Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999
A B A L K A N E N C O U N T E R:
The Magla Vocables
Totalitarianism's effect on use of language in Eastern Europe
The Macedonians have a word for it - magla, fog. It signifies the twin arts of duplicity and ambiguity. In that mental asylum which was formed within the swathe of socialist countries, even language was pathologized. It mutated into a weapon of self-defence, a verbal fortification, a medium without a message, replacing words with vocables.
Easterners (in this text, the unfortunate residents of the Kafkaesque landscape which stretches between Russia and Albania) don't talk or communicate. They fend off. They hide and evade and avoid and disguise. In that planet of capricious and arbitrary unpredictability, of shifting semiotic and semantic dunes that they inhabited for so many decades (or centuries), they perfected the ability to say nothing - in lengthy, Castro-like speeches.
The ensuing convoluted sentences are arabesques of meaninglessness, acrobatics of evasion, lack of commitment elevated to an ideology. The Easterner prefers to wait and see and see what waiting brings. It is the postponement of the inevitable that leads to the inevitability of postponement as a strategy of survival.
It is impossible to really understand an Easterner. The syntax fast deteriorates into ever more labyrinthine structures. The grammar tortured to produce the verbal Doppler shifts essential to disguise the source of the information - its distance from reality, the speed of its degeneration into rigid official versions. Buried under the lush flora and fauna of idioms without an end, the language erupts, like some exotic rash, an auto-immune reaction to its infection and contamination.
And this new-speak, this malignant form of political correctness is not the exclusive domain of politicians or "intellectuals". Like all vile weeds, it spreads throughout, strangling with absent-minded persistence the ability to understand, to agree, to disagree and to debate, to present arguments, to compare notes, to learn and to teach.
Easterners, therefore, never talk to each other - rather, they talk at each other. They exchange subtexts, camouflage-wrapped by elaborate, florid texts. They read between the lines, spawning a multitude of private languages, prejudices, superstitions, conspiracy theories, rumours, phobias and mass hysteria. Theirs is a solipsistic world, where communication is permitted only with oneself and the aim of language is to throw others off the scent.
This has profound implications. Communication through unequivocal, unambiguous and information-rich symbol-systems is such an integral and crucial part of our world that its absence is not postulated even in the remotest galaxies which grace the skies of science fiction. In this sense, Easterners are nothing short of aliens.
It is not that they employ a different language, another set of hieroglyphics to be deciphered by a new Champollion. The Cyrillic alphabet is not the obstacle. It is also not the outcome of cultural differences. It is the fact that language is put by Easterners to a different use - not to communicate but to obscure, not to share but to abstain, not to learn but to defend and resist, not to teach but to preserve ever less tenable monopolies, to disagree without incurring wrath, to criticize without commitment, to agree without appearing to do so.
Thus, Eastern contracts are vague expressions of intentions at a given moment - rather than the clear listing of long term, iron-cast and mutual commitments. Eastern laws are loop-holed incomprehensibles, open to an exegesis so wide and so self-contradictory that it renders them meaningless. Eastern politicians and Eastern intellectuals often hang themselves by their own verbose Gordian knots, having stumbled through a minefield of logical fallacies and endured self-inflicted inconsistencies. Unfinished sentences hover in the air, like vapour above a semantic swamp.
In some countries (the poorer ones, which were suppressed for centuries by foreign occupiers), there is a strong urge not to offend. Still at the tribal-village stage of social development, intimacy and inter-dependence are great. Peer pressure is irresistible and it results in conformity and mental homogeneity. Aggressive tendencies, strongly repressed in this social pressure cooker, are close under the veneer of forced civility and violent politeness.
Constructive ambiguity, a non-committal "everyone is good and right," an atavistic variant of moral relativism and tolerance bred of fear and of contempt - are all at the service of this eternal vigilance against aggressive drives, at the disposal of a never ending peacekeeping mission.
In other countries, language is used cruelly and ruthlessly to ensnare one's enemies, to sow confusion and panic, to move the masses, to leave the listeners in doubt, in hesitation, in paralysis, to gain control or to punish. There, symbols are death sentences in both the literal and the figurative senses. Poets, authors and journalists still vanish regularly and newspapers and books are compiled into blacklists with dreadful consequences. In these countries, language is enslaved and forced to lie. There is no news - only views, no interest - only interests, no facts - only propaganda, no communication - only ex-communication. The language is appropriated and expropriated. It is considered to be a weapon, an asset, a piece of lethal property, a traitorous mistress to be gang-raped into submission.
And yet in other places in the East, the language is a lover. The infatuation with its very sound leads to a pyrotechnic type of speech which sacrifices its meaning to its music. Its speakers pay more attention to the composition than to the content. They are swept by it, intoxicated by its perfection, inebriated by the spiralling complexity of its forms. Here, language is an inflammatory process. It attacks the social tissues with artistic fierceness. It invades the healthy cells of reason and logic, of cool headed argumentation and level headed debate. It raises the temperature of the body politic. It often kills. It moves masses. Submerged in and lured by the notes issued forth by the Pied Piper of the moment - nations go to war, or to civil war, resonating with the echoes of their language.
Language is a leading indicator of the psychological and institutional health of social units. Social capital can often be measured in cognitive (hence, verbal-lingual) terms. To monitor the level of comprehensibility and lucidity of texts is to study the degree of sanity of nations (think about the rambling Mein Kampf).
There can exist no hale society without unambiguous speech, without clear communications, without the traffic of idioms and content that is an inseparable part of every social contract. Our language determines how we perceive our world. It is our mind and our consciousness. The much-touted transition starts in the mind and consciousness determines reality.
Marx would have approved.
Dr Sam Vaknin, 29 November 1999
The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.
DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.
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