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Linguistic Currency | The Nation

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Linguistic Currency

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In Metropole, the 1970 novel by Ferenc Karinthy, a linguist named Budai traveling to a conference in Helsinki boards the wrong plane and finds himself in a country whose language, despite all his training, he can't begin to parse. Budai tries out a variety of common languages on hotel staff, with no success; he starts posting signs in different alphabets, only to see them ripped down. He spies what looks to be a phone directory, swipes it, and does the rational thing: he sets about writing down "all the different characters he could find" and calms himself with the thought that once he has a restricted range of data, he can start deciphering their writing system and find his way back home to his wife and young son. But "he soon realized that he had noted over one hundred characters and that he was still discovering more."

About the Author

Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko is poetry editor of The Nation. The recipient of the Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism from the...

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Metropole isn't just about language--or rather, it is, but it gathers other systems under the rubric of language as well. It has been said that any cosmopolite could parachute into a new city and decipher its main features and transportation system instinctively. But in Metropole, Budai looks in vain for any sort of system that could direct him to a train to the airport: "He looked for intersections between lines, those circled stations that appeared more important, since in every major city the metro service was directly connected to the main railway routes." No luck. He can't decide exactly where on the world map this city might be: "the majority of people here seemed to be of mixed race or at some transitional point between various races like that Japanese-looking, slant-eyed, young woman with light blonde hair and slightly Negroid lips." He gets himself arrested in hopes of encountering a translator through the legal system, but as we might expect by this point, that is no system either. He's reduced to wondering if he's even on planet Earth. He tries to recall what he knows of celestial navigation to determine his latitude.

Karinthy, himself a linguist, was born in 1921 in Budapest to one of the most difficult mother tongues in Europe. His sympathy is keen, then, as he tracks the progress of Budai's logic, factoring all the variables that a linguist would juggle: should he read the newspaper left to right (like Hungarian), right to left (like Arabic), horizontally (like Hungarian) or vertically (like Chinese)? What if it is in boustrophedon (like ancient Greek)? He starts to look for articles: statistically probable, short recurring words. But when he doesn't find any, he remembers that in some languages (like Romanian) end-signs take the place of articles, and in other languages (like Russian) there is no article. Numbers elude him: "Maybe there were several words for the same number, just as in certain languages the figure 0 can be indicated by nil, zero, nought or even love?" On the crowded street trying to navigate, he realizes "maybe they employed the kind of name that did not need a qualifier, such as the Strand and Piccadilly in London, Broadway and the Bowery in New York, Rond-Point in Paris, the Graben in Vienna and the Korond or the old Oktogon in Budapest." Even the attempt to isolate common words on street signs is a dead end.

Budai abandons his attempts to decipher the written word and decides "to keep his ears open" even though the phonetics of this language is so tricky he can't seem to hear the same word the same way twice. He falls into bed with the elevator girl at his hotel, whose name he can't quite pin down, and of course he discovers that intimacy is its own sort of translation machine. After making love, she begins talking sleepily, and even though her language is incomprehensible, it is suddenly transparent: "He could almost follow her speech, the rough drift of it anyway, the rest of it--the details--probably being pretty commonplace.... It was all coming out now: her life at home, how unbearable it was, how crowded the place with relatives, dependants, uncles and aunts, not to mention the two children from the husband's first marriage."

Metropole's dystopia can be interpreted as an allegory of modern Babel, or Eastern bloc absurdity. Catherine Prendergast has written a different kind of cautionary tale, a thoroughly contemporary one: Buying into English: Language and Investment in the New Capitalist World (Pittsburgh; Paper $22.95) takes the measure of one small Central European country from her first visit in 1992 to her last visit in 2003. In that time, Slovakia had gone from a newly independent republic--free from Soviet shackles and full of hope for the future--to a country on the verge of membership in the European Union, flush with cynicism. The modulation of English from a language in which to dream to a language in which to work played a fascinating role in this shift.

Metropole's world was a world with no lingua franca; Prendergast's world is the world we all live in, where English is the language of international business. (Full disclosure: I am writing this from one American University in the Middle East, and ten years ago I was employed by the first English-language university in Morocco. Both are seen as giving their students one indispensable tool for succeeding in business.) As Prendergast points out, in 1998 the Business Communication Quarterly called for English teachers to develop "a kind of common currency for global knowledge production and exchange." And in 2005 the Financial Times suggested that "being a native speaker [of English] is like possessing a reserve currency." The metaphor goes deep: following the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989, malls sprang up in Bratislava with corridors named Wall Street and Fifth Avenue.

The equivalence between English and wealth is much more than a metaphor, actually. In an economy run on information, even tiny asymmetries translate into vast profits--and large-scale collapses too (a little information got Martha Stewart in a lot of trouble). Well aware of this value, Prendergast reports, language schools in Slovakia began charging accordingly: 8,200 crowns for forty-eight hours of English versus, say, 3,000 crowns for fifty hours of business German. English was now an investment. A diverse portfolio of Englishes ensued:

 

courses entitled "English for Mechanical Engineers" and "English for Au Pairs" took their place next to generic business English courses, promising a quick path to the jobs as auto engineers and domestics for which Slovaks had been pegged. It didn't matter that Slovak women had been successfully operating as au pairs in Western European countries for years before these courses appeared (indeed, the rationale au pair agencies historically used to attract young women was that the experience itself would improve their language skills).

 

Textbooks in English also began selling something other than just language skills. A well-known textbook from before the revolution began Lesson One on the verb "to be" with how to say, "It's a big orange." The same textbook, updated years later, put the orange in a richer context: now a cartoon, it "depicts a tourist in London asking a vendor, 'How much is an orange?' The fruit-stand vendor answers, '50p.' The tourist, a savvy shopper, replies, 'What? 50 pence? I can get an orange for 35p just round the corner.'" Prendergast notes that oranges were a real treat in Slovakia under communism. Now they were being depicted with such casualness that one could "shop around" for the best price on them. A Slovakian friend, who made the discovery with her in a bookstore aisle, was immediately struck--dismayed--by the overall cheapening of the orange and the textbook. Lesson One in the new logic, indeed, Prendergast implies.

Buying into English is full of stories, large and small, about the cheapening of English in a country where people had once fetishized it, going to great lengths to learn it for themselves and their children under a regime that placed as many obstacles as possible in their path. There's Maria, the visual artist who starts out full of purpose--"The artist who doesn't speak English is no artist"--and slowly fizzles out as, in her encounters with the international art world, the translation into and out of English exhausts every one of her resources. There's Fero, whose idealism as an English teacher also dies when his insistence on teaching for its own sake runs up against the bureaucratic imperative to make money from it. There's Peter and Alicia, who run an international software firm and who live in a perpetual state of anxiety about whether their English is good enough; whether or not they are losing clients because of stereotypes of Eastern bloc "workhorses," good for labor but sort of sloppy and backward; whether their children will keep up with the demands placed on them as citizens of global capitalism.

English as the language of border guards and cumbersome visa applications; English as the origin of new slang like homelessak and the new tone captured by the ubiquitous "whatever"; English as the language of "Wall Street" and "Fifth Avenue"--this wasn't exactly what the Slovakians Prendergast got to know had in mind when they dreamed of English before the fall of communism. At one point, she observes some colleagues who had taught English before 1989 get drunk and start singing all the words to the ballad "Cockles and Mussels," which they had used to teach their students. Prendergast titles this section "Alive, alive, o," as if to underscore the point that a language is most alive when its songs and poems are beloved. We have seen much hand-wringing over the fact that dominant languages like English seem to invade smaller countries and displace their languages--and languages are indeed dying out faster under the pressures of globalism. But nobody seems to ask, What harm is this doing to English? Under communism, English was imaginary; after the revolution, it was an instrument for gain and a moving target, a source of anxiety and resentment.

As Maria put it: "It was freedom back in 1989 because you didn't have to do it but you could. And it was symbol of western world which meant freedom." Freedom: it's hard to know what the word means sometimes. Much easier to say what it is not--and Prendergast doesn't stint on tales of repression before 1989. But in a way, its relation to language, and language's relation to rule, is what unites the stories in Metropole and Buying into English. One story about a modern Babel and another story about our lingua franca are actually both stories about lives diverted by information asymmetries. In the end, as the metropole is engulfed by war, Budai finds himself for the first time beside a stream. With growing excitement, he realizes that by the laws of nature he can follow the stream to a river and then to the sea, that great leveler; and "once he had arrived at the sea he would find a harbour, a ship, a route to anywhere." I imagine that on this ship is a sailor humming "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, O."

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