Sunday, March 11, 2012


Hotel Bristol, Luxembourg, March 11, 2012—

Historical Luxembourg. Red: present-day Luxembourg; two blue areas at bottom: lost to France; blue upper right: lost to Germany (and now in German-speaking Belgium); mauve: lost to French-speaking Belgium.

Walking through rural Belgium and Luxembourg I've been thinking about Small Local in the context of International Community, as evidenced by language, gesture, adaptation to terrain, and such things. And I've been thinking about these things in the context of History, because it is so present here; and in the context of some provocative comments made by a funds manager to a journalist writing about global economy:

Daniel Arbess, quoted in "Magic Mountain," a fascinating article describing the scene at the Davos gathering of the World Economic Forum, written by Nick Paumgarten and published in the March 5, 2012 of The New Yorker:
"Kids who are twenty or thirty years younger than we are have a totally different experience in and manner of absorbing and processing information," he said. "How will this generation make decisions? How will they understand the big, looming debate about the legacy of entitlements and debt left by their elders? How do they understand the economy?" It was his suspicion, from his conversations here and elsewhere, that they may not understand it very well, or at least that polarizing rhetoric fostered by social media, amplified by a cynical political class may be corrupting their ability to discuss it in terms their elders can understand or abide.

"There's a lot of intellectual confusion about the causes and culprits institutionally of the mess that we are in," he said. "The language and the thinking that have evolved after the financial crisis have had an impact on the way young people think. All this talk that companies need to change, and so on — it's a misconception of the role that companies play. Shareholders risk capital. Banks intermediate capital. This is what keeps an economy going." He went on, "The root cause of everything we're experiencing is a failure of holistic thinking in a world of increasingly complex, fragmented, and ubiquitous information."
Then today I was told that one of the fundamental assumptions about the Luxembourg state, as it was determined by William II, was that it would be officially bilingual, in French and German. And yet the country people spoke Luxembourgish among themselves, as they still do. Luxembourgish was not recognized until the 1980s, as I understand it, when suddenly linguist took an interest in it, declared it endangered, and began promoting its retention and even expansion.

It was declared a third official language, and began finally to be taught in the schools, which had until then not only not taught it but had actively discouraged it. A problem immediately arose: it had never been a written language, and orthographical rules had to be invented for it.

As I've mentioned, we've run into people in both Luxembourg and Belgium who spoke only the local language, Belgian German or Luxembourgish. They've been older people and country people, for the most part, who perhaps never did learn French or German as well as they might have, and who have lost it through years of neglect. They seem to me to be speaking Luxembourgish.

I've always thought of language-speaking as a fairly simple affair: one's monolingual, like me and most other Americans, or one's functionally bi- or multilingual, like most of the Dutch. I see now it's not that simple. Languages are intrinsically complex mediations of divergent individual and social urges and demands, always in flux, always compromising between intent and the possible. How often I've wound up saying not what I wanted to say but what I could (or thought I could).

There are monolinguists, and polylinguists, and localinguists, those who speak only a small local language, enough to converse with the neighbors about matters of local import, but at considerable disadvantage when it comes to communicating with other nations, or cultures, or times.

Charting the use of language in three dimensions, the X and Y coordinates are simple enough; language follows human social geography. In this land between Meuse and Rhine, Germanic (and Gothic) sounds prevail in the east, French (and Romance) in the west. As we've traveled south from Zuid-Limbourg, the Dutch corner east of Maastricht, our lips and tongues have moved from Dutch to French and back more than once, though, because of the third dimension of time, as many of these territories have been moved politically from one sovereignty to another. (For a long time, in fact, Luxembourg was ruled by Spain.)

And as lands move back and forth politically and, more reluctantly, linguistically, so does each of us. I once asked my father-in-law, who was born in a small mountain town in northwest Italy, near Torino, whether his parents, who settled in the United States in 1914 or so, spoke English or Italian at home when he was a child, and he seemed surprised: Italian! Why, I didn't learn Italian until I went to school! We spoke what we spoke. (Most speakers of this particular form of Italian Piemontese think of it as a dialect; I've recently come to realize that in fact it is a language, Langedocian, fairly widely spoken across southern France from the Pyrenees east to his valley in Piemonte.)

Speaking and thinking seem so closely connected that argument continues whether they are mutually necessary. (I think not, but then I think instrumental music is a form of speech, recording nonverbal thoughts of its composers.) The deliberate national decision to recognize and encourage the teaching of Luxembourgish is the recognition — belatedly! — that the Luxembourgish desire, stated in the nation's motto, "We wish to remain as we are," is a national social value worth respect.

Until a generation ago Luxembourg was one of the poorest nations in Europe; now it is one of the richest in the world, its per capita income surpassing that of the United States, surpassed only by a few oil-rich emirates on the Persian Gulf. To remain as one was, in the face of so sudden a change, seems impossible and misguided, if perhaps understandable: but then one remembers the Council of Vienna, and the Treaty of Versailles, and that of Maastricht, and one realizes these cataclysmic nation-changing events are in fact fairly regular, hardly a normal human lifetime doesn't see two of them.

And in fact as Daniel Arbess points out the fact that we see iPhones in use everywhere we go is the sure indication of another social (therefor linguistic and economic) cataclysm, in which the three dimensions of social interaction house what seems a complete jumbling of local and national, class- and subcultural-based strands, often thought fairly separate and identifiable — erroneously, it's evident.

Even in the age of archery such moments have made changes faster than their natures could have become evident: how much more urgent is such comprehension now. Lacking such comprehension one can only shake one's head, as the old lady I was "conversing with" in Rodeshausen the other day, and agree de welt ist kaput. I can't help thinking that she lacks the language to investigate and consider that world; it has largely eroded away. On the other hand, she seemed cheerful, happy with her lot, content to remain as she is.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

1 comment:

louann said...

Hi there
What a wonderful trip you are to you both. I found this post saddening and intriguing. In the past couple of years, I've noticed a gap I'm experiencing with most of the younger non-profit folks I am working with - on the one hand they seem to appreciate the depth of field I can offer; on the other they are amazingly (to me) snobbish about technology. I also think it is practically NEVER that I am on the phone with one of this age group and they aren't also texting or on their computer while trying to talk with me. I'm not sure the intent of your quote from the New Yorker seemed to resonate with what I'm saying above, but the comments about what banks/financial institutions do seemed a little simplistic - am I missing your point? I also found the linguistic observation very meaningful - the PC world of access around language misses so much of the subtlety and complexity of the use of language - stand-up comedy often repairs the more rigid positions around bi- and poli-lingual life vs the white, American "we speak English" thing.
Thanks much.
By the way, getting through by proving I'm not a robot seems in some way consistent with the bigger changes you are describing...and also a pain in the butt!
Lou Ann