Control, Fear, and Rage: Ovid on Linguistic Isolation

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.

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Tasteful Vote Leave campaigning poster. Image source: https://www.thesun.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2899323.main_image.jpg.

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!)

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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.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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28 Responses to Control, Fear, and Rage: Ovid on Linguistic Isolation

  1. shaunkellett says:

    Absolutely loved this piece. I love that, even when faced with some of the most awful effects of last week’s referendum, you’re able to turn the debate into something more thought provoking.

    The racism and intolerance that’s been justified by the Leave campaign makes me ashamed for my country, and it’s posts like this that help me to remember we need to try to help the ignorant and intolerant to learn and embrace instead. Beautifully written; my favourite post I’ve seen today.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. We all must move forward now, reassuring ourselves of the kind of society we all would like to live in and giving a robust response to those whose sole response to misery is hatred and isolationism. This isn’t the Britain most Britons wish to inhabit, and it’s not the place that I have got to know, either.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. shaunkellett says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I do feel we’re still in a position where we can express our disapproval of the outcome, especially as more news comes to light, but we shouldn’t focus solely on that. I think too many people are becoming so involved in disputing the results that the divide between sides is widening. Like you said, we need to pursue the future we all want, one that fosters warmth and community, acceptance and understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pedi cabego says:

    Sehr geehrter Professor Kruschwitz,
    sollte die Übergriffigkeit der ortsansässigen, von Ihnen aller Karrierechancen beraubten ladies unerträgliche Formen annehmen, so zögern Sie nicht, einen Hilferuf zu senden: Ich werde persönlich eine Eingreiftruppe bilden, um die Kellerräume der Berliner Ehrenbergstraße als Notquartier wieder in Besitz zu nehmen!
    Im Übrigen möchte ich meiner Begeisterung über Ihren geist- wie humorvollen Blog Ausdruck verleihen.
    Meow,
    Thomas Bassalig

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  5. ❤ – Das klingt doch nach einem Plan! 🙂 Ich hoffe, Euch geht's gut?

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  6. Reblogged this on Cambridge Latin Tutor and commented:
    This excellent post from Peter Kruschwitz resonates with me on several levels. I too have been deeply saddened by the referendum fall out (though I am unlikely to be a victim of racist abuse myself). I too love languages for all their diversity and reading Peter’s selections from Ovid talking about his exile on the Black Sea reminded me of my own linguistic experiences on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria several years ago.

    I was travelling with a boyfriend, about whom I had had some misgivings, but we had agreed to go on holiday together. On the plane over I had spent a little bit of time reading my guide book’s notes on the language – and the Cyrillic alphabet – so that I could attempt conversation with the locals, read street signs and so on. Arriving in a small seaside resort one evening, my boyfriend was tired and anxious that we wouldn’t be able to find where we were staying. I started to read the street names, which being in the Cyrillic alphabet my boyfriend clearly couldn’t make head nor tail of. He expressed his discomfort with me by shouting at me in the street. I thought this was bizarre, but Peter’s post and references to Ovid very neatly explore and go some way to explaining some people’s fear of the spoken word and have crystallised my own experience for me.

    I still embrace the foreign in my everyday life and have as little as possible to do with that particular ex.

    Peter’s posts have also had the unexpected result of making me see my own country in a more interesting light. Admittedly I haven’t been to Reading in some time, but his blog makes me want to explore, makes me want to look more closely at often overlooked local sights, makes me want to appreciate towns in my own country more. It has taken a German to make me feel this way. Thank you, Peter!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this – it resonates very strongly with me. I moved to England from Germany just five years before you, and though I’m American, I’ve lived in Europe for most of my life, and I feel that Europe (not England, specifically, or even Germany – just Europe) is my home. I also happen to be a German translator, a passionate advocate of foreign-language learning, and a staunch believer that linguistic (and cultural) diversity makes the world a richer, better place. I know this xenophobia has existed all along, in England and elsewhere, but the Leave vote seems to have opened the floodgates to terrible impulses that were previously held in check. What I see happening around us in Britain right now breaks my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for your thoughts, Jessica, they’re much appreciated! Yes, it really does feel as though someone opened the floodgates, or the proverbial box of Pandora,without any plan on how to get back to normal. It’ll be a long, difficult process, and if we are lucky not too many people will have to suffer- but I’m not optimistic. Let’s all do our best to let common sense prevail.

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  9. Becca says:

    I am utterly ashamed to be English at the moment.

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  10. Please don’t be. Idiots are universal, and we very much need the sensible, generous, decent, and open-minded kind to be at the heart of this country – not leaving the stage to foulmouthed yobs, who think they represent the majority, but really don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Becca says:

    But more than half of us voted for this xenophobic nightmare scenario. So it’s not just a handful. If it were, we’d all be celebrating our place in Europe at the moment with our continental friends and allies. We have turned our back on a union that despite its faults, has helped ensure peace and prosperity across the continent and had up Until now, brought us all closer together

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  12. It is really rather depressing, isn’t it? 😦

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  13. I’m appalled by your experience but glad you have been able to document it and turn it to your chosen subject with your usual flair. As someone who despairs of the current state of affairs it gives me no pleasure to say I am considering picking up German again (I did only one year of it at school, I dropped it in favour of Latin!) with a view to keeping my options open for IT jobs in Berlin.

    Keith

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Whichever way you go, I wish you best of luck! It’s shameful that we even have to make such decisions!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. elisabeth brooke says:

    Dear Peter,

    what an excellent blog, I am so sorry you had this horrible experience, 48% of us voted remain, and London especially, where I am from, loves Europe and Europeans…

    I do feel for Ovid, his exile seems like an exquisite torture, I’m sure Augustus thought long and hard about the worse place to send him…

    very best wishes

    Elisabeth Brooke

    p.s. loved your comeback about gerunds and gerundives…very witty!

    ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Dear Elisabeth,
    Many thanks for your very kind words – I very much appreciate them, and I can reassure you that I will not allow this incident to change my mind over the Britain that I have come to love over more than ten years now and that I’ve made my home. We all will do, and will have to do, our best to contain such unacceptable, unwarranted attacks. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to make sure that Britain can maintain its strong role in a solidly united Europe.
    All the best,
    P.

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  17. chattykerry says:

    Peter, as usual this was a wonderful post, expressing the fears of many of us and balanced by showing history repeats itself. I feel that learning Latin should be a compulsory subject as it was for me. It informs us in so many ways, not just linguistically but through the world of science. I was horrified by the Brexit vote because, in my opinion, it was provoked by xenophobia and not economic woes. I have been asked why I bother to speak Spanish at the airport (a Latin American hub). My hackles rise as my maiden name was Ortega and why wouldn’t you want to serve your customers as best you can. Despite my varying DNA, I look exactly like a perfect Aryan and people say the most inflammatory statements to me, assuming that my opinion will reflect my looks.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Pingback: Control, Fear, and Rage: Ovid on Linguistic Isolation — The Petrified Muse | irwanmanik

  19. It’s insane, isn’t it? As for the Brexit vote, I agree. I don’t doubt the genuinely well-meaning attitude of many. But to make it about migration to such an extent and then be surprised about outbursts of xenophobia is just disingenuous. Keep up your multilingualism: it’s the right thing to do! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  20. chattykerry says:

    Thank you, Peter. I speak a smattering of French, Spanish and Arabic. Sometimes I mix them all up but at least I try and people always appreciate that. I am not convinced about the well-meaning attitude of many…

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Trying to stay optimistic and inclusive. Maybe I’m just deluded… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  22. chattykerry says:

    Remember that almost half voted the other way and Scotland said NO!!!! Are their jobs for Latin scholars in Scotland?? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Not at the moment, no. Reading voted Remain too, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. chattykerry says:

    Excellent – there are always a few ignoramuses around. 🙂 You should have heard some of the comments I received from men in Egypt. Western prostitute was the nicest…

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  25. Pingback: An Englishman in Berlin | Sphinx

  26. Hi Peter! It’s unbelievable what happened to you – and I must confess, your witty defence was priceless. I work on a BBC 1 documentary about the increase of hate crime post-referendum and I was hoping we could have a chat. Please drop me a line on my email, should you be interested: oana.marocico01@bbc.co.uk. Thank you! Danke!

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