is communication ?

(2) It is enriching to learn other languages because making contact across
barriers of language and culture allows us to expand our own horizons and
become more universal in our outlook.

I think this is true; but it shows premiss (1) has limited validity and
ignores what actually happens in the
ineraction between different languages. If language is only functional, it
cannot itself be enriching, it can only be a means for enrichment.

(3) The human capacity for language certainly shapes our ways of thinking,
yet particular languages almost certainly do not.

I think this is not true, since language does shape ways of thinking.
Example: the decision to use the term "regime change" was deliberately
chosen to "market" US imperialist intervention, and politicians constantly
search for modes of expression in propaganda which provide categorisations
conducive to advancing partisan interests.
This is an important insight of the theory of ideology. The dispute can only
be about the exact degree to which language does this and how affective it
can be. The real point however is that the "capacity for language" can
manifest itself only through a specific language. There is no general
language, although you can say some kinds of symbols or body language are
universally understood. Malik of course doesn't distinguish between
qualitatively different types of language at all. There is a big difference
between a computer language, an ordinary language, a sign language, a body
language or a mathematical language.

(4) Most linguists reject the idea that people's perceptions of the world,
and the kinds of concepts they hold, is constrained by the particular
language they speak.

I think that that is true, because "perceptions of the world" do not
crucially depend on language but on the use of the five senses. But
particular languages are absolutely essential to the formation of concepts
at a higher level of abstraction, even just simply by permitting abstract
thinking to develop.

(6) the inalienable right to a language and culture conflates individual
rights and group rights; individuals certainly have the right to whatever
language, but there is no obligation for anyone to listen to them, nor to
provide resources for that.

I think that is a moral argument not backed up with any substantive theory
of ethics. Any substantive theory of ethics acknowledges that rights are
meaningless without corresponding obligations, since a right cannot be
asserted without a corresponding obligation to respect or grant that right,
or permit that right to be asserted.

(7) Language campaigners confuse political oppression and the loss of
cultural identity.

I think this may or may not be true, but the fact is that colonisers
deliberately and willfully repressed or wiped out local languages for
control purposes and to changes the thinking of the colonised peoples. The
regaining of that language can provide an important leverage for the
liberation of a people. In the case of New Zealand Maoris, Maori children
were punished at school for speaking Maori, i.e. a direct transgression of
freedom of expression as a civil right which bourgeois democracy claims to
guarantee and provide.

(8) There is nothing noble or authentic about local ways of life; they are
often simply degrading and backbreaking.

I think this is just a false generalisation or platitude and at most
reflects a personal judgement of taste. Maybe Malik just has an appetite for
non-local ways of life.

Kenan Malik is certainly correct insofar as he believes that the working
classes (and humanity generally) need an internationally understood
language, but this does not cancel out the importance of local languages
reflecting local practices, and there is no reason why the two cannot
co-exist. He also misses the gains which can result out of the confrontation
of different languages and different patterns of abstraction. His discourse
seems to be just aimed at attracting a certain type of attention, and attack
another type of attention, based on a certain type of cultural analysis.

I think in general Malik argument as stated is too simplistic and shallow
because:

(a) he seems just to be adapting to a species of corporatist liberalism
which he considers culturally progressive, universalist and sexy, on the
basis of a perception of winners and losers in the world of culture.

(b) You cannot evaluate whether the supplanting of one language by another
is progressive or not, without reference to a specific context within which
that language is actually used, and specific goals. A language never simply
"dies out", rather it is replaced by another language.

(c) he ignores the specific political and class forces involved in
linguistic competition and tries to take a universal position on something
that you cannot take a universal position about,

(d) he doesn't specify precisely what he means by the ""dying out" of a
language - does it mean the language is preserved in archived records, does
it mean the memory of it is erased, does it mean the people who speak it are
wiped out, does it mean they are repressed for speaking it, are languages
"dying out" because of bourgeois competition or because of practical
utility, is the language dying out as a spoken language, or written
language, does it mean it is simply not used anymore, and so on.

(e) If it is true that all meaning is relational, i.e. refers to relations
between discrete or distinct entities, then a language symbolises,
contextualises and expresses relationships and practises, including
specifying relationships and practises independently from the context to
which they refer (abstraction). If you destroy a language, then you may also
destroy the ability to symbolise, contextualise and express specific
relationships which are "stored" or made possible in that language, and
which provide extra
meaning. That is the real concern really.

The valid point about Malik's argument is that language isn't everything,
but we knew that already. But I would agree with Malik insofar as he argues
that you have to criticise bourgeois and middleclass ideologies about "how
language really works", because those ideologies falsify real experience and
scientific evidence about it, and just reflect the concerns of particular
interest groups. There is no scientific proof that there exists only one way
in which language is processed by the human brain, or that the ways in which
it is processed stay constant over time.

Malik often makes good points about racism (as in his book The Meaning of
Race, which the Sociological review considered "a work of prodigious
learning") but he is not known to be a specialist in linguistics (beyond
being a clever talker in English language).

And now I will shut up.

Jurriaan








More information about the Marxism mailing list