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.

Language and Identity: The Case of Punjabi

My last name is a giveaway: I’m a Punjabi. But I’ve never lived in the Punjab and I have yet to master its language. The story of my attempts to do so reveals familiar struggles—by people like you and me—to fashion an identity, no matter where we live, whether in India or elsewhere.

As a child, I was not particularly keen to take on the mantle of being a ‘Punjabi’. My first homes were in Indian Air Force bases and later, in a city with a large Punjabi population: New Delhi. On air force bases, the lingua franca was English, and ethnic identities were de-emphasized in favor of a more pluralistic Indian one. At home, my parents never spoke Punjabi to me though they did so—with fluency and aplomb—with their parents whenever we visited them. So I grew up listening to a great deal of Punjabi, but like most urban Punjabis of my generation, without learning our supposed ‘mother-tongue’.

This cultural and linguistic distancing from the Punjab had other dimensions. When an Amritsar-resident uncle invited me to spend my autumn vacation with him, I politely declined; its historic attractions—the Golden Temple, Jallianwalah Bagh—did not seem to exert a strong enough hold on me.  I spent a day in Jalandhar on my way to a family holiday in Kashmir and did not think much of it; compared to Delhi, it seemed impossibly small-townish. Punjab smacked of the rustic, the agricultural, the homespun; I saw myself as an urban Anglophone. I lived in a big city, the capital of India; my ancestors seemed to have lived in dusty villages and provincial towns.  If this was my ethnic heritage, then I would do better to leave it behind and take on the new one that my parents’ expatriate lives—elsewhere in India, away from the Punjab—afforded me.

But migration—of whatever stripe—can change such perspectives. In my ninth and tenth grades, during two years spent in boarding school, away in India’s North-East, I was not-so-gently nudged toward my Punjabi identity by my fellow students, who, though by virtue of hailing from all over the country constituted a demographic similar to the one I had enjoyed on air force bases, were not shy about showing off their ethnic prejudices. Perhaps it was simple immaturity; perhaps it was the absence of the military impress. Be that as it may, whereas previously the label ‘Punjabi’ had never been applied to me, now, I was now supposedly a hick, despite being from New Delhi. As a confused and callow act of defiance, I became interested in acquiring my new identity’s other trappings. One important and seemingly singular one was language. Soon, I struck up a friendship with two Sikh lads—transplanted from Chapra, Bihar—and started some rudimentary practice in spoken Punjabi. For the first time in my life, I drew on a supposed ethnic solidarity. The irony of a Delhi lad finding it with Bihari boys was not lost on me. My early attempts at spoken Punjabi were, as might be expected, ludicrously bad, but a halting journey had commenced.

On returning to Delhi to finish high school, I noticed my partial competency in Punjabi made me an outlier in my cohort. None of my cousins—and indeed, just about no one in my generation of urban Punjabis in New Delhi—spoke Punjabi; they were content with their fluency in English and Hindi; perhaps they were just as ambivalent about their Punjabi identity as I had been. More broadly, the migration of Punjabis outwards from the ‘home’ state seemed to have condemned their language to a slow death in India’s urban centers, overcome by the homogenizing effect of Hindi. (Elsewhere in the world, Punjabi flourished in locales like Southall and Vancouver.)

I now grew to dislike the sense of exclusion I experienced when a fluent conversation in Punjabi was conducted in my presence. I wanted to be able to understand Punjabi songs, to crack jokes in Punjabi, to perhaps even watch a movie or two in Punjabi. I still did not speak to my mother in Punjabi; our relationship was too entrenched in the familiar contours afforded by English and Hindi. But my grandmothers had no such established habit; if I attempted to speak in Punjabi with them, they replied accordingly. I began some tentative conversations in Punjabi with my grandparents. The Punjabi I acquired thus was old-fashioned; it had to be given its provenance.

At the age of twenty, my fluency in Punjabi was still minimal. Matters picked up, like they had before, when I left home. This time for a land ten thousand miles away: the US. There, as I struggled with the immigrant’s familiar and peculiar schizophrenia of identities, I made attempts to seek refuge in one or the other of the many variants—American, Indian, Punjabi—available to me. Sometimes I sought rapid assimilation and Americanization; sometimes I dreamed of returning to India; and at yet others, my old desire to speak Punjabi reasserted itself with some vigor.

New York City, my new home, played host to a large Punjabi population; opportunities for learning Punjabi were only limited by my enterprise and shyness. (They still are.) Thanks to my displacement from India, I had made contact with a brand new community of Punjabi speakers: Pakistanis. Once, while dropping off a friend for a flight back to India, as I walked through JFK’s departure hall, past a gate for a PIA flight, I was stunned by the Punjabi I could hear spoken around me by the travelers headed home. This was a huge community of fellow Punjabis; once they had only been those my father had fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars; now, perhaps, I could view them as potential brethren of a sort.  A charmingly naïve view perhaps but in that context not an entirely misguided one.

My attempts to practice my Punjabi in New York City had unexpected consequences: on many occasions, a cab driver from the Punjab–Indian or Pakistani, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, it did not seem to matter–delighted to make acquaintance with a fellow Punjabi-spouting 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. My American friends were suitably nonplussed and impressed by these remarkable displays of generosity and ethnic camaraderie. So was I.

My progress in learning Punjabi was halting; all too often, in the midst of a conversation, my verbs, tenses and vocabulary would break down and I would have to, yet again, switch back to the safety of Hindi-Urdu. 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 than the urban variant I had been previously exposed to, and I would frequently switch to Hindi-Urdu in the middle of a conversation, unable to keep up with the barrage of incomprehensible words coming my way.

My progress was hampered occasionally by some old ambivalence about my Punjabi identity; I was a graduate student in philosophy, immersed in sophisticated theoretical discourse; what was I doing, expending precious time and effort in learning a language that seemed destined to be confined to India and Pakistan’s rural regions? I had married an Indian-American woman who spoke no Punjabi at all; what role did Punjabi have to play in my future family life?

Years on, as I live in Brooklyn in a neighborhood that abuts a large Pakistani community, where my opportunities for speaking Punjabi are confined to short conversations with local shopkeepers, my fluency in Punjabi remains a couple of rungs short of full-fledged mastery. Perhaps such competence would be possible were I able to achieve total immersion; in the winter of 2006/7 during a visit to India, my family and I made a short road trip to the Punjab; my spoken Punjabi improved in the space of four days. Work and family though, leave little time for such adventures.  Perhaps I am destined to be stuck at my current state of fluency. My ten-month old daughter will almost certainly never learn Punjabi; indeed, it would be a miracle if she would learn a bit of Hindi-Urdu. The Punjabi speakers in my family, in my line, will end with me.  And Punjabi’s melancholic trend toward a seemingly ever-smaller cohort of speakers will continue. (Word has it that in Pakistan, Urdu is fast displacing Punjabi.)

My earlier angst about seeking an identity has died down. I am happy to slip in and out of the three languages—English, Hindi, Punjabi—I can call upon with varying degrees of felicity; I delight in the varied perspectives these linguistic lenses afford me. I am now, perhaps, finally comfortable in my skin; I am who I am, a transplanted person that can look back on a childhood spent elsewhere, and who can claim allegiance to, and membership in, various cultural traditions. I am destined to be a mongrel of sorts.

Note: This is a revised and extended version of an earlier post on the same subject.