What Bilingualism Teaches Us About the Limits of Anti-Theism

What Bilingualism Teaches Us About the Limits of Anti-Theism February 9, 2020

Cathy Mu, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. I have a cautionary reaction to sudden, increased attention that I wonder if any of you share. In January, within my writing community, I gained an overnight surge in social-media followers, because I was observing the need for measured response to a tense issue at just the right time in the discourse. And because I have no inner gender identity (one form of “nonbinary” in the parlance of the era), when I call for measured response to a trans/nonbinary story, what I say has more heft in that domain than if I were more gender-typical.

But I don’t particularly enjoy authority, much as I can get right cranky if someone dismisses my knowledge of specific critical subfields. Maybe I’ve just seen too many people elevated in the public eye for one form of expertise, who then start spouting off about other issues, as if their authority transfers easily from one domain to the next. Maybe I’m worried that will happen to me one day, too.

I’m the same way here, actually, when people in the comments accuse me of trying to impose one way of being on them–as if I have that ability! At first I’m incredulous, but then incredulity turns to cognizance of how any formal platform automatically lends power to certain points of view over others. And I’m reminded, again, of how people upon platforms with greater reach often come to take their authority for granted. I quickly realize, then, that it’s not always the content of my speech that irritates (although that may well irritate, too!), so much as the megaphone I’m speaking through.

I wonder, then, if any of you have the same reaction that I do, when I start to notice I’m being heard from a much “louder” platform than others: Do you feel a strong urge to be quiet, and to listen anew, after you’ve been listened to?

If so, welcome. I hope this essay affirms you in continuing to take turns, and to sharpen your ear for other sites of power in speech.

And if not… I invite you to think about why not. What is the lure of authoritative speech to you, and how might it affect the practice of your humanism?

What Bilingualism Teaches Us About the Limits of Anti-Theism

I call Spanish my “second” language even though it’s far from the first “second” in my life. As a Canadian, I learned French in school and struggled to communicate with the French-Canadian half of my family. In high school, I studied Japanese formally for one year, on my own for a couple others. In university I took Latin, and refined it in my PhD studies, as a critical part of reading scientific documents and related philosophy (though only French was available for that programme’s second-language test). But in none of these cases was I living and breathing in another full language context.

With Spanish, though, I do… and so, at long last, I really feel when the language we use changes how we listen, and what we listen for.

What do I mean by that? One of the easiest examples comes from the “present perfect” tense–and if you’re already screaming at the grammar here, let me assure you, “perfect” in a grammatical sense just means “complete,” an action that cannot be amended.

In English, we might say, “Yes, I have read it, too.”

In Spanish, native-English speakers might go for the direct translation, “Sí, lo he leído, también.” But it’s exceptionally formal. The structure tends to be used for a few common phrases, like “How has it been [going for you]?” / “¿Cómo te ha ido?” For most situations, though, Spanish speakers often default to basic past (“Sí, lo leí.”), or even the basic present form (“Sí, lo leo.”).

And that makes a lot of sense, if you stop reading that “he” or “ha” as English speakers. In Spanish, it’s a very soft “eh” or “ah” sound instead. Almost no phonetic weight to it at all. In turn, that changes emphasis in the sentence, the parts we dwell upon when we speak.

“Yes, I have read it, too.” Do you hear how much time we spend on that “have”? And in consequence, how much weight we can put on that word if we want to? “Yes, I have read it, too” is far more phonetically potent, and we can develop all sorts of different tones around it, than makes sense with the far softer “Sí, lo he leído, también.” In Spanish, speakers tend to drop the form entirely just because the emphasis for them is almost also going to be on the main verb anyway.

…Wait, but How Does This Grammar Lesson Relate to Anti-Theism?

Now, before learning Spanish I thought I was pretty decent at language-shifting, because I would also often engage in direct studies of yet another language, Hebrew, to really pin down the original text of a Biblical document in debate. In the throes of atheistic discourse in my twenties especially, I’d squint suspiciously at anyone quoting from, say, the New International Version, and go back to its historical roots to see how a word was being misread. My understanding of Hebrew was limited, granted, much as this leftie adores a good left-handed language, but my understanding of how to differentiate between word forms and then find Jewish scholars to explained the differences was pretty strong. (I was a decent scholar myself, for a while!)

So, I already knew that different languages change the context of speech, didn’t I? And I was already using that knowledge all the time to secure myself in the conviction that I absolutely knew more about the Bible than many who would use it to attack fellow human beings under claims of Biblical inerrancy.

But–even though I wasn’t an anti-theist so much as a person furious with religious nihilists (as I can still be in a pinch these days!)–I was missing something vital to my practice of humanism. I was forgetting to listen to what different discourse communities, in any language context, are emphasizing when they use roughly the same vocabulary.

I was missing the greater cadence of the discourse, and its role in human speech.

A Political Corollary

Unfortunately, religious nihilists are not a humanist’s only potential blind-spot when it comes to the assumptions we make about language and communications strategies writ large. We have been making the same wretched mistake for years now in how we report on a certain world leader’s use of Twitter to engage in “presidential” discourse. We’ve been retweeting the spelling mistakes, laughing at the factual inaccuracies, mocking the syntax and diminished vocabulary.

And all the while the greater communicative emphasis, in this online language employed by said world leader to his devoted followers, the hungry media, and his horrified opponents, is routinely overlooked. We do an especially terrible job of not taking it into account when choosing the best forms of response.

Why? What are we missing? By and large, we’re forgetting that his tweets are empty vessels, but that the vessels themselves can have weight (#MarshallMcluhan). While many of us are essentially pulling the Spanish equivalent of treating Twitter like a “ha” (the first component in a present-perfect verb phrase), a background element not nearly as important as the tweet’s contents, his simple assertion of charisma (e.g. his presence, his outrage, and his repudiation of his critics) is all that his followers need to see to be affirmed, and for the rest of us to grit our teeth. He’s employing the tonal power of the longer English “have” instead.

So, we might be seeing the same words, but we’re putting our stresses in different places. We’re reading those tweets, as we do so much else, through different cultural tongues.

Back to the Bilingualism…

One more Spanish example, to show you in how many ways our emphasis shifts between different language contexts. This is a sentence from Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (a fun story about fake-news long before fake news online!):

El lenguage de Tlön se resistía a formular esa paradoja; los demás no la entendieron.

From the very beginning of the sentence, a huge difference between Spanish and English appears. In English, we follow a strict “Subject-Verb-Object” form, and we have only one subject in that first position.

Teachers, you might well recognize having to correct ELL students when they write, instead, “The essay, it is about…” But that error is completely logical in a lot of other languages. In this sentence, for instance, we essentially have “The language of Tlön, it resisted…” That’s a double emphasis on the subject before we move on to the verb!

In Spanish, you can do either that, or drop the subject entirely (as in Latin), because the verb form also conveys the subject. So, Spanish speakers have far more tonal range in how they use their subject-positions, ranging from double emphasis all the way down to audience-trusting inference. (You’ll hear that especially in how Spanish speakers start many sentences with “Is”; the language places far more faith in the listener being attentive to context cues. English… is not a language that trusts its listener.)

Other errors that would arise from a direct translation of that above sentence to English? “resisted to formulate that paradox” instead of “resisted formulating/stating that paradox” (because Spanish doesn’t use “-ing” words in all the ways English does), and “the rest no it they understood” instead of “the rest don’t understood it” (because Spanish also has more range in where it puts the object in a sentence, often placing all a sentence’s relational items together before introducing the main action).

Suffice it to say, then, Spanish and English have different places where a speaker can reinforce meaning and elevate emphasis in any given sentence. (And I haven’t even gotten into the way the two languages differ over verbs taking direct and indirect objects! #SettleDownLanguageNerd)

It’s the same basic vocabulary, is my point–which misleadingly suggests that we can ever communicate smoothly between tongues. But no, jumping cultural and language contexts involves far more than direct translation. It involves, as well, recognizing that our ears are still attuned to different tonal “platforms” in each tongue.

…and the Anti-Theism…

This becomes extremely important to our practice of atheistic discourse when we remember that, ostensibly, most atheists are “empirically minded.” We’re supposed to be drawing our understanding of the world from a body of Real-World Facts. And anti-theism in particular is an enterprise stoked by the sheer absence of Real-World Facts underpinning Biblical stories.

As such, so much of atheistic enterprise, especially online, essentially becomes a game of semantic “gotcha!” Gotcha, on all the Biblical prophecies that never came to pass*!  Gotcha, on the supposed history of Jewish enslavement before liberation by Moses into wandering a tiny patch of desert for 40 years! Gotcha, on all the bad biology and astronomy! Gotcha, on your translation of sodomy into homosexuality instead of pederasty!

*Oh, and I am so, so bad at overcoming this myself; I keep wanting to scream “Christ is a failed doomsday prophet!” when I get particularly cranky about the Buddy Christ interpretations of the New Testament used by U.S. liberals to argue with U.S. Evangelicals. I have good humanist days and… doubleplusungood humanist days.

Meanwhile, though, our understand of linguistics, semiotics, sociology, and communication theory sorely lacks for similar empirical rigour. Because, if we did factor in these other disciplines, we would have a better “ear” for what parts of the conversation the “other side” even values, when we launch into Biblical tirades based on our own. Where is an Evangelical community putting communicative emphasis when it declares itself to believe in “Biblical literalism”? Is their use of that term the same as ours? Are we conflating the content of that term with the linguistic power of the vessel itself?

Because if we are–if we’re making the mistake of assuming that knowing Biblical vocabulary is enough–then it doesn’t matter how righteous our indignation is over the awful ways that religious nihilists weaponize faith to hurt fellow human beings. At the end of the day, we’re still talking in two entirely different tongues.

…and the Humanism

This is why I’ve found myself taking a bit of a back seat as of late, and focussing more on listening. Listening to who speaks. Listening to how they speak. Listening to when they speak, and who answers the call when they do. There is just… so much to language that we never learn in public school, but use every day and take so dangerously and divisively for granted when we do. Some of us even claim to be enamoured with English, say–but then all they dwell upon is grammatical pedantry, like the use of a specific comma, or railing against the inclusion of new vocabulary into “Proper English.” How often are they actually demonstrating an understanding of language itself?

Oh, but we know there’s a knowledge gap, don’t we? We must. When we argue with each other, we might very well be using the same basic vocabulary, but we’re also aware that we come to each and every argument from very different subject positions. We know that any given term can be innocuous for one person, but also situationally and historically loaded for another. We know, then, that words alone aren’t the be-all and end-all of how we convey to each other our experience of the cosmos, and our needs.

We just don’t always have the added vocabulary necessary, to jump to the next level in how we talk about discourse itself.

As I hope my examples from Spanish and English have illustrated, though, the very positions that words occupy in our sentences, the “vessels” carrying content along, can also invoke different expectations among different listeners. And this is as true for whole cultural communities as it is for specific language groupings. In religious discourse, in atheist discourse, in any realm where charisma has the potential to matter more than literal “truth,” sometimes the vessel (the medium, the speaker, the context of a given statement’s utterance) is what we’re really listening for.

What this means, on a broader level, is that we human beings are literally attuned to different parts of one another’s speech–and not just across whole languages but within other “tribes” as well. It’s as strong a perceptual divide as the Yanny/Laurel auditory issue, or “The Dress.” And yet, for all humanism’s claims to being more scientifically moored in its cosmology and philosophy, secular and religious members alike tend to overlook this immense sea of linguistic variation in our understanding of the natural world, and our construction of society within it.

The Take-Away

Now, I’ve talked about language studies before, especially trying to break down some Semiotics 101 concepts for lay-persons. Atheists usually prime themselves on completely different fields of study: evolutionary biology, neuroscience, primatology, archaeology, geology, formal logic, cultural anthropology, history of civilizations. But as you can probably tell, I strongly feel that 21st-century humanism requires a fuller understanding of the mythopoetics of communication, too.

To this end, then, I have just one, simple challenge for you, as you strive to listen carefully before asserting your own authority on any given subject, and before you get overconfident in others’ deference to your authority on any given subject, too.

Semioticians, linguists, and communications-studies experts will give you wildly different answers as to how many functions of speech there “really” are, but I’m asking you to focus on just two from above:

  1. Speech, that is, where the content of the sentence is more important than the vessel; and
  2. Speech where the fact of someone speaking, the sheer performance of their commenting on a theme, matters more.

Listen in the world about you. Listen to the people you oppose, and to the people you don’t. Listen to how “your” tribes use language, and how “their” tribes use language. In what places, around themes, and with what consequences, does the vessel seem to matter more than the content–and vice versa?

Because when you can identify how often the vessel matters more than the contents of our speech, you might just find the places where all our givens about critical discourse break down. All the places, that is, where every clever witticism in anti-theistic debate, along with great swaths of political dissent, serves only to reinforce in-group loyalty, and to entrench us in our echo chambers.

Where all our attempts to bridge the gap cease to be about who has the better argument–and instead involve a simple question: “Who speaks this cultural context best?”

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  • Callace

    Don’t know if it’s quite on topic, but this brought up a memory for me, of a weird linguistic experience I’ve had recently.

    English is my second language. I have never lived in an English speaking country,, but after countless hours of watching Hollywood productions on TV and in cinemas, reading English books and hanging out on the internet, I still feel rather at home in it. Enough to get into these little habits.

    Like for instance, I was raised in a reasonably well churched home, and carefully thought what a grave sin cussing is. So I never do it – except in English. It seems like the prohibition against cuss words never carried into my English mind.

    I became acutely aware of this at a game night with friends a little while ago, when I made a risky move, and accompanied it with some salty exclamation. All the others stopped, and just stared at me, and one asked what my attitude to cussing really was. It took me a while to even register what was up, and what the relevance of the question was. It was like “what, but its in English! It’s not a profanity if it’s said in English!”

  • Hah! That’s funny. Thanks for sharing, Callace. You remind me of a friend of mine, who moved to Canada from a Spanish-speaking context, and after learning English insisted that English was the language with all the profanity. Spanish, he insisted, had almost nothing. When he decided to move back home, he was worried that he’d have no way of being profane anymore.

    Conversely, when I moved to Colombia? Holy heck did I discover All The Cusses in Spanish. But when I tried to tell him about some of them his face went red with horror and embarrassment. That’s when I realized it wasn’t that profanity didn’t existed here; he’d simply been so strongly acculturated within a Catholic household that even the thought of swearing made him panic even well into his adult years. He still prefers to escape into English to cuss. So take it, Callace! Take the freedom of English to swear to your heart’s content! 😉

    P.S. No worries about on-topic or off-topic. The only “police” here is the weird Disqus filter, which traps the most random of comments in its clutches. Everything else is fair game!

  • DogGone

    Interesting points, but my objection to theists is their desire to become theocrats. No matter how it is framed in whatever language, my daughter and I have rights to make decisions about our own bodies. In our schools, actual science must be taught. (I don’t care what they teach in church. That’s their business.) I do not argue with religious people. It’s pointless in any language, at least regarding personally held belief, but I will continue to defend my RIGHTS as a US citizen. Many Spanish-speaking countries have Draconian laws regarding women. (I don’t know whether language has anything to do with that, but religion is part of the culture in many of them.) I feel sorry for the women who live there, but we cannot allow true believers to tred on the rights (not beliefs–rights) of other citizens here in the US. I am not talking about philosophy. I’m talking about quality of life, indeed whether life is worth living or not. As a female breeder (human bovine), it certainly would not be worth the effort.

  • DogGone

    LOL!! We say “maird”

  • Major Major

    Good post. I grew up in a bilingual household (Both my parents speak Spanish, but for certain reasons, didn’t teach either my sister or myself). My dad’s a native Mexican Spanish speaker, and can easily switch between both languages. All of his brothers have a somewhat distinctive accent, but he doesn’t really. I asked him about it and he’s not really sure what happened. I suspect it had to do with the age

    WRT anti theism, I’ve definitely come to the point where I don’t really get into it with believers. I’m fairly recent deconvert, and having grown up in the milieu, I can understand where people in it are coming from. I had to leave the church I was going to with my wife though because it was just getting to fashy for my taste. I do fear that there will be some problems later on as my in laws are YECs, and they will want to indoc my son into that.

  • “It’s pointless in any language, at least regarding personally held belief, but I will continue to defend my RIGHTS as a US citizen.”

    As you should! Not a thing in this essay argues against fighting religious nihilism. What this essay targets is that trying to use the same words to get through to them… isn’t going to do a damned thing most of the time. Our fight can’t be semantic, about simply finding the “right argument”, with people who are only interested in the social power that comes from the “vessel” of religious rhetoric in general. So, we have to respond to what they’re really saying when they make specific assertions–and yes, keep them the heck away from political power that affects the rights of others.

    I will say, though, that as a feminized person who was born and raised in Canada, but now lives in Colombia… there are some huge problems with the rhetoric of “I feel sorry for the women who live there” [in the Spanish-speaking world]. Yes, there are places destabilized by U.S. interventionism that have completely given over to brutal cartel fiefdoms, and women are murdered at horrific rates (along with young men, and anyone who gets in the cartels’ way). But that’s not religion–that’s politics, horrific U.S. interventionist politics, and its consequences in Central America especially.

    Meanwhile, Canada and the U.S. have their own serious problems with safety for feminized persons (especially from BIPOC communities)–just look at the domestic violence and rape stats for both our countries–and the U.S. has some pretty horrific laws on the books and customs off the books in plenty of regions, too. So, it’s not a competition. It’s not about a specific language. And the problems we face can’t all simply be blamed on “religion.” Rather, gendered violence and marginalizion is a horror the world over, in each culture and nation with a different history… but also a relentless present.

    We fight all of these problems, and more. We do not let religious nihilists or any nihilists diminish and degrade fellow human beings.

    And we do so, in part, by paying closer attention to what they’re really saying when they flap on about whatever excuses they’re using for their nihilism. More often than not, the words don’t matter. We need to pay attention to the “vessels” they’re using to amass power instead. Cheers!

  • Oof. My aunt’s a YEC, too. It’s a delicate balancing act–not just because of the YEC bit, but because those folks also tend towards doomsday rhetoric and a lot of punitive hellfire. I wish you much calm and communal support in balancing out whatever nonsense they try to use to frighten your child.

  • DogGone

    Certainly, you are correct that many regimes in Spanish-speaking countries commit atrocities toward women, and that is not related to religion, except, perhaps, as it relates to culture developed via history, which would be a complex and unnecessary argument since that not what I meant. I should have been more specific. I was talking about laws driven by the beliefs of the Catholic church related to reproductive freedom. That’s enough for me.

  • DogGone

    Also, I repeat, I do not ever try to convince religious people not to be religious in any language. It’s none of my business. I cannot know what is right for them. Besides, most come around on their own eventually, since religion is no longer a requirement for social acceptance (as it once was.) I do argue for my right to the same respect from them. Their own religion tells them to treat others as they would like to be treated. I, and many other atheists, only wish they would practice their own beliefs for themselves and let the rest of us live our lives in peace.

  • Callace

    Oh? What does that mean?

  • DogGone

    I probably spelled it wrong (LOL)

  • DogGone

    I did spell it wrong–we’ll see if this passes the censor–merde

  • I think he means mierda? We have an enthusiastic participant, at least. 😉

  • dcinDC

    During my junior year abroad in Barcelona I was horrified at some of the cussing terminology especially linking it with religion. Will the filter stop me if I say – …me cago en Dios… and, if you wanted to be “nicer” switch Dios for diez; ostras en lugar de hostia… ¡Qué coñazo! Ji ji ji…