When Kishore Budha posts the article Literary wars: Natives Vs Anglophones he also invites me to nose-dive right into the middle of another raging battle of the languages unfolding as we speak. As a Basque speaker, this is certainly not a topic I feel comfortable dealing with. However, since the whole (usually very local) debate is also taking a bit of a global dimension I sense it is worth giving it a shot or two. First I will report on what the fuss is all about. Then I provide a couple of quotes and remarks explaining why — on this one — I refrain from protesting in favour of my mother language. Finally, an explicit invitation to disengage is also addressed to the people with whom I personally feel most closely associated.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007: Madrid based North-American journalist Keith Johnson writes an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled Basque Inquisition: How Do You Say Shepherd in Euskera? The article at the source of the row can only be partially accessed here. Partially because to access the full text one must subscribe to the newspaper. Having said this, I still think it is worth giving it a click, not least because at the bottom of the page, in the section ‘related articles and blogs’, access is provided to the full article by Christopher Rhodas (October 11, 2007) entitled: What’s the Hindi Word for Dot-Com? Incidentally, therefore, if somebody was perhaps a bit puzzled by the kind of unlikely stereograhic alliances taking place of late in this blog of the Subaltern Studies collective, then what can I say: there you are! Tough! For even the Wall Street Journal sees, and capitalises on the point that, after all it is not a particular national and/or cultural-linguistic identity that unites us. Instead it is a certainly ghostly, yes, but also all too Real class consciousness which helps give consistence to our critical approaches seeking both to describe and shake off the shared forms of subordination and subalternity we endure.
Now, following from the above and always enthusiastic about sharing too my cosmopolitan credentials with many universalistic liberals, a good idea occurs to me which would be to to set up a new hybrid web page double u, double u, double u sheperd dot-com forward slash esperanto. In the mean time, however, I will come back to the nitty-grity of our particular(ist) debate. If you are still interested in reading the full article by Johnson, you will find it here. When you access it, do not panic just yet… simply scroll a couple of paragraphs downwards. You will find it there and then a bit further down you can also read an expert-authoritative (linguistic) Response to the infamous WSJ article by Mikel Morris at the bottom of the page. If you are not particularly keen in using the mouse forwards and back several times over, then I will still give you a paragraph by Morris later on but first let me describe Johnson’s inflammatory rather than infamous piece as follows in three nutshells:
1. Johnson’a article on the legendary Spanish Inquisition begins precisely with the kind of well rehearsed old trick which consists of pick-n-choosing a fairly isolated case in order to describe Basque resistence to assimilation under the precise guise of its opposite; hence the defence of a minority, subordinate language becoming now the very source of oppression: ‘Basque Inquisition’ over the ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘marginalised’ Spanish speaking population (as if!).
2. Johnson’s position on the overall linguisitc debate favours the well-known instrumentalist approach whereby why should someone learn a language with less than a million speakers when Spanish is spoken by over 400 million all over the world; the obvious flipside being, needless to say, why don’t we then all speak Mandarin? A modest yet nonsense proposal, no doubt, but a proposal with a vengence since “left to our own devices”, as a well-known New Age/liberal motto goes, we would also rather choose to learn and speak English (In passing, this fact alone also makes Gordon Brown and Labour’s New English-centred neo-nationalist obsessions pretty ridiculous, quite frankly. Like many people further afield Polish migrant bricklayers do want to learn the language too!).
3. Johnson expands on several examples in order to show how the Basque language is not suited for modern life. From my part this old argument deserves no further comment, other perhaps than referring the reader to my own discussions with Kishore Budha on the sexy-ness of certain words in certain languages as compared to others (see here)
Saturday, November 11, 2007: On the opposite side of the linguisitc divide, in order to rebuke Johnson’s dismisal of the Basque language on the grounds, for instance, that there are “10 different words for shepherd,” Morris gives us all kind of lexicographic explanations about the issue:
Your observation on shepherd is an example of gross ignorance of not only Basque but of English as well. The origin of the word shepherd is sceaphierde, (From Old English) from sceap “sheep” + hierde “herder,” from heord “a herd” ( Cf. M.L.G., M.Du. schaphirde, M.H.G. schafhirte, Ger. dial. schafhirt.) The Webster dictionary defines “shepherd” as “1 : a person who tends sheep” Thus, you probably meant “herder” or “drover” rather than “shepherd”, but then again that term is too general in English and is usually combined with the animal being driven.
As you can note, Johnson certainly got it totally wrong on this one. But is that the issue really? And does Morris really think that the issue would be somehow sorted by Johnson accepting his invitation to “get your facts straight and talk to competent people who know something about languages”. This is indeed what happens when expert Bascophile scholars, and even grassroots campaigners self-appoint themselves as the guardians of ‘Basque language and culture’ (ancient, pristine, what have you…), a safe heaven to be protected from the hellish ‘ugly politics’ that irremediably accompany all things Basque in standard media reporting. I am afraid that like elsewhere in the world, this is impossible also in the Basque struggles over the political sign. You cannot have it all. You cannot have the enigma (mysterious language and people…) without the stigma (violence, ugly-nationalism, terrorism…). It is not in your hands. In other words: no matter how ‘wrong’ Johnson is, he also represents and holds a power that Morris will never have, regardless of how ‘right’ he might even be in his scholarly defence of an ‘endangered language’. Simple.
Now, in the heat of the debate I too was almost tempted to become a Beautiful Soul on the right-high ground of the moral divide and join in an e-mail campaign promoted by a well-known cultural organisation. This is the message one is invited to send to the Wall Street Journal:
I use Basque to laugh at work, to be annoyed, to be friendly, to reach agreements…to communicate with friends and family… to learn and research… to wake up, to sleep and to dream… to play with my children, to be happy, to love, to punish, to debate… to chat up, to make love, to enjoy… and to do anything else that can be done in any other language
If you want to participate in this campaign, please do so and click here. The instructions are easy to follow: name, country, e-mail address and then comes the quoted extract that I have translated from Basque plus two options in which you obviously agree with the message but choose to either send it or not to the American newspaper. As said, I have finally decided not to take part, but, really, nothing prevents you from doing so. After all, this is not about you speaking the language or not. It is rather about yet another nice folksy protest, about performing subaltern outrage, as it were, for the sake of feeling good expressing one’s deep ‘resentment’ against yet another unfair and incorrect treatment of a ‘minority language’. Do not get me wrong! I am also hurt by this lazy journalist writing silly things about my mother tongue, but put yourself in my position and consider that you were ever to face a situation where you had to assert and defend your language in the terms above. Would you really think that what you were saying is believable even to yourself? Then why would you need to assert it in the first place?
Sunday, November 18, 2007: More of the same but at at more sophisticated scale: 180 ‘concerned’ local and global Bascophile signatories including cultural and political celebrities worldwide such as the writer Bernardo Atxaga and Pete Cenarrusa, former Secretary of State from Idaho, demand that the Wall Street Journal rectify the article by Johnson and to publish on their front page a manifesto-like document rich in legal, semantic and historic corrections. I will not expand on it. If someone wants to read the full text (s)he can click here and, again, find the text and the full list of signatories by scrolling down the page.
To conclude: the problem is that if the already alluded to stereographic alliances taking place in this subaltern site may seem bizarre to some, to me, personally, the kind of across the board solidarity taking place around the Basque linguistic issue is far more strange. This is perhaps why my gut-feeling instructs me that I should invite the academics, cultural critics and media professionals with pro-independence and socialist leanings who have signed this bland post-political multiculturalist petition to politely withdraw from it. Far too many dodgy ‘tolerant’, ‘pragmatic’ and ‘pluralist’ characters in the list who only benefit, as we speak, from our permanent state of subordination and with whom we have nothing to share. Not even our concerns about the language that most of us (do or do not) speak!
Ps: I use the notion of “stereographic alliances” in the same way as Kobena Mercer (“Diaspora and Dialogic Imagination”, 1988) states that “there is a kind of stereographic writing … in which ideas and issues from one problematic reverberate with others put forward in seemingly incommensurate contexts”. Now, talking of “incommensurate contexts”, check this (can only be viewed on Internet Explorer. To see the video click here). There you will have the opportunity to see a rather silly mini-video clip I made together with a more serious explanation I give of the “Basque ethnic cow” you also see in this posting. The nicety of it all comes from the fact that the clip is mirrored in a web site dedicated to football, most particularly to the Barcelona FC player of Argentinean origin Leo Messi… Do not ask me how and why but I want to express my gratitude to whoever has taken the time to set it so nice and neat.