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,, 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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