Alasdair MacIntyre On Relativism And The Immigrant

In ‘Relativism, Power, and Philosophy,’ (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association,Vol. 59, No. 1, September 1985, pp. 5-22) Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

‘Relativism’…names one kind of conclusion to enquiry into a particular class of problems. Those questions arise in the first place for people who live in certain highly specific types of social and cultural situation…It is perhaps unsurprising that [these questions] have been overlooked by those recent philosophers who want to make a sharp dichotomy between the realm of philosophical theorizing and that of everyday belief….This attitude is perhaps a symptom of…too impoverished a view of the types of social and institutional circumstance which generate philosophical problems. What then are the social and institutional circumstances which generate the cluster of problems to which some version of relativism can be a rational response?

They are the social and institutional circumstances of those who inhabit a certain type of frontier or boundary situation. Consider the predicament of someone who lives in a time and place where he or she is a full member of two linguistic communities, speaking one language…exclusively to the older members of his or her family and village and [another language, X] to those from the world outside, who seek to engage him or her in a way of life in the exclusively [X]-speaking world. Economic and social circumstance may enforce on such a person a final choice between inhabiting the one linguistic community and inhabiting the other; and in some times and places this is much more than a choice between two languages…For a language maybe so used…that to share in its use is to presuppose one cosmology rather than another, one relationship of local law and custom to cosmic order rather than another, one justification of particular relationships of individual to community and of both to land and to landscape rather than another.

Nietzsche famously said that all philosophy is but disguised autobiography. I find such a philosophical claim plausible because, interestingly enough, it speaks to my experiences in the course of my intellectual development. I find myself sympathetic to relativistic, quasi-relativistic, perspectival (and relatedly anti-foundational) claims in many domains of philosophy because I consider myself–a bilingual immigrant, who is now a naturalized citizen in his adopted homeland–to ‘inhabit a…frontier or boundary situation.’ Philosophical theses built on such claims exercise a particular fascination for me; I find myself drawn to them. I say so because it would be dishonest to pretend that my acceptability of their arguments is purely a matter of intellectual assessment. As William James would describe it, my ‘passional nature‘ runs ahead of me here, taking me with it. As all too many immigrants and bilinguals will note, their transitions between countries and languages are not journeys through merely space-time or linguistic boundaries; rather, conceptual boundaries of considerable standing and importance are crossed. Incommensurability between worlds and ways of being seems a cosmic fact, an inescapable aspect of such a lived reality; relativism suggests itself as a ‘rational response’ to such a state of affairs.

Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

On First And Second Languages V – Nabokov’s Lament

In his famous Afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov closed with:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

In a post paying tribute a scholarly friend of mine, a close and careful reader of the books he owned and an exacting writer to boot, I had written:

Even more impressive was his attention to elegance and conciseness in both his verbal and mathematical expression; we co-authored a journal paper together and I was–for lack of a better word–blown away by his insistence on getting our written and technical formulations just right. No superfluous words, no bloated definitions, no vague sentences were to be tolerated.

My friend’s writing did not lack flair either, and so I once complimented him on his style. He accepted the praise reluctantly, issuing a lament similar to that of Nabokov’s: He was a native French speaker and writer, and he was painfully aware, as he wrote in English, that he was not writing as well as he could have in French. His distinctive style, his skillful deployment of the resources of the French language were simply not available to him.

I’m bilingual too, but only in a fashion, and so I do not experience the kind of regrets expressed above. As I have noted here on previous occasions, I do not read and write Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani–my supposed first language(s)–with anywhere near the same facility as I do English, my actual first language. Indeed, I do not read or write in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani at all. I could, but slowly and painfully. And so I don’t. I had intended to read three novels in Hindi by the great Indian novelist Premchand–which I own–to ameliorate this state of affairs (and to evaluate the quality of their translations into English), but they are still sitting on my shelf, unread. I know a struggle awaits me when I open their pages; avoidance seems like a rather perspicuous strategy. (I suspect my reading abilities would trend upward on a sharper slope than my writing in Hindi et al., which was always hopeless.) I am well aware, when I write in English, that this is my chosen medium and vehicle of expression; it is the only one I have.

I say this even as I revel in my bilingual abilities when it comes to the spoken word. I enjoy dipping back into the stores of Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani/Punjabi idioms and expressions when I speak with other speakers of these languages. There are some pungent descriptions of this lunatic world’s state of affairs that I only find available in those linguistic frameworks. And when I do use them, I’m struck, as always, by how the mere utterance of a sentence or two can instantly transport me to a distinctive place and time.

Speaking In Accents – II

In response to my post yesterday, a Facebook friend offered the following perspicuous comments:

I have no control over my accent and it breaks my heart when my dialect goes missing – and faking it/forcing it is difficult and problematic to boot. I just want so badly to rub my accent in the face of every stereotype of the illiterate drunken welfare bum, but code switching happens even when I don’t want it to. So often dialect becomes kind of trivialized, but really, in my experience, it’s at the core of cultural identity.

[T]he final point in the blog post about [Samir’s] unconscious ability as a linguistic sponge contrasted with the observation that Americans rarely pick up Indian accent features even if surrounded by them is SO IMPORTANT. Power and perception of prestige is such a huge dimension guiding whether accents are abandoned, modified, or clung to….in my own life, I’ve observed how so many Newfoundlanders move away and lose their accents – learn to speak ‘correctly,’ ugh – but I can’t think of examples of Canadians who move to Newfoundland and pick up the local way of speaking in a significant way. [links added]

Accents can be (are?) markers of privilege and power. The immigrant loses his accent, but not all kinds of immigrants; it depends on who is immigrating, and where.

Accents and assimilation go together; those that seek to assimilate, often seek to lose their accents; those that don’t want to, or don’t need to, do not. There is little you can do about skin color or physical appearance, but perhaps there is a great deal that can be done about the way you sound. (Witness the popularity of ‘accent removal classes‘ in the US, for instance.) And such linguistic assimilation can be crucially important.

A reminder of an accent, especially in mixed company, is a galling business. Even if you aren’t seeking assimilation consciously, it can be a simple reminder of difference, of outside status. These reminders can vary: sometimes its the request to speak slower, to repeat oneself; sometimes its the insensitive impromptu mimicry; sometimes its the well-meant but often awkward, “I love it when you pronounce X like that”; sometimes its the simple query, “What kind of accent is that?” The accented speaker feels the spotlight turn on him; he had thought he had sneaked in, but his papers have been asked for, and they’ve been found wanting. His cover is blown.

More problematically, an accent can simply disguise your content with its form; you might be making eminent sense, but the overlaying accent invokes a prejudice that clouds comprehension. In some kinds of conversation, some kinds of accents don’t work. It’s easier to talk about cricket in an Indian accent than it is about baseball or football; I’m supposed to be talking about, and dispensing wisdom on, the former, but not about the latter. I will not be heard in the latter case.

All accents are not equal, of course. In my twenty-seven years in the US, I’ve never seen an Italian or French friend told their accented English was difficult to understand, or asked to repeat themselves, or had it mimicked to their face. Their listeners strain to understand them; these accents are markers of sophisticated European cultures, signals of sophistication. On a related note, I’ve never heard complaints about Italian or French speakers talking to each other in their home languages in mixed company, a grouse all too often directed at other more ‘insular’ folk from lands a little further east.

I’ll never lose my accent; I wouldn’t know how even as it occasionally synchronizes with the speech of those around me. My daughter will realize, soon enough, her father sounds different from most around her. Hopefully, she won’t be too confused or mortified by the difference between her Brooklyn accent and my mutt one.

Speaking In Accents – I

Like every human on this planet, I speak with an accent. In my case, I speak English with a curious, hybrid, mongrelized accent – Indian, but bearing the impress of twenty-seven years on the US East Coast. It is distinct and unmistakable–no American will ever think I have grown up in the US. It is clear I’m from ‘elsewhere.’ (I mix up my Ws and Vs, I do not always pronounce vowels in the clipped style so distinctive of American English, and of course, I sometimes emphasize syllables in my own idiosyncratic way.) Sometimes, when I travel, Europeans–and others too–think I have an American accent, but Americans know it is not. Interestingly, because the Indian accent has some intonation patterns similar to that of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh accents, I’ve sometimes been asked–only in the US, not elsewhere–why I’m speaking in a brogue.  (In the opening scenes of Twin Town, the Lewis brothers, from Swansea, Wales, are shown talking to their mother–I think–in hospital; their conversation is only partially audible. I could have sworn I was listening to Indians.) And of course, because I speak English with an accent, it is a common enough suggestion that English is not my ‘first language’, that rather it is my ‘second language.’ But as I noted here a while ago, English is my first language in every relevant dimension.

When I speak to Indians, whether here in the US or in India, as the conversation proceeds, the Indian roots of my English become ever more prominent till, finally, it seems to me I’m speaking English the way I used to when I lived in India. As my brother said to me when I first traveled back to India after spending nearly three years in the US, “You were speaking funny when you got off the plane but by the time we got home, you’d become normal again.”

Once, I was accused of feigning an accent–a particularly damning accusation of insincerity and inauthenticity as far as my interlocutor was concerned. I was the archetypal post-colonial, trying to sneak into the club. But for me, the only partial Americanization of my accent has been a subtle process; I have not been conscious of it being molded and shaped as I spoke English in the US. Instead, it has seemed to me that as I have participated in conversations, my spoken English has, in a kind of sympathetic dance, aligned itself with that of the speaker.  A related observation was made by my wife who pointed out that when I conversed with a good French friend of mine, I seemed  to start throwing around Gallic shrugs by the dozen. And then, lastly, when I lived in Australia, I did pick up, quite quickly, many distinct Australianisms.

No American, of course, has had his spoken English acquire an Indian accent by talking to me, so perhaps the original accusation did have some weight. Perhaps there is a bit of Zelig in me–in the linguistic dimension. More on this anon.

On First and Second Languages-IV: Bringing Up Baby

I am often asked, by well-meaning friends, “Are you going to teach your daughter how to speak [Hindi, Urdu]?” My answer, invariably, is “I’ll try.” So I’m trying.  My efforts at teaching my daughter Hindi-Urdu consist primarily of speaking to her in it, with occasional lapses into English.

These lapses have become more frequent. I feel my resolve faltering. This is perhaps ludicrous. My daughter is only eighteen months, and is only now learning her first words. Among them, she has learned one in Hindi–a slightly colloquial, baby-talk term for milk. This surely, is the time to dig in, and press on.

But the challenges are daunting. Hindi-Urdu isn’t my first language; English is. I don’t read books in Hindi–though I have grand plans to read three novels, patiently waiting for me on my shelves; the frequency of my Hindi-movie watching is far outstripped by that of English–and other languages, subtitled in, naturally, English. Very few of my daughter’s local uncles and aunts–who do not live in New York City in any case–speak Hindi-Urdu (though some of them comprehend it well enough to converse with their immigrant parents.) Her grandparents–my wife’s parents–only occasionally speak to her in Hindi-Urdu. I have few Indian friends, and their children only speak English as well. Her linguistic community for Hindi-Urdu–that is, me–looks remarkably scant and impoverished.

Besides, I’m conflicted about this project. While I’m well aware of the virtues of bilingualism, I wonder about the choice of the second language. Wouldn’t Spanish be better for a child growing up in the modern United States? My English vocabulary is much richer than my Hindi-Urdu one; wouldn’t I be aiding her cognitive development more by speaking to her in a language in which I would be more expressive, more fluent, more able to express a broader range of concepts and ideas? Why should she learn Hindi-Urdu? I doubt she’ll become a South Asian studies scholar. And if she does, perhaps she can learn this language later in life? Many area studies scholars do just that, after all.  To ‘learn about her roots’ and ‘where she came from’? But her roots are in Brooklyn and New York City. This is where her father has lived for the last two decades; this is where she was born.  My trips to India look like becoming less, not more, frequent in the years to come. And lastly, I have neither the desire nor the ability to impose a specific Indian identity on her. Mine is confused enough; I doubt I should attempt to ‘bring her up Indian’, to ‘make her aware of her culture’. Perhaps she can sample the bits of Indianness that exist in my life along with all the other flavors of this Brooklyn life of ours and make of them what she will.

Perhaps I’m just lazy, unwilling to put in the hard yards to bring up a bilingual child–like watching movies with her or teaching her the alphabet. Perhaps; it won’t be the first time a dimly desirable project of mine has run aground for lack of drive.

For the time being, I’ll press on, talking as much as I can in my ‘mother-tongues’, trusting that my daughter will find some traction in our conversations. Perhaps she’ll let me know, by her facility, what she’d like to do.

Note: As might be surmised, I do feel some guilt about being so conflicted and insufficiently committed to this project. This emotion has only been exacerbated by a niece of mine–raised in Los Angeles–who has told me she would have much preferred it if her parents had taught her Hindi-Urdu.

On First and Second Languages – III

In this ongoing series of posts on partially mastered languages and my frustrating relationships with them, I’ve written about German and Spanish. Today, I come to the most vexed alliance of all, the one with Punjabi.

My last name is a giveaway: I’m a Punjabi. But I’ve never lived in the Punjab. I did, however, spend many years in a city with a large Punjabi population: New Delhi. My parents never spoke in Punjabi with me (they did so with their parents) and so while I grew up listening to a great deal of Punjabi, I acquired no fluency in it whatsoever. In the tenth grade, during two years spent in boarding school, away in India’s north-east, I struck up a friendship with two Sikh lads and started some rudimentary practice. On returning to Delhi to finish high school, I initiated some tentative conversations with my grandmothers and attempted to learn some Punjabi from them. I noticed that none of my cousins, and indeed, no one in my generation of urban Punjabis in New Delhi spoke the language.

By the time I left India for the US, my fluency in Punjabi was still minimal. Matters picked up, ironically enough, on moving to a land ten thousand miles away from ‘home.’ I was keen to practice, keen to establish a very particular sort of contact with the few Punjabis I met. I also made contact with a brand new community of Punjabi speakers: Pakistanis. Indeed, it seemed to me that more Pakistani Punjabis, even urban ones, spoke Punjabi than Indian ones. My vocabulary improved, as did some aspects of my grammar.

Moving to New York City in 1993 facilitated this process even further. The city is home to a large Punjabi community and opportunities for practice were only limited by my enterprise and shyness; they still are. I discovered that the Punjabi spoken in the Punjabi hinterland–of whose representatives in New York City there were many–was far harder to master, and I would frequently, embarrassed, switch to Hindi/Urdu in the middle of a conversation, unable to keep up with the barrage of incomprehensible words coming my way.

My attempts to practice my Punjabi had unexpected consequences: on occasion, a cab driver from the Punjab–Indian or Pakistani–delighted to make acquaintance with a fellow homeboy, would simply decline my payment of the fare, and give me a free ride. I grew embarrassed at these inordinately generous offers and would try my best to pay, but to no avail. (This followed me to Sydney, when on arriving there for my post-doctoral fellowship, the young man who drove me to the University of New South Wales also declined payment.)

My fluency in Punjabi is a couple of rungs short of full-fledged mastery; I need a period of immersion to make what I consider would be a significant breakthrough. (In the winter of 2006/7 on a visit to India, my family and I made a short road trip to the Punjab; my spoken Punjabi improved even in the space of those four days.) I do not think I will ever have the time or the patience to master the script but spoken mastery lies well within my reach provided I can achieve total immersion. Even two weeks, I suspect, would do it.  I’m not sure when and how I will be able to bring this about though; work and family seem to leave little time for such an adventure.

So near, and yet so far.