I moved from Germany to Britain in September 2005. I have made this island my home – I work here, I live here, I have my friends here. I don’t put my beach towel over chairs in the library, I do not wear socks with my sandals. I still can’t bring myself to enjoy real ale, I regret to say, but I try to make up for that by drinking cider instead. In complete denial of my identity as a Berliner, I apologise when someone inconveniences me, and I join queues whenever there is an opportunity. I’ve been working on my English, too, improving it from marks in the C/D range at school to at least a B- now. I live in Reading, a beautifully multicultural community, in which I very much feel at home, for all its faults and oddities.
Yesterday, however, on my way to work – I was on the phone with a German travel agent, talking in German – the following happened.
Already as I was walking and talking, I heard muttering behind me. Two ladies (I’m using this term rather loosely here) were overhearing my conversation and expressing their, shall we say, dissatisfaction with my choice of language – or, as it quickly turned out, my very presence. The following dialogue ensued:
– ‘Better start packing, mate. Go home where you came from.’
– ‘If I go home, I’ll miss work.’
– ‘So you’re taking our jobs too, you fxxxing piece of sh*t.’
– ‘Can you tell a gerund from a gerundive in Latin?’
– ‘What the f*ck, man! What the f*ck!’
– ‘Believe me, I’m not taking your job.’
– ‘Fxxxing immigrants!’
– ‘Fxxxing ignorants!’
Being a white male, I am not your typical recipient of xenophobic outbursts like this, and I was not overly shaken by the incident. I also was fortunate enough to be able to rely on my network of wonderful friends and colleagues offering me support and tea (this IS England after all!). I dread to think how a less resilient person would have been shaken by this, and I am utterly terrified to think that some people, due to their very complexion and appearance, have to endure such abuse on a regular basis.
Parts of the British population are currently drunk on nationalism, as a result of the referendum that appears to have brought us the ‘Brexit’. A staunch European myself, I do have my views on the outcome, but I do respect those who, in good faith, voted for Leave. The unfortunate side effect of the outcome, however, is that those people who were previously relatively silent and invisible with their abhorrent, repulsive, and deeply immoral views on foreigners now feel empowered to voice their opinions very publicly – and even to act on them, in the belief that a majority is, in fact, on their side.
I have seen similar waves of nationalism gone sour in my own country, e. g. in the 1990s. It will take a long time and a lot of widespread effort to contain these outbursts and to reintroduce civility. It will require community champions just as much as political will and the strong arm of the law to enforce civil discourse and safety for everyone.
But why this blog?
Well, one of the issues that I have been thinking about for quite some time now – and yesterday was another trigger for me to think about this some more – is the way in which languages, foreign languages, seem to be perceived as threatening by some. I am not talking so much about foreign language anxiety (which prevents some from learning other languages, apparently), but the angst (and the angst-induced rage) that spoken foreign languages seem to evoke and cause in some.
Remarkably, the Roman poet Ovid, in his involuntary Black Sea exile, reflects on this matter. On multiple occasions he comments on his linguistic world being turned upside down – the Latin language, the language of the Roman empire, has little currency in Tomis, and even Greek appears to have changed its nature (Ov. trist. 5.2.63–72):
Iussus ad Euxini deformia litora ueni
aequoris – haec gelido terra sub axe iacet –
nec me tam cruciat numquam sine frigore caelum,
glaebaque canenti semper obusta gelu,
nesciaque est uocis quod barbara lingua Latinae,
Graecaque quod Getico uicta loquella sono est,
quam quod finitimo cinctus premor undique Marte,
uixque breuis tutum murus ab hoste facit.
pax tamen interdum est, pacis fiducia numquam:
sic hic nunc patitur, nunc timet arma locus.
By thy command I have come to the formless shores of the Euxine water – this land lies beneath the frigid pole – nor am I so much tortured by a climate never free from cold and a soil ever shrivelled by white frost, by the fact that the barbarian tongue knows not a Latin voice and Greek is mastered by the sound of Getic, as that I am surrounded and hard pressed on every side by war close at hand and that a low wall scarce gives me safety from the foe. Yet peace there is at times, confidence in peace never: so does this place now suffer, now fear attack.
Here, the theme of fear and a threatening environment is closely linked to the linguistic soundscape. The whole environment is described as hostile and adverse to human life, distorting everything, creating a veritable tunnel of horrors. This is not a singular occurrence in the above passage, but it happens rather more commonly in Ovid, as e. g. the following piece demonstrates (Ov. trist. 3.11.7–14):
barbara me tellus et inhospita litora Ponti
cumque suo Borea Maenalis Vrsa uidet.
nulla mihi cum gente fera commercia linguae:
10 omnia solliciti sunt loca plena metus.
utque fugax auidis ceruus deprensus ab ursis,
cinctaue montanis ut pauet agna lupis,
sic ego belligeris a gentibus undique saeptus
terreor, hoste meum paene premente latus.
A barbarous land, the unfriendly shores of Pontus, and the Maenalian bear with her companion Boreas behold me. No interchange of speech have I with the wild people; all places are charged with anxiety and fear. As a timid stag caught by ravenous bears or a lamb surrounded by the mountain wolves is stricken with terror, so am I in dread, hedged about on all sides by warlike tribes, the enemy almost pressing against my side.
Ovid, in his linguistic isolation in the middle of a terrifying nowhere, feels like an adorable, harmless creature surrounded by ferocious killer animals, just waiting for them to attack him, incapable of communicating (not that speaking the bears’ language perfectly well would do a timid stag much good – just see what happened to me yesterday!)
The passage that truly stands out, to my mind, however, is this one (Ov. trist. 5.10.35–42):
exercent illi sociae commercia linguae:
per gestum res est significanda mihi.
barbarus hic ego sum, qui non intellegor ulli,
et rident stolidi verba Latina Getae;
meque palam de me tuto mala saepe loquuntur,
forsitan obiciunt exiliumque mihi.
utque fit, in se aliquid fingi, dicentibus illis
abnuerim quotiens adnuerimque, putant.
They hold intercourse in the tongue they share; I must make myself understood by gestures. Here it is I that am a barbarian, understood by nobody; the Getae laugh stupidly at Latin words, and in my presence they often talk maliciously about me in perfect security, perchance reproaching me with my exile. Naturally they think that I am poking fun at them whenever I have nodded no or yes to their speech.
Ovid, in describing his own linguistic isolation far away from Rome, goes right to the heart of the matter: there seems to be an inherent fear (not always unfounded, of course) that people speaking in a language one does not understand, may, in fact, be talking about those who are around them. Are they mocking their fellow human beings? Ridiculing them? And what about the way in which the speakers of the surrounding majority language respond to the presence of this alien intruder? They too seem to feel challenged and mocked by the isolated speaker of Latin – a remarkable bottom line of this passage!
Language is a quintessential, fundamental part of our individual and collective identities. One might thus find it understandable that foreign sounds and words are being perceived as inherently threatening by some – due to a fear of the unknown, a fear of secrecy that surrounds us, ultimately a fear of exclusion and lack of control. (‘Taking back control’ was one of the major slogans of Camp Leave!)
But, like with any fear, the right course of action cannot be to spout abuse at the trigger and tell it to go away. It sure does not work that way for those who are afraid of dark basements. It does not work that way with foreign languages in one’s midst, either. What is needed in either case is illumination.
Teaching foreign languages and cultures, ancient and modern, and laying the foundations for tolerance and an open-mindedness in which hollow nationalism, enshrined in the phrase ‘taking back control’, does not have a place as the last resort of those who have little else to be proud of may never have been more important than it is today.