You are what you speak

Apropos of my previous post about corrupting language to fake a sense of community: A colleague of mine at The Economist, Lane Greene, is about to publish a book (on March 8th), which goes much deeper into this subject.

Lane emailed me that You are What you Speak is

a lot about the role language (the creation of modern standard languages) plays in imagining communities…

More formally, his book flap says:

Beginning with literal myths, from the Tower of Babel to the bloody origins of the word “shibboleth,” Greene shows how language “experts” went from myth-making to rule-making and from building cohesive communities to building modern nations. From the notion of one language’s superiority to the common perception that phrases like “It’s me” are “bad English,” linguistic beliefs too often define “us” and distance “them,” supporting class, ethnic, or national prejudices. In short: What we hear about language is often really about the politics of identity…

The flap goes on. Lane then emailed me:

… boiled down, how’s this? “We believe a lot of myths about language, and we’ll learn to love our languages even better when we learn where those myths come from, and get past them…”

I think that sounds pretty damn fascinating, so I’ve pre-ordered the book.

And of course I’m smirking because all this “versioning anxiety” between flap texts and nut grafs (I had asked him for one) and elevator pitches will soon overwhelm and torment me, as I prepare to publish my own book in the fall.

31 thoughts on “You are what you speak

  1. An extremely fascinating theme. I might order the book too. This could somewhat be connected to semiotics, now a bit old-fashioned, which explained all cultural elements, gestures, clothes etc. – so languages too- as ‘signs conveying a message’, that is in terms of willing or unwilling ‘communication’ within a group.

    An Indian friend of mine once told me that Tamil, an Indian Southern language 2000 years old, has so many varieties (a complex case of diglossia) to the extent that people speak in numerous ways and use different expression not only according to class or to situation, which more or less in any Western language triggers different language registers, but also according to caste and religion (Tamil is spoken in several nations).

    I may be wrong, but it is as if today’s Greeks, according to whom they speak to, could (or should) choose between classical Greek, koiné Greek (ie the Greek used from Alexander the Great’s time onward), medieval Greek and demotic Greek, ie language spoken today by the man in the street.

    Languages are like a drug. Only one doesn’t go to jail when taking it 🙂

    • You again reveal yourself to be quite the scholar. I did not know that there were that many “Greeks” (or Tamils). Do you perchance know any of these versions of Greek?

    • I am not a scholar, I just have hobbies. Having studied in Liceo Classico we had 7 years of Latin and 5 of Greek, both classical. I didn’t much progress until at 16 I discovered Bible Latin (Vulgata) and Bible Greek (Spetuagint + plus the Gospels). I found them not that hard as classical Greek (Plutarch, Plato etc.) or classical Latin (Cicero, Seneca etc.), which made me progress.

      After 40 years during which I had forgotten ALL my blog gave me the opportunity to brush things up a bit.

      If you want to start or brush up Greek and / or of Latin I suggest the Holy Writ first.

  2. As a Tamil speaker myself who grew up in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) I agree that the language has several versions and I cannot understand the more formal version of it which is understood only if you knew how to read and write tamil.

    This is a very interesting topic because in countries like India where english is considered the ticket to social mobility and the language of even national integration I for one believe something is lost when a language dies.

    A american friend of mine who recently returned from thailand mentioned that his entire body language and posture changed everytime he switched from english to thai. For example when he greeted people with “Sawadee ka” the natural rhythm in the greeting forced him bow down in a sort submissive manner or smile. Whereas in english he would have said “hello” with or without a smile or even a welcome nod.

    This was interesting to me because as Indian we constantly switch between 2 or 3 langauges to speak to fellow Indians. I could instantly connect to that and I noticed that when I switch from English to Hindi to Tamil the formality or informality of the language , the emotion or lack of it, the smoothness or roughness in its tones found its way into my body language and facial expressions.

    In some ways the language forced me to on a new personality or performs a role play that suits that language. Which made me wonder if one is what you speaks then what happens if one is multi-lingual does one suffer from mulitple personality disorder ?

    • Dear Suresh Radhakrishnan (what a wonderful name),

      I always thought that a language – we are more and more shifting alas – brings along a mentality, attitudes, values, concepts and even gestures often with no equivalent in other languages. When we speak many languages we partake in different cultures, as if we had different brains.

      Focusing only on two varieties of the same language – the lexicons of a cultivated American and a cultivated British are almost identical, but the choice of words and the way they are assembled produce something different, one feels it clearly, which is evidence of a different culture underneath. Of course, with globalization the British and American difference is diminishing.

    • “(what a wonderful name)” – Thank you.

      “When we speak many languages we partake in different cultures, as if we had different brains.”.

      What a wonderful positive way of looking at it and some of the arguments I have heard similar “existential” arguments for adopting other languages that the “practical” and “functional” use of a language is much more important than the literary or cultural function of a language.

      What I mean by that is Indians must not fret and be narrow minded in adopting english and be willing to give up their own mother tongues since there is a larger wisdom in the recognition that language is not a static and is evolving facet of human existence. That you must let it evolve and be influenced, flowered and corroded so long as people use the language to communicate which is the function and particularly in India as it acts as a catalyst to national integration and halts divisions along linguistic lines.

      This is all great and I felt that way too when I lived in India and agree that the unity of people takes precedence over parochial lines of language identity.

      I don’t mean to divert this topic to be all about India but I worry about the broader question when I see in Britain and America or even China and Japan perhaps where the kids “are what they speak”. They learn the language that evolved organically in their culture and I feel when a kid is taught that language at a early age the neural synaptics that forms is much closer to the culturnal experience they have whereas a indian kid is robbed of that.

      I realize my own experience when I was taught english in school and I am sure this is true about millions of other indian kids even today are reading the poem “daffodils” by the english poet william wordsworth without ever having seen a daffordil or knowing what it is.

      I lament at this loss and add that to the thought that no matter how hard a Indian tries he will never speak or be better than a englishman or american in english. And sure thats what Maccaulayism ( is all about and is a colonial by product and strangely there will be at least several million indians who will defend english more than the english themselves.

      Having said that I also read that a human baby is capable of learning 7 language completely and still would be using only few percentage of their brains. That somehow single language cultures stifle the potential and thereby as you say the experience to partipate and multiple cultures. So you can I am bit undecided on this issue 🙂

      But I always lament at the loss of speaking the language that came about organically within one’s own culture and one’s own soil ?
      At times I do have doubts in that because after all what is language its probably the most non-static thing in human civilization and is probably more dynamic than we realize that during the course of writing this blog my brain has undergone some linguistic changes that are permanent and altering “Who I am ” so in that sense every person is “what they speak” but I would like to add to that “they are what they speak at that point in time and the next moment they someone else”.

      Apologies for the long post.

      Some links to language debates in India (refresh if the video does not load right away):

    • Dear Suresh Radhakrishnan

      I read a few books by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, great scholar.

      In my blog I had a rich dialogue with Indians who, for some strange reason, were the first to notice my blog. The majority of them were very young (India is so full of young people!) but I noticed that – my blog being about parts of our western roots and me preaching to those teenagers that they had to get back to their roots too – I received little attention on this point: they were too modernity / future oriented (but we must recognize India is progressing fast probably because of this attitude.)

      You say many Indians will defend English. I in fact noticed that Indian people from the centre and South preferred English, as lingua franca, to Hindi, because Hindi to them meant the North and the nation-wide ruling politicians.

      So we agree that the personal heritage of a person must not be forgotten or we are robbed of something vital. Many Indians, the mid-aged ones, were for a tighter link with their local language, also the written form of it. There usually being a difference in complexity between the spoken and the written language, I imagine one is not really proficient in a language if he /she doesn’t master the written form of it too.

      For the said reasons I am trying (struggling often) at 62 to brush up Latin and Greek a bit, because they are part of our inner and deepest Italian – and I would say – Western identity.

      And of course, the more languages – dead or alive – we get into the better.

      All the best
      From Mediterranean West

    • Ah Sarvepalli the other better known Radhakrishnan. 🙂 India’s second President and first vice-president and statesman..

      I hear you and I am not surpised that the youth pay little attention to your advise to go back to their roots but I feel the current crop of youth in India in some ways are the best generation we have had since the generation of founding fathers like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

      They maybe the last generation who probably are in bit of difficult position who are receiving the contradicting responsibility to march on into a modern world with a foreign language and same time discover themselves in the the past.

      Only time will tell what survives. I am in a bit of similar state as you where I struggle to kindle up past identity through indian languages but its difficult though I am about 20 years younger than you.
      I am adding your blog to my weekly must reads and hopefully find time to balance between Andreas and your site – two of the wonderfully cerebral blogs that kindles my grey matter very deep with every post.

    • Thanks ManofRoma.

      Appreciate adding my blog though I have not advertised it much since I am starting all over with my blog this year and don’t have anything worth reading yet. Still can’t make up my mind if I remain with blogspot or move on to wordpress hosted on my own domain. Don’t want to blog too much and go through migration pains.

      Loved that post on sarvepalli. I guess its only fair to comment about it at your site and not unfairly freeload Andreas’s site here with our banter. hehehehe

  3. In regard to the Greek language, Biblical Greek is the language of the Orthodox religion and is seen as superior to Modern Greek.

    More generally, the book in question is a linguistic study. That’s fine, in so far as it goes, but those of us who teach writing and literature have a different job. It’s our calling to elevate the language of our students. A descriptive linguist would simply note that “impact” is often used where “effect” once was, but English teachers see this as a lessening of the language. What bothers me is the slovenliness of many speakers and writers. It seems to me that they take no time to construct polished speech or text. Again, linguistics is like physics–its job is to observe, not evaluate–but there are also aesthetic standards that we need to take into consideration.

    • Sloppiness in language is a common plague everywhere in the West. I perceive like a decadence also in my country.

      As for Koine Greek, the Septuagint (LXX), it is known, was written by 70 Jewish scholars who in Alexandria translated the Hebrew Bible using the Greek language understood in the 2nd century BCE, ie Koine Greek.

      Septuagint Greek ie Koine also influenced those who wrote the Gospels in Greek, hence Koine became revered as a sacred language. I love koine Greek because it gives me the illusion I master Greek, which isn’t the case since classical Greek is much harder.

      Before 1976 Greece was diglossic, with the people in the street speaking Demotic and the learned people a form of Koine called Katharevousa.

      I was disappointed when the written language became Demotic too. A decadence necessary for democratic reasons, but a decadence nonetheless.

      Languages after all evolve through phases of decadence.

    • @Greg Camp: Interesting plea on behalf of the “aesthetics” school of language. I’m with you. Let’s teach kids (and adults) to “elevate” their speech.

      As Suresh implied above, that might elevate their character too.

  4. Sounds like a fascinating book–thanks!

    I wonder if Greene makes reference to Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian linguist who unlike the French, makes a lot of sense. He wrote an interesting essay on what he calls “speech genres” and it talks about how, excuse the expression, communities form agreed upon methods of communication (e.g., Waikiki surfers vs. diplomats). He spent his entire life in Russia and died in the 1970s.

    Good luck with preparing your elevator pitch–I look forward to seeing you on Oprah!

  5. Sounds fascinating. Can’t wait to read it. I am doing a history of literacy project with my pupils and it is a rich vein of enquiry. Richard Hoggert in Uses of Literacy explored language along class lines in 60s UK and praised the use of the vernacular as legitimising working class and other non-hegemonic identities. With the demise of RP as an oppressive linguistic form the current threat to would-be-literates seems to come from an Orwellian newspeak of frightening obfuscation with health and safety and other government officials in the vanguard of crimes against common sense usage. For a marvellous exposition of how mangled meanings threaten the very essence of language as a tool of enlightenment when it falls into the wrong hands, you only have to read, How To Label a Goat, by Ross Clark. And when you think all is lost, Bill Bryson is a necessary restorative. A word of warning: beware of myth destroyers: myths are organic social glues which give necessary binding to communities. We need them; they are our moral guardians; they herald succour and caution. Remember Chomsky!

  6. Language or no language, there’s no getting away from the “us versus them” dynamic in human interaction, for no matter which way you turn it, at the end of the day it’ll still be us, the enlightened ones, versus them who don’t get it.

  7. First of all, thanks, Andreas, for the shout-out!

    Greg and Man of Roma: regarding Greek, there’s a whole section in the book on the demotic vs. katharevousa (basically Biblibcal) Greek, including the politics of the rise of Demotic in modern Greece. There were riots when the Bible was first printed in Demotic! It was a fascinating but basically clear-cut left-right thing: socialists for Demotic, the right (including the military dictatorship) heavily pro-katharevousa. Demotic has basically won out, but the old form, elaborate and with all its historical resonances, still has a huge place in Greek hearts. I further compare Greek diglossia to similar situations in Haiti, Switzerland and the Arab world.

    Greg, to your second point: I try to balance the linguistic (this is the way it is) and the normative (this is the way it should be), suggesting that the linguists have the facts on their side, but often fail to appreciate just how much people *like* and *want* to be part of imagined communities with prestigious standard languages. There is a role for street, Scots and southern, but nobody (including the linguists I know) thinks that Standard English is some racist, classist tool that needs to be thrown into the bin. It is a wonderful thing we all need to appreciate even more than we do… The old prescriptivist vs. descriptivist debate is played out, and there’s no reason it should be zero-sum.

    Cyberquill, I close with a few ideas about how we can ameliorate–if not eliminate–the us vs. them dynamic when we think about languages. It’s really all about multiple and overlapping identities rather than a single national one. There’s no reason a Spaniard can’t be also a Basque, a European, a Christian, a citizen of the world and many other things. The reason we have had so much conflict in the last 200 years or so is privileging one of those identities (the national) as if the others didn’t matter.

    For those interested in updates and (soon to come) excerpts from the book, there’s a Facebook page you can “like”:!/pages/Robert-Lane-Greene/177779472246641 . Reviews and more are at .


    • As you see, Lane, you’ve stuck your langue into a hornet nest of langue lovers here on The Hannibal Blog.

      This, at the end of the day, is still the best way to get beyond that flap and blurb and B&N-aisle 3-pitch bullshit. In one little step, you guys went from identity to … Demotic vs Katharevousa. Whodathunk! 😉

    • @Lane

      Lane, I have at home copies both of the Demotic and of the Katharevousa Bibles. At least within such a Bible context these two Greek variants are not terribly different. Interesting what you said about the riots, but it doesn’t surprises me. Of course Demotic too comes from koine, but I wonder if it is also because they didn’t dare to be too disloyal to the ‘sacred words’ of the Septuagint, the Katharevousa version being close to it. Greece is such a mind trip. Having met my wife there (a Roman too) we returned to Greece very often.

  8. Shouldn’t everybody read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”? I read somewhere that ‘a choice of words is a choice or worlds.’ We are what we speak.

  9. I am really enjoying this post on languages.
    I found this poem by “Carl Sandburg”. I really liked it and thought it would be appropriate to share it on this post.

    There are no handles upon a language
    Whereby men take hold of it
    And mark it with signs for its remembrance.

    It is a river, this language, once in a thousand years,
    Breaking a new course, changing its way to the ocean.

    It is mountain effluvia, moving to valleys,
    And from nation to nation, crossing borders and mixing.

    Languages die like rivers. Words wrapped round your tongue today,
    And broken to shape of thought,
    Between your teeth and lips speaking now and today,
    Shall be faded hieroglyphics ten thousand years from now.
    Sing–and singing—remember,
    your song dies and changes, and is not here to-morrow,
    Any more than the wind, blowing ten thousand years ago.


    • Thanks, Aruna. I like the metaphor: “Languages die like rivers.”

      Because rivers do die, as rivers; but are immortal as water, once they join the ocean and evaporate again to become rain drops for new rivers. Ever-changing, and never-changing.

  10. Hi Andreas,
    Once again, I just happened to come across this section of your blog after 3 years and started reading posts from ManofRoma and Suresh Radhakrishnan. It was fascinating and befitting to reference languages in India where there are over 25 Major languages and over 2000 dialects (although this may be debatable, some say more than 5000 dialects) out of 2 language families, Aryan(16 +) and Dravidian( 5). Although 2 out of 5 Dravidian languages do have over 80% of Sanskrit word origins.
    Recently I was talking to a co-worker of mine whose roots are from Lithuania, said to me ,‘several words in Lithuania are from Sanskrit’ Where is India and Where is Lithuania? How is that possible?!
    His explanation was there were several dark skinned sea farers who were traders came to their land and influenced the language of Lithuania. Interesting.
    I need to look into that.
    Does anyone know anything about it?

  11. Hi Aruna,

    by coincidence, I’ve had two conversations with Balts recently about this. One Estonian, I think, the other Latvian or Lithuanian. And they both said the same thing. It’s a matter of pride there, apparently, to have a language that is “closer” to Sanskrit than the other Indo-Germanic languages in Europe. I’m not qualified to evaluate it. But it’s really fascinating.

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