Barbara Cassin is a distinguished French philosopher and philologist who was awarded the Grand prix de philosophie by the Académie Française in 2012. The interview below is a companion piece to "More Than One Language," an essay by Cassin on the value of multilingualism published in the March 2017 issue of e-flux journal.
I have heard that not all languages have the same number of words and I’d like to know if that means that some languages are richer than others, and if all languages have the same ability to create new words and thus to become richer?
Unlike Gilberte Tsaï who is hosting us here at the Théâtre de Montreuil, I don’t know enough really foreign languages. I don’t know anything about Chinese, for example. I don’t know Hebrew and Arabic, languages whose real differences inform one thinks. I know quite a few languages of Europe, Latin, and Greek. I have a little bit of Russian. To answer your questions within the limits of what I can have in mind, languages do not have the same number of words, that is possible and likely. But the first certainty is that the “global English” that we all speak is very poor in relation to the English of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or James Joyce. One must understand that a language is also made of authors and works. Culture is what defines a language. One language therefore already does not have the same number as itself. That’s the first part of my answer.
The second part of my answer is that certain languages sometimes have a plethora of words to designate the essential things in their world, so essential that they make distinctions in places where “we” never even imagine there are any. Inuit, an Eskimo language, has a greater number of words to say snow: each word refers to the different qualities of rain, or of snow—the kind one walks in, the kind one can construct an igloo with, the kind you can keep a trace of, the kind you die in. These are concrete worlds. But just because many words exist to say rain, this does not mean that language includes that many more words. There may exist fewer ones to say the sun.
That said, it is not simply the number of words that defines a language, but also the syntax it has. Languages can therefore be infinitely different because they don’t have the same kind of organization. This means that it is very hard to compare them, and even harder to know what richness or poverty means. For example, I think that Chinese does not have a verb for “to be.” When I gave a class several years ago at Beijing University on truth for Greeks, I needed to talk about the verb “to be,” I needed the words “subject” and “accident.” “The yellow table,” “yellow” is a predicate or an accident of this substance or subject that the table is, by way of the intermediary of “is.” How can one talk about this if not only are the analogous words missing but also the very anchoring constituted by the form of the phrase? It’s very hard. My translator did the best he could. An incredible student who seemed to be sleeping in the first row, and who apparently wasn’t entirely asleep, came to see me after the conference and told me that the translator was very good with the words but not on the meaning because when I would speak of an “accident,” the translator would translate a “car accident.” Obviously, without the verb “to be,” things got very complicated. It is likely that the number of words is not the same in one language and another, but that does not mean much given that from one language to another it is a matter of different ways of intertwining, different relations, different ways of being rich. What matters goes far beyond word count.
Do languages have the same capacity for invention? They do not have the “same” capacity for invention, but they are all “inventable.” A language is an energy and it is constantly inventing itself, according to its own modalities. In German, there is something I called, in that dictionary I told you about, the “metaphysics of particles.” What does that mean? That means that you take a noun or a verb and you put it before or after these little things, particles, in or aus for example. These particles designate the place, time, or manner, and that produces a new word. In French we have trouble, we can do this a little bit, but only a little bit. We can say “verdir” (“to turn green”) or “reverdir” (“to turn green again”), but we have trouble saying “déverdir” (“to decrease in green”) or “averdir” (“to lose one’s green”). In German, you can do this. Every language contains within itself its rules for invention and their possible transgressions. When Jacques Derrida said that a language is not something that belongs, he was speaking on the basis of his own personal experience: he was pied-noir (a French person born in Algeria) and his maternal language was French, but it seemed crazy to him that Arabic could be considered in Algeria as a foreign language, that it would be taught as a foreign language. He called this the “monolinguism of the other.” He then said that a language is not something that belongs and that, for that reason, it has to be respected. You have to move in its direction. We can invent within it, but there is a sense to the invention. We can be disrespectful with a language as long as we respect its secret law, as long as we have understood how it invents itself. I think each language harbors its own possibilities for invention.
Do you know how to speak Greek?
I don’t know how to pronounce it because we no longer know how Ancient Greek was pronounced. We know certain generalities, we know certain accents (called “rough breathing”) mean that the vowel is aspirated, for example. When I wrote down Khaire a little while ago, which means “enjoy,” I put an h in to make the aspiration of the letter khi perceptible. It’s not the same thing as a simple k. I therefore know a certain number of things about pronunciation, but not everything. I cannot speak it, but I can read it: it is what we call a dead language. A dead language is a language that is maternal for no one. No one today is born speaking Ancient Greek and that makes for a very big difference between a dead language and a living language. No one can invent words in Ancient Greek any more. That possibility is closed off, finished.
Today, there is a modern Greek that is spoken in Greece, but it has changed a lot in relation to Ancient Greek, if only on the level of pronunciation. There was in particular the phenomenon of “iotacism”: lots of vowels and diphthongs are pronounced as “i” and not “e,” for example. And then the meaning of certain words has shifted. If I say metaphora, in Ancient Greek this means “metaphor.” When one says “the foot of a mountain,” I certainly see that a mountain doesn’t have a foot like you do, it’s a metaphor. The bottom of a mountain is called its “foot,” but the mountain will never have shoes. Today when I see metaphora in Greece, it’s on a moving truck. This is not at all absurd because, in a certain way, the word “foot” for the mountain had indeed “moved” in Ancient Greek, in relation to its “proper” sense of the foot of a man.
I do not speak modern Greek, but I understand it a little bit. Nobody speaks ancient Greek, but it can be read.
Why is it said that bilinguals have an easier time learning a language?
To start with, I would say it’s because they speak languages. They know it, and no language appears to them as a logos, as the only possible language. The certainty that at least two languages exist implies that there are still others that exist as well and that we can compare them, we have a hold on relations through them. In ancient Greek, the first meaning of logos is “relation”: a/b=c/d, logos, what today is called a proportion. Being bilingual allows you to establish relations and establishing relations is how we can define ability and intelligence. Being bilingual allows you to establish relations from one language to another, between several languages, and that is why it is easier to learn them.
Why is the language you speak the most the one that is spoken at school?
For example, you speak one language at home and one language at school? Tell me which languages you speak.
I speak French and English.
Why is it that you speak English, does one of your parents speak English?
Yes, my mother is English and my father is French. Why do I speak French more?
I think you almost gave the answer. You speak English with your mother, but because you live in France you speak French with everybody else. I think you speak with everyone more often than you speak with you mother, but that does not stop English from being a maternal language in the narrow sense. Maybe you dream in English?
I don’t know.
Pay attention the next time you dream, you may notice that you are dreaming in two languages. It’s possible. You speak in French with a lot more people than in English, but you probably speak very intensely with your mother.
At the beginning you talked about a sense of the invention of words specific to each language. With the globalization of English, is this sense going to continue? There are words in French that come from English, and words in English that come from French. Little by little will there only be one language for everyone?
It’s possible. Today there is already almost one language for everyone and I call it “Globish,” “global English.” When you want to order a coffee, you can ask for it in this language whether you are in Beijing on in Tamanrasset. It’s a language of communication, a vehicle, but you must not confuse it with English. English is much richer than Globish, it’s a language of culture and works, while Globish has no works except for applications for money from Brussels—even in France. I think Globish already exists, and that before it, there were other slightly comparable vehicular languages, with the very important difference that they were less summary both in relation to words and to their organization. For example, in what the Greeks called the “inhabited world,” people spoke koine, a Greek common to all (koinos means “common”). People spoke a common language fairly different from the Greek properly speaking that I mentioned to you earlier, even if it has the same basis. Later on, there was Latin as a language of Empire, then as the language of the Church. There is always a relation between the dominators and the language most commonly spoken. The common language was that of the dominant Greeks and the Roman Empire, and now in a certain way it is that of the Anglo-American Empire.
Will Globish be able to triumph over the maternal language?
I wanted to make this dictionary in order to avoid that. One of the major threats for Europe is that only Globish and dialects would remain, that maternal languages would not even be languages any more, but only dialects you speak with friends and at home, or in an expanded house, in a little village, a little city, a little country. The threat of a unique language of communication is real. Against this threat, each one of us must speak a language in addition to their main one. For example, one of the very concrete points of “anti-Globish” activism consists in producing bilingual editions and in making sure the manuals that teach language propose not only communication, but also culture, in other words beauty, texts to be heard in a language and not in one language, in Globish. This is why I insisted on Achilles’s sighs and Thetis’s tears, or on La Fontaine, because you hear in them something of each language, in each language. I find it sad that school books now only propose texts written in one language, and that they content themselves with teaching you to communicate with ease. A language is something other than an instrument of communication. Obviously, it allows you to communicate, but it is also something else, authors, works, inventions, cut-ups of the world. The danger is real, but it is also within our reach to make it so that languages do not become dialects; we just have to speak them, learn them, and value them.
What is the real danger in the fact that everyone might speak the same language?
It’s that it isn’t a real language, and we actually don’t miss it. Globish is not a real language because, for the moment, but this is part of its very constitution, it is only a means of communication. It’s a language of service and not a language of culture. The danger would be that there would only be a language of service and no longer any languages of culture. In what language does one write a beautiful text, a good text, or even just a text? Not in Globish! In Globish you can write reports, as a matter of fact that is how they make you write them. But how does one write a poem in Globish? The experiment can be fun, you can try, but it will always be a fairly ironic poem. A text in a language contains within it something of the history of that language, with the other texts that were written in it and that nourish it, texts that in a way are written underneath it. How can one make something on the level of culture and of the beautiful in Globish, something different from communication? This is a real question. Google claims that it is connecting even the monkeys in the trees and that it speaks to each one in his or her language. Bravo if that’s true! But I think it’s simply a question of “linguistic flavors” (Google uses that expression), like flavors of ice cream: we’ll make a French flavor, a French, Russian, Basque taste, etc. These are not languages in their strength and singularity. One must be very careful. I find this very dangerous.
When does a language become a dialect?
When it can no longer be exported. When the only way to invent is entirely private. A dialect is spoken in intimacy and cannot be opposed to the rest to the world. It’s on the order of the extended home and not of the public. A dialect does not produce a work but only speech. Careful, there are also languages that don’t necessarily have written, established works. It’s a complicated question, but I would have a tendency to say that a language becomes a dialect when it can no longer be opposed to another language, when there are no longer several languages but a global language and local ways of speaking that no longer come into contact with one another except through the global language.
I’m wondering how you explain the failure of Esperanto?
Because Esperanto is an absolutely artificial language that has neither authors nor works. I think the European community is wise not to want Esperanto and to want several languages for communication, even if they’re not very good at it, because Esperanto is a pure artefact and not a language.
However, if I take the idea of Esperanto all the way through to its end, I find a very generous and optimistic vision that resembles what Leibniz called the “universal characteristic.” Leibniz lived in Descartes’s age, in the seventeenth century. He was German, he spoke German, French, Italian, and English at least for reading, Greek, Latin, Hebrew no doubt, and he wrote in many of these languages. The “universal characteristic” is the idea that at bottom, all men have the same ideas, and that it is possible to take a big idea, the idea of “man” for example, and to reduce it into little component ideas. As if the idea of “man” was constituted by twenty primitive ideas—animal, language, laughter, death, etc.—and one could construct a whole language by combining a few primitive ideas. One would reduce everything to these atoms of ideas, and we would all talk to each other like that, in other words we would all calculate. Leibniz’s idea was to calculate instead of speaking, and the errors in thinking can be seen as mistakes in calculation. It is a failure, no one has ever successfully realized that, nor been able to think it all the way through, it’s an entirely ideal model from which Esperanto stems. One of the major esperantists was actually called Couturat; he was Leibniz’s editor. Esperanto is an ersatz of the universal characteristic. It does not work because how could one turn it into a language? Leibniz hoped that those who didn’t get along could sit around a table and say to one another, “let’s calculate and we will know who is right.” No, language cannot be reduced to a calculation, and Esperanto does not work because it is artificial, insufficient, without any thickness of history nor of the signifier, without authors and works—“desperanto,” as the poet Michel Deguy put it. As dead as a dead language, Esperanto is no one’s maternal language.
In the south of the United States, a language has developed that is now called “Spanglish,” a mix of Spanish and English. Can it really become a separate language on its own, and is it a danger for Spanish and English?
It can become a language of communication on its own, a medium for writing songs and works and, in that case, it will slowly become more and more of a language. I think it’s not necessarily dangerous, this is how a language is born and lives. A language is mortal, I am not a proponent of the fixism of species, otherwise we would still be speaking Latin. I think that French, English, and Spanish are like “Spanglish.” It’s very good, things have to move and live. Perhaps one day Spanish will become a dead language, but there will be several kinds of Spanish, amongst which “Spanglish.” In fact, there is a handsome dictionary today called Dictionnaire des espagnols. Today we think that Castilian, the versions of Spanish spoken in the diverse regions of Spain, the Spanish spoken in Cuba, the different Spanish languages spoken in South America, are not the same, and we are trying to see how they function, evolve, and intermingle, how a language “deterritorializes” itself. This is a lovely word that is kind of hard to pronounce, a new word in French invented by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Languages move, live, invent themselves, die, and communicate. I just got back from the United States, I heard “Spanglish” and, indeed, it may be a danger, but at the same time it is a good danger, a danger tied to the evolution of languages, a factor of invention.
How many languages do you speak in all?
Actually, there are many ways to speak a language. I have a passive understanding of a certain number of languages, but I do not really speak them. I can teach a class in French and English, I can answer questions in Portuguese or Spanish, and maybe in Italian. I can read Greek and Latin, but that is really all. When people explain things to me, I understand. That’s why I love bilinguals. In them there is a coexistence of the language you don’t speak very well but are sniffing out, and then its translation into the language you know well. It’s great for learning because you learn by relying on beautiful texts that actually have a consistency, instead of learning merely to ask your way to go to the movies, as I’ve seen in all the textbooks.
Why is there not one language that way we could learn languages?
I understand that there is already a language, there are already several others, and we can learn all of them but it takes a long time, doesn’t it? No language is worth all languages. I do not know an absolute language. What languages do you speak?
French and Tunisian.
Is Tunisian Arabic, or more particular?
And you speak both of them. That’s already a lot. You want to know what you have to do to learn yet another one?
Go to school, have good teaching, good books, work a lot, have fun learning, reading texts. Choose the other language that you want to learn, make friends who speak it and talk with them. If you want it, it will happen all on its own.
Is it possible to learn a language, and at the end of this to learn that the language becomes like our maternal language?
I don’t know, I don’t think so. Or rather, it all depends on the “like.”
I would certainly agree that one can forget one’s maternal language if, very early on, one no longer practices it with anyone at all, not even with oneself. So one must be able to live in another language “as if” (what does this mean?) it had always been one’s own.
You can no doubt also learn another language so well and love it so much that you end up as comfortable in it as a fish in water, as if you had always known an adoptive maternal language in a way. Why not.
But I don’t think it happens that way very often. I would like to take this question from the other angle, the resistant singularity of the maternal language. Hannah Arendt speaks of this very well. She is a philosopher who was the student of another German philosopher, Heidegger. She was Jewish and in 1933, she left Germany, she fled. Heidegger stayed in Germany and was a Nazi. She was his mistress and the whole thing was pretty complicated. She leaves, she gets to France and then to the United States. She spoke French, then English. For years, the whole second part of her life, almost thirty-five years, she lived in the United States. She tells of how she always kept her German accent in American and that she loved that accent. We have great interviews with her, particularly one with a journalist named Günther Gauss. The interview is called “Only the maternal language remains.” She says that German stayed “in the back of my mind,” always there, the German of her mother, the German of songs to sing her to sleep, the the German of the poets and the German of the philosophers. She is the one I was thinking of when I was trying to define what a maternal language is. Why is this so interesting? Because the German that is her maternal language became a terrible language for her, the language of the Nazis, the language of those who killed and who killed in language, like Heidegger to a certain extent when he uses German words with a sense that then makes them inappropriable for someone like Hannah Arendt. I understand this very well because my parents more or less forbade me from learning German. It’s crazy, but that’s the way it is. When I went to Berlin for the first time, I was sleeping in the train corridor because there wasn’t any room, and I was awakened by someone telling me “Raus, schnell!” I told myself that my parents were right, what a language: Hannah Arendt was aware that this language was the language of the Nazis and at the same time it was her maternal language. This happened to more than one person: in his poems, Paul Celan, a major poet, addressed the question of what can be said of and in that maternal language, after Auschwitz. In her interview Hannah Arendt exclaims: “It’s certainly not the German language that went crazy!” It’s extraordinary. At bottom, whatever the maternal language does, whatever it becomes, it remains the maternal language. For Hannah Arendt, the German language is truly the only thing that “remained” of Germany in spite of the horror and through exile.
But one must also read this in parallel with her Life of the Mind where she tells about the daily life of what goes on in her mind, what she thinks. In it, she uses the texts of philosophy that she has in her library, she cites Plato in Greek for example, Descartes in French, Kant in German. This whole mosaic of languages makes her aware of what she calls “the changing equivocity of the world.” She then writes that the fact that there are several languages, and that one can learn them, allows man to be in the best of human conditions, in other words a condition of “wavering equivocity.” So there is a maternal language that is forever unequalled but, at the same time, there is the presence of other languages. It is fundamental that they be there, too, because they allow for worry and set the maternal language into motion and, through that very mechanism, the world.
A crazed maternal language? If that interests you, read Victor Klemperer’s Diaries. A philologist and linguist, Klemperer was a Jewish professor forbidden from teaching, but he was able to stay in Germany in a house of Jews because his wife was non-Jewish, and he did not die. He watched the German language infuse Nazism, and he recounts this day by day. He was there for the transformation of a language, he closely watched how it moves, which words are all of a sudden invaded with another meaning, “organizing” for example, and that can no longer be used. He calls this language LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii, the language of the Third Reich. It is incredibly smart. I saw an analogous example in South Africa, where I worked a lot with people from the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that, with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, were able to avoid a blood bath after apartheid. The language of the Boers, the Dutch language spoken there, also in a way became a language infusing something terrible, apartheid. Antje Krog, a famous journalist, also wonders: how can one speak the language of the Boers?
I have gone off course, but I think a maternal language stays so forever, like a mother remains a mother. I also think it can go crazy, it can lose its head. There have to be several of them, mothers other than your own, in order for other people, other languages, other things to breathe, in order to put everything back into motion.
Why don’t we call “house” “eating” for example?
This is an extremely important question in philosophy that bears on what is called “the arbitrariness of the sign.” There is really no necessity that makes it so that “house” is not called “eating,” but a language only makes sense when taken as a whole. It is the differences that make sense. You could indeed call “house” “eating” but what is important is that there is a difference between “house” and “eating.” A language is constituted through a series of resemblances and differences more than through isolated elements with their own consistence. Actually what you call “house” in English is called maison in French, there is no necessary link between a series of sounds and an object in the world. This is what we call the arbitrariness of the sign.
However, if a house in French is called “maison” instead of “mange,” the reason for this is to be sought in the language’s history, in etymology. Where does the word come from, how is it made, what is its root, how did it evolve? Long-standing motivations are what determine signs. I do not know what the etymology of “maison” is. Actually, I do: manere, “staying” in Latin. The house is where we stay. But in the Latin language itself, the usual word for “house” is domus, which gives us “demeure” in French, not “maison,” from the same family as dominus, the master (of the house): the Latin house is a place where a master of the house reigns—where one rediscovers the difference between languages and representations. “Manger,” on the other hand, comes from mendicare, activating one’s “mandibles.” Words have histories that afford us a better understanding of what they mean and how we can use them. Each word is the result of a history and a series of representations, but it only takes on its meaning, designating one thing and not another, in its difference with other words from the same language.
In addition, for a word to have meaning, you can’t be the only one to use it that way. There has to be an agreement, a convention. If you choose to call the place you live “eating,” no one will understand you. If you say “I have eating covered over in red tile,” people might end up understanding but they will certainly wonder what is happening to you! So you see, there are ultimately lots of reasons what we don’t call a “house” “eating”, and it will be hard to change this kind of convention all on one’s own without looking crazy or becoming so. But there is no reason not to have these conversations to perfect, qualify, invent and, if we are really strong, to go against the grain by changing our ways of seeing, saying, and thinking. This is what philosophers, writers, poets, politicians, and translators do. Rappers, too.
In order to answer your question, as you can see, I feel, for myself first and foremost, that I have to slowly unfold the whole history of philosophy and then of linguistics. And yet your question is a very simple one and your surprise is quite natural. In short, you’re a philosopher.
Translated from the French by William T. Bishop, with the generous support of LABEX Empirical Foundations of Language (ANR-10-LABX-0083). Originally published in Barbara Cassin, Plus d’une langue (Montrouge: Bayard Culture, 2012). Excerpt courtesy of the publisher and the author.
Image of Barbara Cassin via Libération.