Opinion, reflections and information

42. Turning pragmatics around: how to say things with objects

Amadeu Viana
Universitat de Lleida


When Alice complains about too many meanings being given to a word, Humpty Dumpty explains that when he makes a word do so much work, he always pays it extra. That is exactly what happens: words work for us, often too much, we move them into different contexts and make them adopt other meanings, we extend them with prefixes and suffixes, or we save them from oblivion when a new state of things emerges and we want to bedazzle with an old name. Similar things happen with the objects that surround us: we turn around their semantics, we rework them via intensive bricolage, we preserve them by invoking their primary function, or we make them undergo such striking transformations that the old denominations become but a reminder of their origin. The idea that human actors share a universe with nonhuman actions and processes is known as distributed agency. This supposes that human actions are effectively carried out by means of and through the operativity (the action) of different types of intermediations, material objects, networks of objects and artefacts, institutions, cooperation or shared action, symbolic activity and extensive collaboration with nonhuman actors, a battery of processes that elude the predominant Western philosophy’s traditional view of the idea of a single agent.

The idea of distributed agency stems from Bruno Latour’s transdisciplinary research and actor-network theory, a practice from the sociology of science that focuses on the role of the material transmission of scientific objects, cooperation or (conversely) controversy among institutions, the laboratory as the locus of intersection, the dissemination of science and the role of the different “translations” that concepts are subjected to from their birth and as they spread across society. Actor-network theory has contributed to a reassessing of the scientist’s role in the abstract as an autonomous agent in favour of a perspectivist approach and collective action.

It might be useful to shore up the notion of distributed agency with bioanthropological reflection, which reminds us that the manipulation of artefacts and the construction of objects long precedes the emergence of articulated language. The topic here is how growing tactile- and visual-coordination capacities laid the foundations for cognitive evolution (L. Malafouris) in a way that meant that the hand would become the visible part of the soul, as Aristotle would ingeniously point out. Objects and their meanings accompanied human evolution, complexifying and interlinking with our consciousness in such a way that it would soon become difficult to say where one thing began and another finished (A. Leroi-Gourhan), in the intricate combination of homo faber (who makes himself in making) and homo ludens (who unsuspectingly extends the time for play, experimentation and learning). Ornaments, clothing, living conditions, musical instruments (the flute mentioned at the beginning of the Aristotle’s Poetics), the variety of artefacts that have been part of life and societies: these are manifestations of human consciousness and extensions through which cognition and agency have earned a presence and become widespread and enduring.

As Cassirer highlighted, the different linguistic varieties owe a debt to this confusion of bodily projections, visual and manual organization, alienable and nonalienable objects, practical metaphors and occasional metonymies, bodily self-perception and classification of space: a production of the Palaeolithic that is also sufficiently complex as to disassociate ourselves from the immediate context. Those who study embodiment and extensionalism (A. Clark, M. Donald) have highlighted the idea that cognition is constructed and sustained from the bodily senses plus the objects we create and/or use as extensions of those senses—objects that give way to processes (actions) through which we not only intervene in the world but also conceive of and think about it. In some respects, we engage with these objects-and-processes as if they were the external part of the mind.

Language and writing (a practice of manual and visual memory) are powerful manifestations of this. But the variety of artefacts that overlap and intertwine with each other at different levels of complexity and that have historically had a substantial impact with industrial production and are having a second significant impact with the emerging autonomy of cybernetics and so-called artificial intelligence are an even more dazzling case of the mind’s presence and ability to externalize. Here it is necessary to clearly understand in what sense human action forms a continuum with the production of artefacts and how objects and different types of artefacts are true nonhuman mediators and actors in the production and articulation of knowledge, taking us away from the old idea of a stark separation between the natural and the artificial, which is often described in opposition to what is characteristically human.

Many of the ancient paradigms (mainly animist but also totemist ones) understood the existence of different modes of a spiritual continuity (one of interiorities, as Philippe Descola notes) between human life and the world. The truth is that language can often not do without these associations, and until recently vitalist metaphors such as talking about the life and the death of languages were seen as acceptable and natural (and for many people still are). The paradigm of naturalist research in the West, objective science, has often been accompanied by the idea of an autonomous rational agent who is masculine, educated and self-satisfied about his findings, who sometimes regrets being alone in the universe and who has imposed an instrumental view of the world around him, beginning with the very objects and instruments that he denies a soul. This idea of a rational agent has also made it preferable and acceptable to speak of languages as instruments, in terms of uses, in a manner consistent with the development of the natural and social sciences. By contrast, the paradigm of distributed agency does not suppose that the objects of the world have an essential soul, and nor does it dehumanize them by characterizing them as simple instruments. Instead, it understands them as mediation, as part of nonhuman action, which is part of us and at the same time redounds to us, very much in the line with Edgar Morin’s analysis of complexity. This is how languages do things for us, and how we participate in these objects-and-processes, halfway between indiscriminate animation and selfish instrumentalization.

One might consider, for example, commercial objects, which are often classified under brands or logos that do not determine exactly what they are but provide information about their origin and their social value (A. Semprini). There are many interlinked institutions and people located in strategic places that decide the processes of industrial objects; there is production, but there is also design; production hides the distribution of components, which in turn are of different qualities and origins; design hides the collaboration of different actors with different specialized competencies; there is the logo that identifies the product or the by-product, which in turn demands a specific design; and there is the attribution of value to it, a social action that has consequences, which could be defined as “an idea put into practice.” Research on traceability show this activity of the product in different contexts, its capacity for non-human action. We know that brands, somewhat like ancient heroes, live among us insofar as they actively participate in the social network, hence their hybrid nature.

The field of health and illness is another old acquaintance of research on distributed agency, from Sebeok’s old descriptions of immune systems as genuine actors with a capacity for interpretation to the agentive vocabulary of the fight for health, not to mention works on biological risk (F. Tirado) or technology and assistance (M. Domènech). Then there is the common idea that we are ourselves and our pieces, our prostheses, that ordinary pills are like external particles of our organism, that we treat with sympathy or indifference, reducing them to colours or attributing them with often uncertain interventional capabilities. We have not been modern at all: we have not at all abandoned the idea of an animated world, in which we work and which also works on us.

The musician, the performer, forms a unit with his instrument. The worker is identified with work, as our basic vocabulary denotes. Robert Frost, in a beautiful poem, imagines the mower’s scythe whispering to the field. When we misplace an object, what opens up before us is a breach of possibilities that we struggle to grasp, somewhat as if the object’s autonomy led it to travel in some unforeseen direction or to reside in some unsuitable place. Correlatively, we deploy a battery of emotions for certain objects often without an “objective value”: that pen or that cup or that cushion that perhaps we do not use so much but that we end up possessing as a part of our life, an untransferable segment that recalls this person or that situation, and a part of our experience is apparently linked to these things’ vicissitudes and activity. Let alone clothes, pictures or photographs, or the music that accompanied us and is also an untransferable part, one that is now neither visual nor tactile, of the soul’s journey. These networks of meanings, in terms of objects and processes, make up what we call distributed agency, in which we participate and of which we are a resultant part at the same time.

The structure of language unfolds over this material eloquence. It is a question not just of the contemporary passion for cognitive metaphors (“John is a snake”; the symbolic dimension or figuration) but also of the agency and projections of action in ordinary language use, of ways of stating things that we do not know how to render differently. Tools become old, dresses impress, signs advise, cars seduce. We say, “The fire didn’t manage to get into town,” without thinking about a final action, but conferring shared agency on the action of fire. We become angry when a zip in our clothes becomes stuck, as if this state of affairs overstepped the autonomy of action that we attribute to the artefact. In many languages, classifiers carry out this important distributive function of allotting agency, material dimension and shared action in many possible ways.

Curiously enough, the advent of cybernetics has contributed to a more extensive perception of animation, if that is possible, affectionately designating new information processors: Mare Nostrum is a supercomputer, Java is a programming language; Irgo wasn’t once the odd acronym for a local server but the name of a village in the Pyrenees; and Kubrick’s perverse HAL parodied the three letters of IBM, scrupulously reworking the Latin alphabet. In many people’s informal register, the algorithm that retrieves information from the Net has become Uncle Google or Saint Google, in a new, unexpected twist of animated thinking.

If material eloquence has scope over language, then discourse itself can be presented in terms of objects-and-processes, as shared action. This is how we unfurl the activity of the word, a topic that François Cooren has laid on the table again in ethnographic and sociolinguistic terms. We say not only that “a poem is sweet” or that a speech “is aggressive,” but also that “words betray him” or that “the document is spreading across the Net.” As classical rhetoric supposed, and as we have reelaborated now, to the extent that texts are part of action, they do things for us. We delegate to discourse so that it represents us. Res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself, as the old legal expression for defending an argument states.

Chesterton explained how language was invented by hunters, killers and other such artists, long before science was even dreamed of. Now that we have science and we have cybernetics, we have once again made the old idea of animation visible, as far as possible, through the analysis of distributed agency. The vocabulary of critical mediation highlights the communion or participation: halfway between fact and fetish, as Latour liked to say. The thing is that referring to “magical thinking” solely when talking about logical errors creates problems. Distributed agency helps us to formulate and understand the reenchantment of the world, escaping from former disjunctives (between the natural and artificial, between the rational and irrational) that have proved so pernicious.


Ihde, D. (2010). Embodied Technics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Izutsu, T. (2012). Language and magic. Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lem, S. (2017). Summa Technologiae. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

41. The first thing we do and the last thing we forget: Catalan phytonymy and popular knowledge, radiating to literature

Joan Vallès 1,2, Teresa Garnatje3, Airy Gras1,3, Montse Parada1
1University of Barcelona, 2Institute for Catalan Studies, 3Botanical Institute of Barcelona-CSIC-ICUB


One of the first activities—if not the very first—that human beings do when they are faced with another living being or an object is give it a name. If it is a person or a thing that has been named before, they will simply try to understand it. When it is a new person or thing, they will label it. It can be argued that at some point every name has been a neologism. Once created, nouns sometimes change, acquire other meanings or find synonyms. Sometimes they end up being the origin of family names or place names. Finally, some names die out or at least become archaic and fall into disuse.

It does not fall to us, as botanists, to go into the history and evolution of names, but it is incumbent upon us to focus in particular on words that designate objects from the nature that we study, namely vegetal ones, a notion under which we group plants, some algae that would not fit the narrow definition of plants, fungi—which include mushrooms and lichens—and a group of microorganisms called blue-green algae, cyanophyta or cyanobacteria. In total, we are talking about approximately half a million species of living beings. If we focus on vascular plants (that is, plants that have a system for transporting sap), which are the most evolved and most of which we commonly tend to recognize as plants (the most typical—with flowers and fruits—being, for example, the rose or the daisy, conifers such as pines and firs, ferns and horsetails), the number falls to more or less 300,000.

Out of these, in the Catalan Countries, a territory of the Mediterranean region that has considerable biodiversity within Europe and highly diverse landscapes from sea level to altitudes of more than 3,000 metres, there are around 4,000. That is the figure for wild native flora, which make up the vast majority of plants here. If we include plants that have escaped from cultivation and are subspontaneous or naturalized, many since long ago (that is, nonindigenous species), we reach about 5,000. Adding cultivated plants, the figure would go up substantially and it would become difficult to keep a count, especially because of ornamentals, some of which are well established among us, while others come and go according to demand and fashions.

The world’s 300,000 species of vascular plants—and, among these, the 5,000 from the Catalan Countries—are candidates for names to designate them. They all have a Latin or latinized scientific name that allows us to unequivocally identify them. The simplicity of the current nomenclature system for plants, which dates from 1753 and was conceived by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, allows us to replace a long description for characterizing a plant with a binomial featuring a generic name and a specific epithet. For example, by saying Digitalis purpurea (didalera in Catalan and foxglove in English), we save ourselves the time of saying, as we did before, Digitalis calycinis foliolis ovalis acutis, corollis obtusis, labio superiore integro.

Anyway, despite the ease and practical value of this system, it makes sense that each language has given a name to the plants that its speakers have encountered. Not all plants have names (popular, vernacular common or vulgar names, each term with some nuance setting it apart from the others), and this is so not just within all languages, but even within the lands where the plant in question grows. It should be kept in mind that some plants come from a fairly small area, which means that they are not well known to people. Others, by contrast, are well known to people, and these are the ones that, as we said earlier, are the object of that first human activity of giving a name. Afterwards, in many cases, there will come (and there has come since long back) the use of that plant that now has a name.

Ethnobotany, the discipline that studies relationships between human societies and the vegetal world and deals with names and uses for and management of biodiversity, allows us to become aware of a matter that is complementary to the human activity of naming plants, in addition to collecting traditional uses and names. Just as one of the first things that human beings do is to give names to plants as soon as they meet them, one of the last things that they do is to forget those names. It is unimaginable that someone would say “this is called a table, but I don’t know what it’s for”, and this is still true if we change table to pitchfork, an instrument that few of us now use, or to even more uncommonly used objects. In contrast it is not uncommon during ethnobotanical interviews to hear, “This plant is called ‘x,’ but I can’t remember what it’s used for.” Use can become less widespread or disappear completely, but the name often continues to be known as a reminiscence of everything that was known about the plant in question (though in some cases, when traditional knowledge has become severely eroded, even memory of the name is lost).

Humankind—that is, the speakers of the world’s different languages—has strengthened its relationships with plants to a considerable extent through names. And precisely because of this, as we have stated, names are the first thing sought or created in meeting plants and the last thing that is forgotten traditional knowledge about them declines, dwindles or becomes depleted. In this regard, the names of plants, phytonyms, can function as indicators of the erosion of traditional knowledge about biodiversity. Before that, however, phytonyms are an important part of cultural heritage (because they are names that enrich one language and all languages) as well as of natural heritage (because they designate elements of nature and are normally associated with additional traditional knowledge about it).

Catalan can be considered one of the languages whose names of plants and allies have been the focus of significant collection and study. The teacher and botanist Francesc Masclans i Girvès initiated these activities and was their main driver, starting in 1948 with a modest work about the Virgin in Catalan and Spanish names for plants and continuing and concluding with two encyclopaedic volumes of Catalan phytonyms, published in 1954 and 1981 (the second was a revised and expanded edition). Masclans also published a book on Catalan names for mushrooms, but our focus here, as already mentioned, is vascular plants. In the two encyclopaedic volumes, Masclans gathered, respectively, approximately 6,000 names for 1,800 plant taxa and 9,000 names for 3,000 taxa.

Masclans’s work was the starting point for a study that went on for around twenty years under the auspices of Termcat (Catalan Terminology Centre) and that made possible the publication, in 2014, of a book and a website that bring together 35,000 Catalan names for around 6,500 plant taxons. For more information, readers will find, at the end of this text, the references for these and the aforementioned Masclans works. The figures are remarkable. The quantity of species for which there is a name in Catalan is very high. Considering that there are around 5,000 species of native or naturalized vascular plants in the Catalan Countries, and also that some are not known by Catalan names (for example, those whose distribution has been very restricted), the quantity of foreign plants that have received names in Catalan is far from negligible. This indicates not only that Catalan has been used to name many of the Catalan Countries’ plants—something that in itself is important—but also that Catalan has been used to give names to a large number of plants that are either grown by people here or simply live in other parts of the world. This is a positive indicator of the language’s vitality.

In parallel to this work, ethnobotany research in Catalan-speaking areas has produced a very robust corpus of phytonymic data. At present, our research group’s ethnobotanical database contains approximately 87,000 reports of phytonyms from almost 2,700 informants. These reports correspond to over 11,000 popular names (including variants) from around 1,600 plant taxa. Many of these names, which reflect traditional knowledge of the vegetal world in the Catalan Countries, now appear in the most recent aforementioned compilation, but others that do not appear could be used to update the compilation. To give a few examples to illustrate the phytonymic wealth of different areas, in the counties of Alt Empordà, Ripollès, Garrigues, the island of Mallorca and the central counties of Valencia, respectively 1,105, 804, 849, 1,401 and 2,138 plant names applying to 523, 457, 410, 517 and 514 taxa have been collected. This ethnobotanical database, made within the framework of the Institute for Catalan Studies’ research programme, will become publicly accessible, starting in 2020 with a version that, among other information, will contain plant names.

According to the creation process behind vernacular phytonyms, there are two types. On the one hand, there are those with a scholarly formation, such as descàmpsia flexuosa (Deschampsia flexuosa), created by a botanist who, in line with the approach essentially taken in the United Kingdom, favours each plant that exists within an area having a vulgar name. On the other hand, there are names with a popular origin. Many more of these, at least in Catalan, are created and sometimes nuanced or changed by the people. Of this latter group, some are ubiquitous in the linguistic domain—such as rosa (Rosa sp.; ‘rose’) or clavell (Dianthus sp.; ‘carnation’)—and others are particular to a dialect or linguistic variant—for example, farigola/timó (Thymus vulgaris; ‘thyme’) and romaní/romer (Rosmarinus officinalis; ‘rosemary’). Among phytonyms, there are many cases of synonyms—for instance, saüc, saüquer, saüquera, sabuc, sabuquer and bonarbre for Sambucus nigra (elder)—and of polysemy—for example, àrnica for a dozen species, including Arnica montana, Inula montana, Pallenis spinosa and Hypericum perforatum—as well as of a combination of the two—for example, til·ler, tell and tilloler, sometimes with adjectives as modifiers, though sometimes without them, to denominate various species of the genus Tilia).

In terms of the formation patterns of these words, an area in which there is still much to be studied, there are names that derive from scientific names, while others allude to some morphological or ecological aspect of the plant, to some curative property (often in accordance with the theory of signature from medical anthropology, according to which humankind has believed that plants bear indications of what they can be used for) or, in other cases, to geography, flavour or smell. There are plant names that refer to people—herba de Sant Joan (Saint John’s wort), Hypericum perforatum, among other species with this name in Catalan—or to places (camamilla de Núria or camamilla de Rojà, Achillea ptarmica susbp. pyrenaica). Phytonyms have been very productive for Catalan family names—we are thinking here of last names such as Alzina, Bruc, Roure and Rovira, the latter of which is a synonym, though no longer a widely used one today, for roureda (‘oak forest’)—and toponyms (place names such as Lloret, La Jonquera, Figueres and Poblet, the latter of which comes from Populetum, ‘poplar grove’, Populus nigra).

Plant names are both natural and cultural heritage. The cultural aspect, beyond their belonging to popular culture and their enrichment of language, is further strengthened by the very productive role of phytonyms in the literature. It goes without saying that nature is often a source of inspiration in literary creation. When Jacint Verdaguer compares the Canigó mountain to a magnolia and describes its parts based on a description of the flower, he reveals a little more than inspiration: botanical knowledge that in his case—and leaving aside the consulting of specialists that he is known to have done—came from a special interest in nature. Aside from this, popular plant names (and sometimes their traditional uses) carry substantial weight in Catalan literature. This is not surprising, because writers are, before anything else, people—a part of the people that has created, maintained and transmitted Catalan’s huge ethnobotanical corpus. Let us look at some examples of botanic and ethnobotanical knowledge of Catalan literary figures.

The lines “La ginesta floreix / i arreu del camp hi ha vermell de roselles. / Amb nova falç comencem a segar / el blat madur i amb ell les males herbes” (Salvador Espriu; “The broom flourishes / and all around the countryside is the red of poppies / with a new sickle we start to reap / the ripe wheat and with it the weeds”) denote this poet’s knowledge of the flowering of various plants, its coincidence with the harvest and the presence (before the widespread use of pesticides) of weeds in cereal fields. “El verd rosat, que espurna el tamariu / i anuncia les tardes de l’estiu” (M. Àngels Vayreda; “the rosy foliage that sparkles on the tamarisk / and announces the summer evenings”) indicates that this author knows when the tree that she evokes flowers and what colour those flowers are. Similarly, Joan Brossa shows his knowledge of the ecology of the trees that he refers to in “Vora del llac creixen verns, pollancs i saules” (“By the lake grow alders, poplars and willows”). With phrases such as “Cabells blancs com l’escorça dels bedolls” (“Hair white like birch bark”), “Rentar vestits negres amb aigua bullida amb fulles d’heura” (“Cleaning black clothes with water boiled with ivy leaves”), “Herbes remeieres i plantes perfumades per cuinar: poliol, sajolida, romaní, fonoll, maladuix” (“Medicinal herbs and perfumed plants for cooking: pennyroyal, savory, rosemary, fennel, marjoram), and “Infusions de valeriana per calmar la desesperació” (“Valerian infusions to soothe despair”), M. Àngels Anglada exhibits not only botanical knowledge (which allows her to make a highly original comparison for the colour of hair) but also ethnobotanical knowledge about the uses of many types of plants. Turning to a classic author, Joanot Martorell displays good knowledge of plants used for textiles when he writes in Tirant (all English versions come from the David Rosenthal translation): “Plaerdemavida, en scusa de traure un drap de li prim per al bany, obrí la caixa” (“Pleasure-of-my-life, with the excuse of taking out a fine linen wash cloth, opened the chest), “La Viuda se despullà tota nua e restà ab calces vermelles e al cap un capell de lli” (“Then the widow stripped down to her red stockings and linen cap”) and “féu-lo saltar en un terrat que y havia e donà-li una corda de cànem” (“She made him jump onto the roof and threw him a hemp rope”). Finally, had he not had considerable knowledge of popular phytonymy, Josep M. Llompart would never have been able to make his “Camí florit” (“Florid path”), a poem of 48 words that contains 38 phytonyms and ends with “i en l’aire color de vauma, / l’esgarrifança d’un poll” (“and in the mallow-coloured air, / the shiver of a poplar”).

At the interface between people and plants, between nature and culture, between botany and linguistics, the phytonymic corpus is a fundamental element of heritage for any human group, and phytonymy, especially the most common, popular rooted, traditional and ethnobotanical form of it, constitutes a vast and interesting field for investigation and disseminations from many standpoints.

Sources of further information

Masclans, F. (1954). Els noms vulgars de les plantes a les terres catalanes. Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans (Arxius de la Secció de Ciències, XXIII).

Masclans, F. (1981). Els noms de les plantes als Catalan Countries. Barcelona: Editorial Montblanc-Martín i Centre Excursionista de Catalunya.

Vallès, J., Parada, M. (2019). Etnobotànica i fitonímia: plantes, noms i cultura popular a l’Alt Empordà. In: Jornades de la Secció Filològica a Castelló d’Empúries. Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, in print.

Vallès, J., Agelet, A., Bonet, M.À., Garnatje, T., Muntané, J., Parada, M., Raja, D., Rigat, M., Selga, A. (2005). “Algunes qüestions entorn de la fitonímia i els aspectes lingüístics de l’etnobotànica.” Estudis de Llengua i Literatura Catalanes, 51, p. 273-293.

Vallès, J., Veny, J., Vigo, J., Bonet, M.À., Julià, M.A., Villalonga, J.C. (2014). Noms de plantes. Corpus de fitonímia catalana. Barcelona: Termcat – Centre de Terminologia and Universitat de Barcelona. Online at: https://www.termcat.cat/ca/diccionaris-en-linia/191.

40. Vergangenheitsbewältigung und ihre sprachlichen Aspekte

Georg Kremnitz
Universität Wien

Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des anders Denkenden
Rosa Luxemburg, 1919

Zur Verständigung: jede politische Herrschaft hat ein gewisses Gewaltpotential; das staatliche Gewaltmonopol ist bis zu einem gewissen Grade für die Funktionsfähigkeit einer modernen Gesellschaft unerlässlich. Wo es versagt, sprechen wir von gescheiterten Staaten (failed states). Gewöhnlich genügt das Prinzip, nur in besonderen Fällen wird die Gewalt sichtbar. Nicht von diesen Staaten möchte ich im Folgenden sprechen, sondern von denen, in denen die Gewalt zur Unterdrückung der Bürger oder gewisser Gruppen unter ihnen systematisch eingesetzt wird, das was wir Gewaltherrschaften nennen.

Meine These ist folgende: Gewaltherrschaften hinterlassen immer ihre Spuren in Gesellschaften; selbst nachdem sie abgelöst werden, bleibt ein hohes Gewaltpotential in einer Gesellschaft erhalten, die Unduldsamkeit gegenüber allem, was „anders“ ist. Diese Gewaltsamkeit kann sich über lange Zeiten erhalten, wenn sie nicht bewusst bekämpft wird. In manchen Gesellschaften ist es zu einer solchen Aufarbeitung gekommen, es sei nur als Beispiel an die Wahrheits- und Versöhnungskommission unter Leitung von Desmond Tutu in Südafrika erinnert, an die Bemühungen um die Bewältigung der (letzten) Diktatur in Argentinien unter der Präsidentschaft von Nestor Kirchner, oder auch an die (späte) Aufarbeitung der Verbrechen der Hitler-Diktatur in Deutschland. Sicher ist durch diese Maßnahmen das Gewaltpotential in den jeweiligen Gesellschaften nicht völlig verschwunden, sie haben immerhin zu einer Abnahme der Gewalt in der Gesellschaft geführt und zum Aufbau eines höheren Toleranzniveaus. Dagegen ist etwa der Genozid an der autochthonen Bevölkerung in den USA – auch das eine Form von Gewaltherrschaft – nie ernsthaft problematisiert worden, darin könnte ein Grund für die vielfach vorkommende Gewalt in diesem Staat sein, wohl auch für seine oft aggressive Politik nach außen. Auch im heutigen Russland ist die Aufarbeitung der Folgen der Diktatur, vor allem unter Stalin, nach kurzer Zeit wieder eingeschlafen, auch hier fällt das hohe Niveau der Gewalt in der Gesellschaft auf. Die Zahl der Beispiele ließe sich vervielfachen. Wo eine Gewaltherrschaft nicht gesellschaftlich aufgearbeitet wird, bleibt das innewohnende Gewaltpotential für lange Zeit höher als dort, wo es zu einer solchen Aufarbeitung kommt.

In ähnlicher Weise ist es in Spanien bisher nicht zu einer Aufarbeitung des Unrechts und der Gewaltexzesse der franquistischen Diktatur gekommen. Nur in einigen peripheren Regionen ist das ansatzweise gelungen. Dabei hing die Intensität der Bemühungen gewöhnlich von der politischen Couleur der jeweils herrschenden Gruppen ab. Die Frage muss sich stellen, ob es nicht mittlerweile schon sehr spät ist für eine solche Aufarbeitung, da nur noch wenige der damals Verantwortlichen am Leben sind. Andererseits dürfte es für solche Versuche nie zu spät sein, wie die fortdauernde Beschäftigung mit der Shoah in Deutschland zeigt; sie schafft noch immer eine gewisse Sensibilisierung für die Menschenrecte. Leider zeigt die Erfahrung, dass neue Rückfälle in Gewalt nie auszuschlieβen sind. Ein Konsens über das Verwerfliche einer Diktatur erschwert immerhin neuerliche Bestrebungen in diese Richtung.

Worin zeigt sich, dass eine diktatorische Vergangenheit in einer Gesellschaft nicht oder unzureichend bewältigt ist? Dafür gibt es Indizien aus vielen Bereichen; am deutlichsten (und am verräterischsten) ist oft die Sprachverwendung. Das Gefährliche liegt darin, dass der Sprachgebrauch nach einiger Zeit nicht mehr bewusst ist. So wird im Deutschen für die Hitler-Diktatur noch vielfach der Begriff „Drittes Reich“ (ohne Anführungszeichen) verwendet, obwohl darin eine – gewöhnlich unbewusste – Übernahme der Vorstellungen der damaligen Machthaber suggeriert wird. Vielfach wird Vokabular verwendet, das Gewalt evoziert oder zu ihr aufruft – gerade bei den Staaten oder Gruppen, welche heutzutage keine Flüchtigen aus anderen Ländern aufnehmen wollen, wird ein solcher Wortschatz oftmals verwendet. Der Diskurs mehrerer Regierungen und vor allem regierungsnaher Organisationen in Staaten wie Ungarn oder Polen, in den letzten Jahren auch Italien, gibt genügend Beispiele dafür. Jede Gewaltherrschaft hat ihre eigenen Kennwörter geschaffen, die dann wieder aufgenommen werden – in Spanien galt das lange Zeit alle Verbindungen mit rojo – das ist nicht der Sinn dieser Zeilen. Wichtig ist, dass ein solches Vokabular Tür und Tor öffnet für eine Verrohung des Diskurses, wie wir sie derzeit in vielen europäischen Gesellschaften erleben – und diese dann für den Ausbruch von (nicht nur) physischer Gewalt; in Großbritannien lebende Ausländer können derzeit ebenso ein Lied davon singen wie Studenten oder Flüchtlinge aus Lateinamerika in den USA in den letzten Jahren.

Diktaturen hinterlassen nach ihrem Verschwinden ein geringes Bewusstsein für die Rechte von Minoritäten, wenn ihr Erbe nicht aufgearbeitet wird: die Mehrheit hat Recht, die Mehrheit bestimmt. Die Toleranzschwelle gegenüber Differenz ist gering. Das betrifft nur politische Fragen im engeren Sinne, die Unduldsamkeit erstreckt sich besonders auf kulturelle Themen, dazu gehören an vorderer Stelle auch sprachliche. Das zeigt sich angesichts des in Frankreich auf die Revolution und das zweite französische Kolonialreich zurückzuführenden geringen sprachlichen Toleranzpegels, wo noch immer den Sprachen der Peripherien (die Existenz von Minderheiten wird nach französischem Recht nicht anerkannt) nur ein minimaler Entfaltungsraum zugestanden wird, der dazu fühtr, dass die meisten dieser Sprachen heute nur noch eine Randeexistenz als Kommunikationsmittel führen können. Dass das nicht der Fall sein muss, zeigt die unterschiedliche sprachliche Entwicklung Großbritanniens.

Die neueren gesellschaftlichen Entwicklungen in Spanien lassen sich teilweise mit meiner eingangs erwähnten These erklären: die Vernachlässigung der Folgen der Diktatur hat dazu geführt, dass auf der einen Seite das Gewaltpotential in der Gesellschaft insgesamt hoch bleibt und auf der anderen die Achtung vor Differenz bei der Mehrheit der Bevölkerung (zu) wenig entwickelt ist. Nach durchaus vielversprechenden Anfängen, die der Erleichterung über das Ende der Diktatur und den friedlichen Übergang geschuldet waren, kommt es seit mehr als zwei Jahrzehnten wieder zur zunehmenden Rückkehr zu einer assimilationistischen Politik. Bereits gewährte sprachliche Rechte der Peripherien, vor allem des Baskenlandes und Kataloniens, werden in Frage gestellt, eine überfällige Reform der spanischen Verfassung, die 1977/78 noch unter der genauen Überwachung durch das franquistische Militär verabschiedet wurde, bleibt aus (wir, die wir die Entstehung dieser Verfassung aus relativer Nähe miterlebt haben, gingen davon aus, dass sie nach einer gewissen Zeit überarbeitet und vervollkommnet würde). Hinzu kommt das Paradox, dass die „anderen“ Spanier zwar die Katalanen oft nicht schätzen, wie viele Umfragen zeigen, sie aber auch nicht über ihre Zukunft entscheiden lassen wollen. Das geht im Falle Kataloniens bis zur Kriminalisierung politischer Positionen, die friedlich vertreten werden. In Spanien hat das eine lange Tradition: fast jede politische Forderung im Baskenland auf mehr Selbstbestimmung wurde lange Zeit als von der ETA abhängig diskriminiert und bestraft, heute spricht man von den Forderungen der Katalanen als versuchtem golpe de Estado. Der Gipfel der Intoleranz wird erreicht, wenn eine spanische Vize-Regierungschefin im Oktober 2019 öffentlich erklären kann, es gäbe kein Recht auf Selbstbestimmung – und das entgegen allen internationalen Deklarationen der Menschenrechte! Nicht anders verhalten sich Diktaturen. Dass die Europäische Union in diese Auseinandersetzung nicht eingreift, entgegen den von ihr vielfach verkündeten Prinzipien dieser Menschenrechte, ist – sagen wir es höflich – verwunderlich. In einigen anderen Fällen war sie weniger restriktiv, denken wir nur an Montenegro oder Schottland. Sollte auch in Europa das Prinzip der Staatlichkeit über das des Selbstbestimmungsrechts die Oberhand gewonnen haben? Damit wären die letzten noch verbliebenen Hoffnungen in die Europäische Union hinfällig geworden. Wollte Spanien diese konkreten Spannungen lösen, müsste es, konkret seine jeweiligen politischen Mehrheiten, auf alle seine Bürger zugehen.

Doch das Thema ist von weitaus allgemeinerer Bedeutung. Je höher das Gewaltpotential in einer Gesellschaft ist, desto höher auch das Gefühl der Unsicherheit der Bürgerinnen und Bürger. Erst wenn vergangene Gewalt aufgearbeitet und in ihren Motiven verständlich gemacht ist, kann zukünftige Gewalt besser abgewehrt werden. Erst wenn die notwendigen Entfaltungsmöglichkeiten für alle Bürger geschaffen sind, können diese sich einem Staat zuwenden. Dazu gehören ganz besonders auch die kulturellen Rechte, etwa der Sprachgebrauch. Erst wenn ich reden darf, wie ich will, kann ich mich wohl und akzeptiert fühlen. Andernfalls bleibt immer Frustration, bleibt immer das Gefühl der gesellschaftlichen Unterlegenheit. Erst wenn ich selbst bestimmen kann, in welchem Maße und für welche Zwecke ich meine Sprachen verwenden will, kann ich mich unabhängig fühlen. Das gilt für autochthone Gruppen ebenso wie für Zuwanderer. Sicher ist es sinnvoll, dass diese die Sprachen der sie aufnehmenden Länder lernen, daneben sollten sie auch ihre Herkunftssprachen pflegen und bewahren können, denn in deren Beherrschung liegt ihre Besonderheit. So können sie Brücken zwischen den Völkern und Kulturen bauen – eine Möglichkeit, welche Einwanderungsländer auszeichnet, nur haben die meisten sie im Zuge des sich entwickelnden Nationalismus nicht genutzt und damit großen potentiellen Mehrwert in der Kultur achtlos verkommen lassen. Erst allmählich – sehr spät – ändert sich da und dort das kollektive Bewusstsein und – wichtiger noch – das Verhalten. Besonders dort, wo die Migration sich an einen früheren Kolonialismus anschließt, dem Gewalt inhärent ist/war, bekommt die kulturelle Freiheit eine zusätzliche Bedeutung; solche Migrationsflüsse sind ja im heutigen Europa bei den ehemaligen Kolonialmächten weit verbreitet.

Die Wahrnehmung der eigenen Rechte stößt dort auf ihre Grenzen, wo die der anderen betroffen sind. Diese Dialektik ist unauflöslich. Um sie zu verdeutlichen, sagte der frühere deutsche Bundespräsident Gustav Heinemann vor ziemlich genau fünfzig Jahren sinngemäß: „Wer mit dem ausgestreckten Zeigefinger auf andere zeigt, um sie anzuklagen, sollte nicht vergessen, dass drei Finger auf ihn selbst zurückweisen”.

39. A rooster for Asklepios: the death and life of Socrates

Gregory Nagy
Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature
Harvard University
Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC


This work is a lightly re-edited second version of an essay originally published in Classical Inquiries 2015.03.27. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/?s=last+words+of+Socrates


§1. I will analyze here the passage in Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a where Socrates dies. His last words, as transmitted by Plato, are directed at all those who have followed Socrates—and who have had the unforgettable experience of engaging in dialogue with him. He tells them: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios

§2. I will quote the whole passage in a minute. But first, we need to ask: who is this Asklepios? Briefly, he was a hero whose father was the god Apollo himself, and, like his divine father, Asklepios had special powers of healing. More than that, Asklepios also had the power of bringing the dead back to life. That is why he was killed by the immortals, since mortals must stay mortal. But Asklepios, even after death, retained his power to bring the dead back to life.

§3. So, what does Socrates mean when he asks his followers, in his dying words, not to forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios?

§4. On 16 March 2015, a group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited the site where Socrates died—and where he said what he said about sacrificing a rooster to Asklepios. On the surface, this site is nothing much to write home about. All we can see at the site is the foundation stones of the State Prison where Socrates was held prisoner and where he was forced to drink the hemlock in the year 399 BCE. But I feel deeply that, just by visiting the site, our group managed to connect with a sublime experience. We were making contact with a place linked forever with the very last words of one of the greatest thinkers in world history.

§5. I now quote my own translation of Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a, which situates these last words of Socrates:

“Go,” said he [= Socrates], “and do as I say.” Crito, when he heard this, signaled with a nod to the boy servant who was standing nearby, and the servant went in, remaining for some time, and then came out with the man who was going to administer the poison [pharmakon]. He was carrying a cup that contained it, ground into the drink. When Socrates saw the man he said: “You, my good man, since you are experienced in these matters, should tell me what needs to be done.” The man answered: “You need to drink it, that’s all. Then walk around until you feel a heaviness |117b in your legs. Then lie down. This way, the poison will do its thing.” While the man was saying this, he handed the cup to Socrates. And Socrates took it in a cheerful way, not flinching or getting pale or grimacing. Then looking at the man from beneath his brows, like a bull—that was the way he used to look at people—he said: “What do you say about my pouring a libation out of this cup to someone? Is it allowed or not?” The man answered: “What we grind is measured out, Socrates, as the right dose for drinking.” “I understand,” he said, |117c “but surely it is allowed and even proper to pray to the gods so that my transfer of dwelling [met-oikēsis] from this world [enthende] to that world [ekeîse] should be fortunate. So, that is what I too am now praying for. Let it be this way.” And, while he was saying this, he took the cup to his lips and, quite readily and cheerfully, he drank down the whole dose. Up to this point, most of us had been able to control fairly well our urge to let our tears flow; but now when we saw him drinking the poison, and then saw him finish the drink, we could no longer hold back, and, in my case, quite against my own will, my own tears were now pouring out in a flood. So, I covered my face and had a good cry. You see, I was not crying for him, |117d but at the thought of my own bad fortune in having lost such a comrade [hetairos]. Crito, even before me, found himself unable to hold back his tears: so he got up and moved away. And Apollodorus, who had been weeping all along, now started to cry in a loud voice, expressing his frustration. So, he made everyone else break down and cry—except for Socrates himself. And he said: “What are you all doing? I am so surprised at you. I had sent away the women mainly because I did not want them |117e to lose control in this way. You see, I have heard that a man should come to his end [teleutân] in a way that calls for measured speaking [euphēmeîn]. So, you must have composure [hēsukhiā], and you must endure.” When we heard that, we were ashamed, and held back our tears. He meanwhile was walking around until, as he said, his legs began to get heavy, and then he lay on his back—that is what the man had told him to do. Then that same man who had given him the poison [pharmakon] took hold of him, now and then checking on his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel it; and he said that he couldn’t; and then he pressed his shins, |118a and so on, moving further up, thus demonstrating for us that he was cold and stiff. Then he [= Socrates] took hold of his own feet and legs, saying that when the poison reaches his heart, then he will be gone. He was beginning to get cold around the abdomen. Then he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said— this was the last thing he uttered— “Crito, I owe the sacrifice of a rooster to Asklepios; will you pay that debt and not neglect to do so?” “I will make it so,” said Crito, “and, tell me, is there anything else?” When Crito asked this question, no answer came back anymore from Socrates. In a short while, he stirred. Then the man uncovered his face. His eyes were set in a dead stare. Seeing this, Crito closed his mouth and his eyes. Such was the end [teleutē], Echecrates, of our comrade [hetairos]. And we may say about him that he was in his time the best [aristos] of all men we ever encountered—and the most intelligent [phronimos] and most just [dikaios].

So I come back to my question about the meaning of the last words of Socrates, when he says, in his dying words: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios. As I begin to formulate an answer, I must repeat something that I have already highlighted. It is the fact that the hero Asklepios was believed to have special powers of healing—even the power of bringing the dead back to life. Some interpret the final instruction of Socrates to mean simply that death is a cure for life. I disagree. After sacrificing a rooster at day’s end, sacrificers will sleep the sleep of incubation and then, the morning after the sacrifice, they will wake up to hear other roosters crowing. So, the words of Socrates here are referring to rituals of overnight incubation in the hero cults of Asklepios.

§6. On 18 March 2015, the group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited a site where such rituals of overnight incubation actually took place: the site was Epidaurus. This small city was famous for its hero cult of Asklepios. The space that was sacred to Asklepios, as our group had a chance to witness, is enormous, and the enormity is a sure sign of the intense veneration received by Asklepios as the hero who, even though he is dead, has the superhuman power rescue you from death. The mystical logic of worshipping the dead Asklepios is that he died for humanity: he died because he had the power to bring humans back to life.

§7. So, Asklepios is the model for keeping the voice of the rooster alive. And, for Socrates, Asklepios can become the model for keeping the word alive.

§8. I follow through on analyzing this idea of keeping the word from dying, of keeping the word alive. That living word, I argue, is dialogue. We can see it when Socrates says that the only thing worth crying about is the death of the word. I am about to quote another passage from Plato’s Phaedo, and again I will use my own translation. But before I quote the passage, here is the context: well before Socrates is forced to drink the hemlock, his followers are already mourning his impending death, and Socrates reacts to their sadness by telling them that the only thing that would be worth mourning is not his death but the death of the conversation he started with them. Calling out to one of his followers, Phaedo, Socrates tells him (Plato, Phaedo 89b):

“Tomorrow, Phaedo, you will perhaps be cutting off these beautiful locks of yours [as a sign of mourning]?” “Yes, Socrates,” I [= Phaedo] replied, “I guess I will.” He shot back: “No you will not, if you listen to me.” “So, what will I do?” I [= Phaedo] said. He replied: “Not tomorrow but today I will cut off my own hair and you too will cut off these locks of yours—if our argument [logos] comes to an end [teleutân] for us and we cannot bring it back to life again [ana-biōsasthai].

What matters for Socrates is the resurrection of the ‘argument’ or logos, which means literally ‘word’, even if death may be the necessary pharmakon or ‘poison’ for leaving the everyday life and for entering the everlasting cycle of resurrecting the word.

§9. In the 2015 book Masterpieces of Metonymy (MoM), I study in Part One a traditional custom that prevailed in Plato’s Academy at Athens for centuries after the death of Socrates. Their custom was to celebrate the birthday of Socrates on the sixth day of the month Thargelion, which by their reckoning coincided with his death day. And they celebrated by engaging in Socratic dialogue, which for them was the logos that was resurrected every time people engage in Socratic dialogue. I go on to say in MoM 1§§146–147:

For Plato and for Plato’s Socrates, the word logos refers to the living ‘word’ of dialogue in the context of philosophical argumentation. When Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (89b) tells his followers who are mourning his impending death that they should worry not about his death but about the death of the logos—if this logos cannot be resurrected or ‘brought back to life’ (ana-biōsasthai)—he is speaking of the dialogic argumentation supporting the idea that the psūkhē or ‘soul’ is immortal. In this context, the logos itself is the ‘argument’.

For Plato’s Socrates, it is less important that his psūkhē or ‘soul’ must be immortal, and it is vitally more important that the logos itself must remain immortal—or, at least, that the logos must be brought back to life. And that is because the logos itself, as I say, is the ‘argument’ that comes to life in dialogic argumentation.

Here is the way I would sum up, then, what Socrates means as he speaks his last words. When the sun goes down and you check in for sacred incubation at the precinct of Asklepios—that is to say, you sleep at the site and hope to dream a salvific dream—you sacrifice a rooster to this hero who, even in death, has the power to bring you back to life. As you drift off to sleep at the place of incubation, the voice of that rooster is no longer heard. He is dead, and you are asleep. But then, as the sun comes up, you wake up to the voice of a new rooster signaling that morning is here, and this voice will be for you a sign that says: the word that died has come back to life again. Asklepios has once again shown his sacred power. The word is resurrected. The conversation may now continue.

38. Intersubjectivity, Glitches, and Improvisation

Alessandro Duranti
University of California, Los Angeles


  1. Intersubjectivity as a condition of human existence

I borrow from phenomenology the idea that intersubjectivity is an a priori universal condition of our existence such that even though we might not be aware of the presence of other people or of the impact that their actions directly or indirectly have on us, we are always in “a world of others.” This has implications for all kinds of human activities as well as for perception. When we look at a table, we assume, without thinking, that this same table is perceptually accessible to others, even when they are not present. The durable presence of the table as a three-dimensional object is made possible by a shared but differentiated perceptual field where we can “trade places” with others, that is, we can imagine what it would be like to see the table from their point of view.

Intersubjectivity therefore is a precondition for interaction that allows for different degree of attunement. This happens, for instance, when we go from being passively aware of the people, sounds, or smells of the world we inhabit to actively attending to an aspect of the environment that has a strong attentional pull, e.g., a familiar song blasting out of the sound system of a store we just walked in.

  1. The interactive and emergent quality of meaningful action

An interpretation of intersubjectivity in terms of a shifting degree of attunement lends itself to an understanding of human action as unfolding in time. As such, intersubjective attunement adjusts to context-specific interactional demands. Some telling examples of how meaning unfolds in spontaneous speech production were provided almost forty years ago by Charles Goodwin in his book Conversational Organization, where he showed how a speaker is able to change the meaning of an utterance in the course of its production in order to adjust to a new recipient’s knowledge of past events.

In addition to showcasing the notion of “recipient design” introduced by Harvey Sacks in his lectures on conversation, Goodwin’s examples highlight the fact that speakers can sometimes quickly adjust the content of what they are saying without stopping and restarting their utterances. Speakers seem to be very apt at rethinking, rephrasing, and changing the meaning of what they might have been trying to say. As noted by the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, when speaking, we are not only expressing ourselves to others, we are also discovering our own thoughts.

The open-ended quality of communication and, more generally, action for phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty is akin to the dialogical linguistics proposed by Mikhail M. Bakhtin for whom the meanings of utterances are not completely authored by their speakers because all utterances are populated by the intentions of earlier users. This implies that we can never be completely in control of the force or pragmatic effects of our utterances. Sometimes we might offend others even though we did not mean to or we might sound hesitant even though we feel resolute. The weight of past language uses can predetermine and limit our ability to use it for our own individual goals.

  1. A different concept of intersubjectivity: collective intentionality

The conceptualization of intersubjectivity as the basic condition of our sociality is by no means universally known or accepted. One competing model of intersubjectivity first proposed in the 1980s is the so-called “collective” or “shared” or “we-intentionality” model proposed by analytic philosophers. Their models, which are an extension of the causal models of individual agents, aim to explain how two or more people manage to perform actions that require cooperation like, for example, pushing a car, walking down the street, playing music, toasting each other, or having a conversation. For the shared intentionality model, all of these activities share something, namely, the intention or goal of the collective activity. But if, as mentioned above, even one person’s intentions might originally belong to others and speaking needs continuous adjustment, including changing the meaning of what we started out as saying, it would seem difficult to specify ahead of time exactly what the shared intention or goal of a joint activity is.

Take, for example, playing music together. This is one of the group activities mentioned by the shared intentionality proponents. Playing music requires a high level of cooperation (and coordination), but the identification of its “shared goal,” which is required by the collective or shared intentionality model, may turn out to be a challenge. Whereas in the case of musicians playing off a written or memorized piece one might assume (but not necessarily know) that the shared goal is the performance of the known score, the same could not be said of groups of people who are performing music together but not necessarily playing off an existing score, whether written or memorized. Philosopher and jazz musician Gary Hagberg, who evaluated the relevance of the concept of collective or shared intention for capturing group jazz improvisation, suggested that in this kind of joint activity, intentions are altered in the course of performance. Hagberg argued that when highly skilled jazz musicians play together, there is a level of creative work that goes beyond what any of the individuals involved could have “intended.” Even when jazz musicians can be said to improvise on a particular song, the original harmonic structure, rhythm, tempo or time signature may be altered to such an extent that the song they started from would no longer be recognizable by most people. It would thus be difficult to say exactly what goal they share except in some very vague terms like improvising or transforming a previously composed song into something else that is related to it but in unanticipated ways.

  1. Improvisation and the force of tradition

Someone might argue that jazz improvisation is not a good counter-example to the model of collective actions as sharing a goal because it is an artistic activity and as such is guided by what Jan Mukařovsky identified as the “aesthetic function,” which entails the violation of established norms. Are not most of our activities much more predictable than jazz collective improvisation? This is indeed an implicit view among linguists and anthropologists who have tended to pay more attention to rules and routine activities than to novel or creative activities. Even when Noam Chomsky in the 1960s recognized creativity as part of the language faculty, he kept competence and performance separate so that the temporal unfolding of utterance meanings was left out of his model. In anthropology, predictability has been at the core of the definition of “culture” as shared knowledge and of the notion of “ritual” as a sequence of more or less invariant acts, which are not originally authored by the speaker (see Roy Rappoport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity). Especially in the 1970s, the concept of ritual as the performance of some culturally transmitted routine with a basic, essential form that could be adapted to particular contexts was applied to all kinds of communicative acts, from the most mundane activities like greetings to “traditional” oratory.

  1. The rare recognition of improvisation

In the late 1970s, two social scientists made direct reference to the role of improvisation in their writings: Pierre Bourdieu, whose notion of “habitus” as a set of “dispositions” included “orchestrated improvisation,” and Ruth Finnegan who, on the basis of her study of oratory and music performance, proposed a definition of improvisation as “composition-in-performance.” But the great majority of scholars in linguistics and anthropology did not engage with these ideas. Students of verbal art, myself included, while documenting variation across contexts continued to ignore the occurrence and need for improvisation even when speakers are relying on formulae and common patterns. In the 1980s, only a handful of ethnographers (e.g., Barbara Myerhoff and Renato Rosaldo) mentioned improvisation in their analyses. In my own case, it took several years of teaching together with the legendary jazz guitar player Kenny Burrell before I could reconceptualize what I had learned about Samoan oratory in terms of improvisation and a few more year to write a chapter about socialization into verbal improvisation in collaboration with Steven Black, a linguistic anthropologist with extensive experience in jazz music and performance.

  1. Improvisation as a hidden property of human action

Despite the increased focus in the social sciences on variation, variability, and diversity of all kinds, there has continued to be little empirical research directly addressing the role of improvisation in language, interaction, and culture. The exceptions are usually scholars who have had experience in one or more improvisational arts, like Howard Becker, Keith Sawyer, or Tim Ingold.

Paraphrasing Heraclitus’ famous saying Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ, often translated as ‘Nature likes to hide,’ we could say that “improvisation likes to hide,” that is, it is hard to detect and be recognized. Even though the analysis of human interaction shows that people are quick to adjust to new circumstances, change course, and do something that could not have been planned or expected, the work that they do is hardly ever recognized as an act of improvisation.

One set of contexts where improvisation could be said “to show itself” is when participants find themselves in situations when things do not go as they had expected. This is particularly evident in public events when participants are following a protocol that requires shared knowledge and suddenly something does not work and the joint activity cannot be completed or needs to be repeated. These are situations in which improvisation is desperately needed and the audience might expect it. I have examined a number of these interactional troubles and called them “interactional glitches.” In addition to constituting a challenge to the shared intentionality model because they occur even when participants appear to have the right prerequisites for cooperation, these glitches also show that there are social constraints on the degree of improvisation that participants are allowed to exert. This suggests that improvisation is a mode of acting that is not equally distributed across individuals, activities, and situations. Thus, for example, I have found that in the context of public performance, the on-going close scrutiny of a large number of people may inhibit the use of the on-the-spot creativity that would otherwise result in a successful adjustment or repair.

  1. Improvisation as a condition for successful cooperation

Most of the time we believe that we know how to perform familiar tasks. We open the door of our car, sit inside, turn on the engine, and off we drive to work without much thought. When we arrive to our desk, we turn on our computer and, in a few seconds, we are reading and responding to messages. At lunchtime, we eat the snack we brought from home or walk to a nearby café or restaurant. These activities constitute our daily “rituals” and they are supported by verbal routines like greetings, polite formulas, or responses, which, in turn, are made up of a few items taken out of a vast repository of stock phrases that are available to us as speakers of a language. Just like jazz musicians can improvise melodic lines and rhythm patterns that are based on established conventions and a history of listening to other musicians, we can also move in the world and communicate successfully by adopting and adapting stock phrases that we have heard in the past or are being suggested by what someone else just said. Most of the time, we are given the right text to read, start at the right time, finish the toast before the music starts, and lift the glass at the right moment. When things go wrong, we are usually quick to retrace our steps, adjust, rephrase, or just wait until someone else saves us from embarrassment. All of this is made possible by the magic of improvisation as a force of both stability and creativity. The identification of such a force in human interaction suggests that cooperation in joint activities needs intersubjective attunement as well as flexibility, inventiveness, and tolerance for variation.

37. The individual in language policy and management

Bernard Spolsky
Bar-Ilan University, Israel


In the two decades I have been studying language policy, I have found it necessary to keep adding to the model in order to account for the many cases I have come across. My first early concern was proposing a language education policy for Israeli schools; in tackling this, I was able to build on my earlier experiences with Navajo and Māori and a long interest in language education. We proposed a model which defined language policy as consisting of three interrelated but independent components. These were language practice (the actual choices of language variety made by speakers in a community), language beliefs and ideology (what people think should be the language of the community), and language management (efforts by people or institutions inside or outside a community to modify the beliefs and practices of members of the community). This was and remains the basic model.

In order to account for common failures of national policies, I found it necessary to consider different levels ranging from the family to the state and in different domains from home to government. After a study of real cases, especially former empires and their successors, I extended the model to include non-linguistic situations and events interfering with the implementation of language policies. More recently, I have been persuaded of the significance of the individual, both for establishing practices and through self-management, for resisting external management and expanding individual and group linguistic repertoires. This in brief is where I came from and how I got here: in the book that I am now working on, it seems appropriate to rethink the topic of language policy by reversing the normal order, with its historical focus on state language policy, and to start rather with the individual speaker.

Just as not all states are very interested in developing a formal language policy – the United States is an obvious example – so most speakers are probably unaware that their own repertoires are changing as a result of external experiences and pressures. In a homogenous monolingual society like the one I grew up in, it was my family’s Jewish religious observance that first revealed to me that there was another language (Hebrew) that we used for prayers. My Protestant peers had to wait until high school offered us a French class, and even that remained an academic exercise until we saw a French movie. My own contact with languages other than English in vernacular use came when I taught classes that included Māori students in a high school and later when I moved to Israel. But anyone growing up in the normal multilingual environment of modern cities, with parents or grandparents or peers using a complex repertoire of varieties, early becomes aware of the values attached to each variety, and the costs and advantages of modifying their own repertoires.

I now speak of repertoires, avoiding the problem of oversimplification that comes of references to named languages. Using the concept doesn’t mean giving up on named languages, difficult as it is to define them linguistically, for they are usually defined politically or socially. How does one define English, with all its national and dialectal varieties? Or why does one distinguish among the recently separated varieties of what was Serbo-Croatian, each now recognized as distinct by the International Standards Organization? When does a regional dialect like Friesian become a separate language from Dutch, and why is Catalan a language even without political independence, and why are mutually intelligible varieties of Scandinavian languages accepted as languages, while mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese are all lumped together.

Children develop language repertoires from they hear in their environment. A child with both parents speaking the same variety will start off with it, but may later add the language of grandparents or caretakers, and of older siblings already at school. Studying this normal development is family language policy, and it is probably the most important domain for language maintenance: languages are endangered when they are no longer taught to babies and young children. But there are two other important processes to note. The first is accommodation, the not necessarily conscious modification of one’s speech to that of one’s interlocutor, and the second is self-management, the conscious effort to modify or add to one’s linguistic repertoire in the belief that it is advantageous.

It has been shown that speakers make linguistic adjustments based on their perception of their interlocutor’s social status, age, and presumed knowledge of the topic. They also learn what is appropriate when talking to various audiences: avoiding swear words when taking to their mother, or using a different variety in an immigrant family with their grandparents. Speakers modify their accent in order to obtain social approval: to express disapproval, they modify their accent in the opposite direction. At a group level, a minority group’s divergence might lead to language maintenance. Much the same process is dealt with by the theory of language socialization, an ethnographic approach which traces the way in which children’s and adults’ linguistic and cultural adeptness develops as they move into expanding speech and cultural communities with different linguistic codes and semiotic systems.

Some of the important evidence of the nature of accommodation refers not to language shift, but to the modification of dialect differences. The loss of localized features in British English was the result of geographical diffusion, with a spread from more populous and richer locations to surrounding cities and later to rural areas. The second mechanism, is called “levelling”, the result of speech accommodation. There has been dialect levelling in both Britain and France, associate with urbanization and internal migration. In Israel, the traditional distinctions between mutually unintelligible urban, rural and Bedouin dialects of Arabic still maintained by people over 70 are being lost among younger people working in public institutions and educated in standard Arabic, Hebrew and other modern languages. The values associated with speakers of more standard varieties then lead to changes in individual and community repertoires.

This influence of beliefs shows up also in accounting for successful second or foreign language learning. Attitudes and motivation are a critical factor in acquiring a language in school; there is a distinction between integrative motivation (learning a language as reflecting a desire to be like representative members of the other language community or to be associated with that community), and instrumental motivation (a desire to gain social recognition or economic advantage). In more recent work, the motivational self-system as it applied to second language learning has three components, the ideal self, the ought-to self, and language learning experiences.

Essentially we find that an individual’s language repertoire (combining with other to form the language practices of a community) depends on the languages to which he or she is exposed, while an individual’s language beliefs or ideology depend on his or her responses or attitude to the speakers in the environment and to their potential usefulness. Initially, this means caretakers, later it means peers including siblings and friends from the neighborhood, and in due course, it adds teachers and actual or potential employers. A growing repertoire results from these meaningful exposures and the associated values assigned to the people and the language varieties. In addition, it is liable to be influenced by management efforts of authorities, such as teachers and employers or the state. For example, there are the efforts of immigrant mother or father to preserve a heritage language or encourage the adoption of the local dominant variety. Each new domain or level, leading to communication with an increasing array of speakers, adds new sources of language management.

The three component model that I started with is useful in accounting for the development of individual language repertoires. First in importance are the language practices of the individual’s environment. In the home, this means that the choice of languages that household membres address to each other and even more important, the choice of meaningful utterances addressed to the growing child, helps establish the initial repertoire. These choices depend on two critical features: first, that others are willing to speak to the individual, and secondly that the utterances are meaningful.

What this suggests is the importance of beliefs or ideology, especially the values that are associated with a variety. A baby recognizes that the mother’s variety is associated with food and comfort; a pupil recognizes that the teacher’s variety is associated with success in school: a working adult may believe that an international language provides access to better paid work. These beliefs about the value of varieties play a major role in determining the continuing expansion of an individual’s speech repertoire.

Which brings us to the notion of self-management, a notion developed in research on voluntary language learning in international businesses. In such situations, a worker may notice the need to add a different variety to guarantee promotion: thus, Czech workers in a German-owned factory who wish to become foremen or managers realize that they should learn German and were willing to take private lessons. Self management occurs when an individual sets out to learn a valuable variety, providing support for the growing global language teaching industry. When collectivized, this can lead to the demand that the public school system teach the language: this is obvious in Asia, with the growing interest in English language teaching, or in the Australian language policy that encouraged the teaching of Chinese and Japanese.

Self-management has many similarities to accommodation theory, but while it is usually considered a positive action, it too can share a negative approach, as in resistance to language learning or to one or more of the efforts of language managers. This shows up in the research on attitudinal effects on language learning; the research usually points out that favorable attitudes to the language or its speakers results in better language learning, but the opposite is also true: unfavorable attitudes act as a block to success. I suspect that my own failure in German at university in 1951 was influenced by my growing awareness of the Holocaust. The decision to succeed in school second language learning or the decision of an individual to seek an alternative method of acquiring the language is self-management, influenced by values assigned to the language and its speakers. Within any speech community, there are likely to be a number of individuals who select their own repertoire expansion and others who resist the efforts of language managers, internal or external, who seek to influence their practices or beliefs.

Belief in the value of proficiency in English is associated with what has been called “the English divide”, whereby an elite group of citizens in virtually every country of the world are the ones who develop a high level of proficiency and fluency in English, which establishes their status. It is a common belief in many countries that, without this proficiency, one is excluded from the highest levels of employment.

As one explores the various levels and communities in which language policy occurs, it will be important to be reminded continually that there will be individuals (and often groups of individuals) who have their own beliefs, leading them to develop individual repertoires different from the majority. Thus, the language practices and beliefs of a community will always be diverse, producing a sort of chaotic pattern that will constantly challenge simple analysis. Starting like this with the individual, while it leaves gaps to be filled by other domains and environaments, will provide a better understanding of the way in which a person’s linguistic repertoire expands, as they move into new and more demanding situations, and the way in which putative managers at various levels, attempt, succeed, or fail to shape community repertoires.

36. Interculturality and Musical Education [1]

Josep Martí
IMF-CSIC, Barcelona


Nowadays, ethnomusicology research interests stretch much further than when the discipline first emerged under the name of “comparative musicology” in the late 19th century. It originally focused on the study of non-western forms of music as well as music from European oral tradition. The development of the discipline, especially from the 1960s onwards, considerably broadened its scope, so that what defines it more accurately today is not the types of music it studies (any music can be studied from an ethnomusicological approach) but rather the way it perceives the musical act as a cultural and social phenomenon. This peculiarity involves the use of a conceptual framework and also specific, clearly defined non-disciplinary research methodologies that are applicable to both musicology and anthropology. This led to the point at which ethnomusicology is not restricted to just the study of organised sound (music), but it also takes into account the study of the social and cultural structure of this organised sound. Ethnomusicology is very aware that musical practices, as culture in the anthropological sense of the term, contribute to building our social reality.

By using the knowledge attained, the discipline in its aspect of applied ethnomusicology strives to contribute towards improving any socially important issue or problem. Thus, for example, ethnomusicologists cannot ignore the current processes of globalisation, one of the effects of which is to accentuate migratory movements. This means that their objectives must include investigating the role that music might play in the sphere of intercultural relations. Since schools are one of the most sensitive settings for respecting interculturality, it is not surprising that music and ethnomusicology teachers join forces to ensure that music teaching is not relegated to the sidelines of initiatives taken by our society to safeguard the satisfactory integration of our new fellow citizens.

At first glance, it appears that this task would not be a particularly difficult one for a music teacher. Today’s record market supplies music from all corners of the planet, so bringing a certain multicultural flavour to classroom music lessons does not pose a problem. Nevertheless, things are in fact more complex and this multicultural flavour, depending on how it is approached, can be ineffective or indeed downright counter-productive for what interculturality is trying to achieve.

In principle, we might suppose that introducing knowledge of the music with which we identify the immigrant population into the classroom would be a positive move. Such knowledge can contribute to the kind of ownership that interculturality defends. Nonetheless, we must always be very aware of the types of message we might be sending when we include music that is different to the western kind, as there is always the danger that we might be conveying discourses about alterity that are unhelpful for achieving an appropriate intercultural awareness.

Music is a powerful element of enculturation. However, this enculturing power does not come so much from what a sheet of music reflects but rather from its execution, that is, the set of social practices that make up its performance. In the specific case of implementing music material in schools, we need to take into account how we put together the two different levels of producing meaning: the musical product itself and the way it is presented in the classroom.

All musical products have socially attributed meanings. This is what we are referring to when we talk about the messages of music. A music speaks through the texts associated with it (song), through the type of style or genre we assign to it or through the highly specific meanings we give to certain pieces of music (a national anthem, for example). Not all texts are innocent, and not all styles possess the same social value, and some pieces are more appropriate than others for conveying certain messages. But the same performance with the symbolic elements and rituals that accompany it contribute to generating meanings. These elements, which could be described as the frame of what is heard, make up a real metalanguage that tells us how the music should be understood. Sometimes, the type of messages carried by these two different levels of meaning – that of the musical product itself and that of the performance – are the same or complementary to each other. The idea of elitism that we associate with a Händel oratory is reinforced by the kind of performance at which it is usually played. But on other occasions this is not the case, and then an inevitable complexity or even a semantic dissonance occurs. This is the case, for example, of popular performances of opera staged in huge stadiums.

All these reflections are important for the subject matter occupying us here. Wanting to portray the musical culture of African immigrants by listening to ethnomusicographic materials connected with ancestral rituals is not the same as listening to a recording by well-known Senegalese musician Baaba Maal, with all its contemporary aesthetic values. In both cases, the musical product can sound African to our students. But whereas the ethnographic document transports us mentally to a socio-cultural context that in the west exudes primitivism and atavism, listening to Baaba Maal is nowadays perceived as something much closer to our own life experiences.

In the specific case of music teaching in schools, the teacher’s presentation of the different examples of music will be particularly important as an element that produces meaning. Depending on how this presentation is done, it will either contribute towards developing an appropriate multicultural awareness or have entirely the opposite effect. Interculturality involves sharing. But it is not just what is being shared – music– that is important here, it is how it is being shared. If we are unaware of this fact, it is possible that the teacher may contribute to sending out a contradictory negative image in terms of intercultural relations with alterity. In this latter case, the main negative consequences of presenting musical materials from cultures different than our own might be the following:

  1. Exoticisation. The act of portraying certain cultures through music that might possess ethnographic value but is not the most socially acceptable music for these societies. For example, would a Catalan girl today feel identified with an ancient modal style scything song collected in her country by ethnomusicology?
  2. Undervaluing. In our society nowadays there is still a unilineal evolutionist perception of human history that understands the different expressions of cultural diversity as the survival of previous stages. This leads people to easily label cultural diversity as backwardness, and given the importance our society attaches to the notion of progress, it is easy to see how cultural backwardness is regarded as being something negative, something that automatically entails undervaluing any culture that falls outside the western evolutionary line.
  3. Misunderstanding. In any process of intercultural communication, the occasional misunderstanding is quite normal and should also be taken into account when teaching. The act of incorporating a musical product from another culture into our own particular view of the world frequently results in misunderstandings. Ideas such as music as art or autonomous music, for example, are typically western ones, and it is clear that, if these ideas form the lens through which we view and value other music, their features are bound to be distorted.
  4. Pigeonholing the immigrant. By identifying immigrants with the culture of their birthplace, pigeon-holing them into the cultural context we attribute to them, makes it difficult for us to see them as true participants in our own social arena. Plus, there is also a tendency to want to see an immigrant (and their children!) as always being an immigrant. We expect this immigrant to know –for example– how to play the darbuka if they are from North Africa, but we do not expect them to be able to play Bach or their new home country’s music competently.

Understanding cultural products –and therefore understanding the people who carry this legacy– through a lens distorted by exoticism, ethnocentric undervaluing, misunderstanding and pigeon-holing means defining these people on the basis of expectations of social discourses characterised by their notion of a society with a hierarchy based on presuppositions about ethnicity. It is possible that to children of immigrants, the samples of music collected by the ethnomusicologist in their parents’ home country seem much more alien than we might think. This is something that teachers must take into account. Undervaluing can only be neutralised with a heavy dose of ethnomusicological relativism. We need to bear in mind that the idea of music we normally operate with is the result of the history of a very specific society –western society– but the meanings, functions and values associated with music are hugely diversified depending on the culture in question. Misunderstandings can be avoided by not only delving into our knowledge of the music culture in question but also by knowing well –and playing down– the intracultural assumptions by which our society understands and values music. Lastly, we need to be aware that the cultural abilities and expectations of the immigrant population, especially the children, are already no longer those of their original society. It is more likely that a Catalan adolescent with Moroccan parents will be dreaming of appearing one day in a music talent show on television than of becoming a renowned performer of Andalusian Nuba music.

To conclude, in order to ensure there is adequate multicultural sensitivity in our music classrooms, we should take the following into account:

  1. It is important to be aware that by teaching music, we are contributing towards building our society’s young individuals so they can be integrated into the social system. The explicit classroom teaching objectives should not be limited to wanting to impart socially neutral knowledge –which in fact never will be– but should also include strategies that contribute to students’ overall education. In the specific case under discussion here, such strategies should be about absorbing values that foster multicultural coexistence.
  2. What is said about other musical cultures is just as important as how it is said. If we are not aware of this, the effect of the end message can be very different or even contradictory to what was meant.
  3. Real pluricultural sensitivity is developed not only from knowledge of cultures other than western culture, but rather from going through a process of examining our own music culture that enables us to deconstruct its ethnocentric components.

Music cannot be separated from many of the social problems that cause us concern. Apart from its aesthetic purposes, we also use music to build society. As a consequence, the relationship between music and social issues and, more specifically, between music and interculturality, is highly meaningful.


[1] For an in-depth discussion of this issue, see: Josep Martí, “Ensenyament musical i sensibilitat pluricultural“, in Cristina Fuertes (ed.), Músiques del Món, Barcelona: Generalitat de Catalunya, 2002, pp. 53-64; Josep Martí, “Músic and Alterity Processes“, Humanities 3/4, 2014, pp. 645-659.

35. La mímesis lingüística: una dimensión desatendida de la diversidad lingüística mundial

Juan Carlos Moreno Cabrera
Universidad Autónoma de Madrid


Normalmente, la diversidad lingüística del mundo se plantea en términos proposicionales: un mismo enunciado se puede decir de una forma diferente en cada una de las lenguas del mundo. Se puede aducir, como ejemplo, que hay más de seis mil formas de expresar te quiero correspondiendo a los más de seis mil idiomas que se hablan en el mundo hoy en día.

Las lenguas se ven así como una especie de recipientes de diversas formas y tamaños en los que se vierten las ideas, que son independientes de las lenguas. Un punto de vista opuesto a este mantiene que las lenguas son mucho más que recipientes en las que se vierten ideas, sino que son unos moldes que crean y determinan la forma y posiblemente parte del contenido de las ideas. Este es uno de los postulados de la famosa hipótesis de Sapir y Whorf del relativismo lingüístico. Según el ejemplo puesto en el párrafo anterior, no habría más de seis mil formas de decir te quiero, sino más de seis mil formas de sentir el amor tal como es determinado por cada una de las lenguas. Por eso, la pérdida de la diversidad lingüística supondría una pérdida no solo de formas de expresarse sino también de formas de pensar. Aunque la versión fuerte de esta hipótesis según la cual pensamos como hablamos no es mantenida por la mayor parte de las personas expertas, no cabe descartar alguna influencia de la lengua sobre el pensamiento, aunque éste no se vea totalmente limitado o condicionado por ella, sino que es capaz de ir más allá de la lengua e incluso influir en ella de forma más o menos decisiva. Las relaciones entre pensamiento y lengua se han de plantear, pues, más como una interacción dialéctica bidireccional que como una determinación unidireccional.

Las discusiones del párrafo anterior están limitadas a la función proposicional de las lenguas, es decir, a la expresión lingüística de juicios o ideas. Pero en los idiomas hay fenómenos que trascienden esa frontera. Estos no solo representan ideas, conceptos o situaciones, sino que en ellos se realizan acciones lingüísticas para mimetizar, sugerir, recrear o reproducir esas ideas, conceptos o situaciones. De esta manera no estamos ante actuaciones proposicionales, sino representacionales o miméticas. La persona que habla hace una representación, una imitación de aquello que quiere comunicar, no se limita a referirse a ello de forma enunciativa.

En todas las lenguas del mundo existen expresiones lingüísticas que se basan en este tipo de modalidad no enunciativa. Los ideófonos, descubiertos el siglo pasado en las lenguas africanas son un ejemplo de este aspecto olvidado y, sin embargo, fundamental de las lenguas del mundo. Se trata de expresiones lingüísticas no referenciales (su forma lingüística sugiere o recrea aquello de lo que se habla) que sirven para reproducir algún aspecto de un objeto o suceso ante los ojos (pues suelen ir acompañadas de gestos) y oídos de las personas interlocutoras, de una forma directa, imitativa: su forma sugiere o recrea aquello de lo que se habla. Veamos unos ejemplos del edo, una de las muchas lenguas de Nigeria. En edo, para recrear o sugerir movimientos o formas irregulares se usan ideófonos con alternancia tonal: pérlépèrlèpérlé ‘aleteo’, tíghítìghìtíghí ‘retorcido’, kínókìnòkínó ‘entretejido’, bígóbìgòbígó ‘torcido’, góbágòbàgòbá ‘tullido’, khúrlúkhùrlùkhúrlú ‘espasmódico’, vàghàvághá ‘tambaleo’, wèkèéwèkèé ‘anadear’.

Estas palabras son inusualmente largas para este idioma, y además presentan repetición de sílabas alternando un tono alto (señalado con un acento agudo) y un tono bajo (señalado con un acento grave). Cuando se utiliza, por ejemplo, el ideófono vàghàvághá se está imitando lingüísticamente el movimiento tambaleante, de manera que se repiten las mismas dos sílabas cambiando el tono de grave a agudo: se reproduce lingüísticamente el tambaleo mediante la repetición silábica y la alternancia tonal. Al comparar esta expresión con las demás citadas, se ve que este patrón mimético se produce para recrear o reproducir otros movimientos alternantes o irregulares. Para expresar miméticamente el movimiento espasmódico, el ideófono khúrlúkhùrlùkhúrlú repite tres veces la forma mimética khurlu partiendo de un tono agudo (khúrlú), pasando a un tono grave (khùrlù) para volver al tono inicial (khúrlú). Mediante esta expresión se está reproduciendo lingüísticamente un movimiento espasmódico: dicha expresión tiene alguna de las propiedades de aquello que es objeto del discurso. A diferencia de las palabras referenciales en general, que no tienen ninguna propiedad formal que las asemeje a lo que designan, los ideófonos y expresiones miméticas comparten propiedades de los referentes y, por tanto, tienen una cualidad imitativa.

Pues bien, ideófonos como los del edo han sido descubiertos en centenares de lenguas africanas. Pero lo más interesante de todo es que expresiones miméticas similares han sido comprobadas también en lenguas de los cinco continentes. Por ejemplo, las lenguas asiáticas son muy ricas en ellas. Dos ejemplos notables son el coreano y el japonés. En ambas lenguas existen literalmente centenares de palabras miméticas cuya forma lingüística comparte alguna propiedad con aquello que denotan. Por ejemplo, en japonés para referirnos al ruido generado por las gotas de lluvia se utiliza la expresión mimética pota-pota, para sugerir el sonido de las tijeras cortando algo se usa choki-choki, para recrear el movimiento de un objeto redondo rodando se utiliza el ideófono koro-koro, para imitar el salto o brinco ligero de una persona o animal se emplea la expresión pyon-pyon, para representar un estado mental en el que una persona está muy ilusionada por algo se usa waku-waku. En coreano, kkam-kkam imita algo que está muy oscuro; para recrear algo que gira se utilizan los ideófonos bing-bing, pping-pping, p’ing-p’ing dependiendo de la velocidad del giro; el ideófono tan-tan se usa para sugerir algo firme y fuerte; ttuk-ttuk, para representar un líquido que gotea; el ideófono tuijeok-tuijeok recrea la acción de revolver, hurgar y rebuscar.

Las lenguas europeas también conocen expresiones miméticas de este tipo. Algunas son especialmente ricas en este ámbito, como ocurre con el euskera. En vasco encontramos expresiones miméticas como traka-traka ‘trotando’; hirrinbili-harranbala ‘atropelladamente’, itzuli-mitziluka ‘serpenteando’, pinpili-panpala (ibili) ‘(caer) rodando’, pilpil-pulpul ‘palpitar’ y centenares más, si investigamos los diferentes dialectos euskéricos.

Si comparamos las expresiones del edo, coreano, japonés y euskera que hemos dado en los párrafos anteriores, observaremos una evidente afinidad formal. La repetición y la alternancia (vocálica, consonántica, tonal) son elementos que aparecen en muy diversas lenguas asociados con el modo lingüístico representativo y que sirven para oponer ese modo lingüístico al proposicional.

Normalmente, cuando se describen lenguas no europeas sin tradición escrita, se siguen las normas de las gramáticas de las lenguas europeas que, en la tradición clásica, pertenecen a las correspondientes versiones escritas. Ello implica que se eliminan o se marginan muchos aspectos esenciales del funcionamiento lingüístico tales como, por ejemplo, los tonos y la entonación. En los modelos europeos de gramática no hay prevista ninguna sección dedicada a los fenómenos miméticos de los que se ha dado cuenta en esta nota. Como mucho, en las gramáticas más detalladas, se puede encontrar alguna sección breve dedicada a las onomatopeyas, interjecciones o a las palabras expresivas. Pues bien, lo mismo ocurre con las gramáticas descriptivas de las lenguas no europeas sin tradición escrita, realizadas sobre modelos europeos. Esos modelos impiden dar cuenta de aspectos importantes y esenciales de las lenguas habladas, tales como los miméticos que, ya lo hemos visto, no se limitan solo a unas pocas onomatopeyas aisladas, sino que implican mecanismos lingüísticos sistemáticos. De hecho, la ejemplificación que acabamos de dar está muy simplificada y deja de lado muchos aspectos complejos de difícil análisis que plantean las expresiones miméticas.

Todo lo anterior indica que la riqueza lingüística mundial es aún mayor de lo que habitualmente se supone. Porque, además de las expresiones habituales de tipo referencial, las lenguas en su nivel oral espontáneo muestran maneras de representar la realidad que están imitadas o sugeridas parcialmente por las formas lingüísticas mismas y en cada una se crean expresiones miméticas específicas, características y únicas que ya no son meros soportes materiales de un contenido proposicional común, sino representaciones o recreaciones vivaces, inmediatas y coloristas de la sensaciones y sentimientos humanos. Cuando se pierde una lengua no solo se pierde un sistema de expresión formal de contenidos proposicionales, sino también formas lingüísticas vivenciales que dan origen a creaciones originales y, a la vez, universales, pues son manifestación de la facultad lingüística humana que caracteriza comunicativamente a nuestra especie.

34. Social media and the production of linguistic knowledge

Lukas Duane
Ph. D. Université de Luxembourg


Academia is mainly responsible for determining what falls under the category of “language” and what under “dialect”. More precisely, academic knowledge generally is the main source of legitimation for languages and their standard varieties. The knowledge that builds up through the years in university departments, conferences, and journals provides a foundation and a justification to the way linguistic variability is categorised and understood across society. However, on occasions, some social actors may confront this, mainly due to the role of language as a political driver. This paper discusses how the new communicative conditions set by social media support social actors in challenging academia’s production of linguistic knowledge.

I will do so by briefly discussing a current case from the Balearic Islands. In this region, both Catalan and Castilian are official languages; Catalan as the archipelago’s autochthonous or indigenous language and Castilian as the language of the Spanish State. Since 2013, however, a few “Balearist” language activist associations have been defending that a “Balearic” language, and not the current Catalan, must share official status with Castilian as its authentic autochthonous language. These activists criticize the excessive standardizing influence of the Catalan language on Balearic vernaculars and argue that the two are not part of the same linguistic system. Similar stances had existed for decades in the archipelago, but were more scattered, bounded to individual islands, and without any political or social effects.

These recent “Balearist” activists are a reaction to Catalonia’s political momentum for independence and their main aim is to detach the Balearic Islands from the linguistic and political Catalan project. To achieve this, Balearist activists support more use of Castilian in the administration and in schools, while at the same time they innovate and try to promote “Balearic”, a technical term which dialectologists use to refer to the bundle of Catalan varieties spoken in the islands. However, speakers of these varieties make no use of such “Balearic” term and instead refer to their specific island’s speech, as in “I speak Majorcan”. Moreover, the belief that these island speeches are varieties of the Catalan language is socially hegemonic and firmly underpinned by academic knowledge. As such, Balearist activists depart from a marginal position in terms of knowledge production. My research on their last years’ efforts in social media sheds light on how proponents of alternative linguistic understandings can try to accumulate knowledge and legitimacy – that is, on the politics of linguistic knowledge in our current communicative context (Duane, 2018).

My analysis shows how Balearist activists have found in social media a key site for knowledge production. They have used social media’s inherent representational control to create online spaces where they can police language in top-down conditions that transform them into experts in their supporters’ eyes. Also, from all types of sources, these activists compose a regular flow of posts about the true history, identity, language, and politics of the Balearic Islands. These posts about the authentic Balearic ancestors, flags and language always advance a Balearist vision whose aim is to disentangle the islands from cultural representations associated with Catalonia or the Catalan language, while simultaneously naturalizing the archipelago’s Hispanic frame.

What these Balearist activists do in social media is not so different from what Jan Blommaert describes in Grassroots Literacy (2008), an ethnography about three historiographic texts by three grassroots writers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Blommaert argues that the three texts, which are “polyphonic complexes” made out of everything the authors get access to, render their historiographic purpose ‘ineffective’. The three texts reflect their authors’ literacy regimes, ones which are very distant to the ones of academic history-makers. Blommaert explains that people not fully inserted into elite knowledge economies “belong to a particular type of knowledge economy, one in which access to the resources required for the genre they try to perform is restricted. [They] write an elite genre with non-elite resources” (2008, p. 176, emphasis in original). This explanation focuses on how people convert available sources of information into semiotic products devised for a particular genre – historiography, in the case of the unsuccessful Congolese writers Blommaert analyses.

The Balearist activists that are currently trying to participate in linguistic debates in the Balearic Islands have also crafted semiotic products out of many non-elite resources. What is most interesting in their case, however, is that they heavily rely in social media as their space in which to craft, invest, and showcase their linguistic knowledge. From this view, Balearist activists use their social media sites to produce an unfolding and particular knowledge proposition that confronts the hegemonic one. They try to participate in a linguistic debate without resorting to academia. That is, they engage in an elite knowledge production arena with non-elite resources, just like Blommaert’s Congolese writers attempted to produce effective historiographic texts.

There is, however, an important difference between the knowledge production attempt by Blommaert’s grassroots historians and Balearist language activists. The latter assemble and devise semiotic products according to their activist interest, which is to detach Balearic varieties from the Catalan language while assuming the islands’ Hispanic political frame, and to spread these products in particular social media sites that become interest networks (Nahon & Hemsley, 2013). Activists build these interest networks where similar semiotic products continuously circulate for a same public, thus giving shape to their interest. The constant reinforcement loops in these social media sites strengthen the beliefs that initially attracted supporters while, at the same time, they allow supporters to become familiar with the activists’ proposition and their cultural codes and frames. For people gathering in these social media sites, knowledge gradually sediments from the succession of activist semiotic products that activists share.

The case of Balearist activists addresses the communication turning-point that social media represents. Social media are allowing people to gather and challenge the establishment, as well as long-standing beliefs and knowledge, in line with their ideological positions. This allows for political developments such as the Spanish 15M or the 2011 Arab Spring, but also for scientific questionings such as Trump’s neglect of global warming, or linguistic questionings such as the ones Balearist activists try to put forward. As in other fields of society and its established knowledge production legitimacies, what fits into the categories of cultural and linguistic diversity will be questioned from outside academia according to shifting political interests. Academia should prepare itself to produce convincing and effective responses to these unexpected challenges.


Blommaert, J. (2008). Grassroots literacy: Writing, identity and voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge.

Duane, L. (2018). The institution of linguistic dissidence in the Balearic Islands: ideological dynamics of Catalan standardisation (Doctoral dissertation). University of Luxembourg and Open University of Catalonia. Retrieved from: http://openaccess.uoc.edu/webapps/o2/handle/10609/78645

Nahon, K. & Hemsley, J. (2013). Going Viral. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press


33. Every Rose Has Its Thorns: Poetics and Linguistic Heritage

Folklore Studies, University of Helsinki


Poetics is an often-overlooked part of linguistic heritage, and getting a handle on it in today’s complex societies is becoming increasingly difficult. Romantic views so popular in the nineteenth century saw language as emblematic of both ethnic or national  identity and the corresponding historical or rural culture that united a society through a common heritage. The idea of culture and ethnic/national identity being homogeneously linked to a particular language remains commonplace, although it does not seem to match up with realities of most cities and the dynamic virtual arenas of the internet. I live on a quiet street in Helsinki, Finland, a country with two rather than one national language (Finnish and Swedish). Like so many mayor European cities, countless languages can be heard on the way to work in the morning. My neighbourhood is considered among the most linguistically diverse: at the elementary school down the street, tens of different mother tongues are found among the students. I recall my surprise when realizing that in my daughter’s second grade class (at a different school), only a quarter of the students had a national language as their mother tongue. This level of linguistic diversity is sometimes called ‘superdiversity’, which seems to be becoming a norm in major cities, but for many of us, this is just daily life. My wife and I are both immigrants who met in Finland with three (non-national) mother tongues between us. In our family, we speak three languages, sometimes in the same sentence: our daughters both speak the respective mother tongue that my wife and I use with them, but Finnish is now their strongest language. Of course, a shared language of communication is important for the functioning of a society, but a plurality of languages can also operate as part of a society and its identity, as well as offering resources for creativity with potential to stimulate language vitality and impact its trajectory of evolution.

Poetry tends to be seen as the highest form of language. This is because, in poetry, language transcends the mechanics of lexicon and grammar, allowing it to blossom with ideals of ordered arrangements of form, texture and musicality. Poetry is thus set apart from everyday speech like the emboldened colour of a rose’s bloom amid a thicket of dark leaves, thorns, and the cacophonous tangles of twisted vines from which it blossoms. And like that rose’s bloom, the ideals of poetics are bound to the language from which they grow. There is truth to the saying that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, but beauty in poetics is also linked to language, and especially to speech communities, in which we learn to recognize certain things as opposed to others that make something ‘poetry’ or at least ‘poetic’. Poetics depends on a sense of language internalized through uses of the language itself, a sense that even native speakers can lack, and it can be especially challenging to learn for a non-native speaker. Poetics –not just individual poems or a particular tradition of poetry– is a remarkably subtle and easily overlooked part of linguistic heritage.

But what makes something poetry or poetic? Abstractly speaking, poetry is customarily distinguished from other uses of language by organization in verses rather than simply in clauses and sentences according to content or function. Versification occurs when organizing principles of form and phraseology are given precedence over more common principles of syntax and prosody in speaking and writing. This can be done with formalized meter, sound patterning like rhyme or alliteration, or parallelism (see further Fabb 2015). Rhythms may be flexible and vary, particularly in so-called free verse, but a poem is characterized by versification of a whole text, whether or not editors organize it as verses on a printed page. When these features or uses of language occur only in some parts of a text but not others, we can recognize them as poetic, such as uses of metaphor or a rhythmically organized description in a novel or an advertisement. However, the key remains the perception of poetics when language is used.

Poetics build on sounds and other features of words that are perceivable to speakers and thus are linked to the particular language, but how poetic devices are perceived or whether they are noticed as poetic at all is something that is internalized or learned. For example, alliteration, the recurrence of the same sound at the beginning of words or stressed syllables, easily passes unnoticed by native English speakers, and is mainly used in contexts like advertising, titles and names. Speakers may sense it as a subtle aesthetic texture, but alliteration is not something associated with organizing language as poetry. Of course, alliteration’s prominent and persistent practice penetrates into perception, but its presence doesn’t make poetry or seem particularly poetic: people will probably perceive it as protusive, peculiar and perhaps even painful. In English poetic creation, rhyme marks inspiration with a smoother collocation in sounds’ organization than the rougher irritation of ongoing alliteration, so that attenuation to its patterned operation, gives, by association, a subtle inebriation in the rising anticipation of an inevitable deviation since all rhymes must end. Both alliteration and rhyme can be made salient, but their perception is within frameworks of the language’s poetics or a community’s sense of poetics.

If we were to jump back a thousand years or so, the situation in English would be reversed: alliteration was central to versification in Old English, as exemplified by the epic Beowulf, and rhyme was the feature with a more limited range of uses. Since that time, of course, the language underwent transformative changes. English is seen as a dominant language today, making it easy to forget its distinctive roots as a bastard child of Old English and Norman French, like a creole produced by the medieval colonization of the Norman Conquest. But the rise of rhyme is not simply a function of language change. Rhyme seems to have spread through Europe from language to language with new forms of poetry that were valorised, gradually becoming a general principle in local vernacular poetics. Finnic languages, where alliteration was a primary poetic principle, seem to have initially resisted rhyme: it appears that medieval rhymed ballads were initially recomposed into alliterative verse rather than immediately adopting the rhymed form (Kuusi, Bosley & Branch 1977: 56–57). We may appreciate poetry individually and subjectively, but such appreciation is normally dependent on shared (or at least overlapping) senses of poetics. This is particularly evident for oral poetry: it circulates through active reproduction by different people rather than as static text codified through writing, so shared frames of reference are essential or poetry will simply not be reperformed.

The spread of forms of expression from language to language and from culture to culture has probably been happening since there were such forms to spread, a process particularly familiar today through everything from the novel to rap music. When a word is borrowed, sooner or later it inevitably gets adapted into the receiving language’s sounds and structures. For example, Finnish distinguishes between long and short vowels, so English yes becomes Finnish jees, while English verbs won’t work in Finnish without an ending, so to scan becomes skannata. Poetics work in more or less the same way, except that, rather than a phonology, we have what can be described as a poetic ecology. It is practical to speak in generalizations about poetics of a language, but those poetics are always linked to different things that people do with language in verse, and the way poetics are used might be quite different in a ballad than in a lullaby or a sonnet. A poetic ecology is comprised of all of the different types of poetic forms and their distribution across genres and contexts of use. Thus, an earlier Finnish poetic ecology was dominated by alliteration to such an extent that it was initially difficult for rhymed poetry to find a place, but the ecology gradually changed as rhyme began to be adopted for use in one genre, and then another, and another after that. Different poetic devices are then understood and interpreted within that ecology. The adaptation of freestyle rap into Finnish involved the assimilation of a form of rhymed versification with conventions for how to organize words and syllables in relation to beats. However, rather than the type of end-rhyme customary in English, Finnish rap employs what is called systematic vowel rhyme, which is found already in forms of pre-modern Finnish oral poetry. In this type of rhyme, a series of vowels are used in the same order although the consonants may vary, as in the series läppäni ässämmis bäkkäril, and ‘multi-rhymes’, rhymes of four or more syllables, are particularly esteemed, as in jätkä vielä – bätläät siellä or tiputusta – vitut susta – kidutusta (Sykäri 2017: 140). How rhythms of language relate to the beat also had to adapt, not least because Finnish has much longer words than English and far fewer particles such as articles (a, the) or prepositions (to, from) – the language is very different.

On the surface, this may just seem like a few formal differences that need to be recognized for the poetry to be appreciated, but its significance runs much deeper. When I first heard Finnish rap in 2000, I couldn’t really appreciate it because I listened to it through the wrong poetics. My ‘feel’ for rap was rooted in hearing people rap and talk about what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ while I was growing up in an American inner-city during the 1980s, back in the days when rap was more on the street than on the radio. Through that lens, I simply didn’t ‘hear’ läppäni and ässämmis as rhyming and Finnish multi-rhymes were completely off my radar, not to mention rhythms. This can be read as an anecdote about problems of interpreting poetry in one language through the poetics of another. However, the significance changes if we turn attention from the encounter to the differences in the poetics of a genre. When rap moves into a new language, it is not simply transplanted unchanged: if it is to continue there, it evolves into something sustainable, an evolution driven by the creativity of those adapting it.

Rather than simply one language and culture influencing a second, these processes occur today within dynamic, multilingual poetic ecologies. In a city like Helsinki, poetic principles like vowel rhyme may be particularly linked to the poetic heritage of Finnish language, but youths with diverse and potentially multiple mother tongues live in rich and flourishing poetic ecologies. They are continuously internalizing and negotiating shared principles of poetics within their multilingual communities. When speaking of a heritage of poetics, language or anything else, we tend to refer to or create ideal and static images of the past that we can connect with the present, with the implication that they are important to preserve it for the future. Such constructions of heritage normally emerge within Romanticism’s mythology of one language and one culture per nation or ethnicity, segregating diversity and devaluing what is other. The multilingualism, which will be the heritage of so many children today, becomes marginalized. More significantly, the valorization of heritage easily produces a competition between ossified images of what culture ‘should be’ and the creativity of innovation that both expresses and stimulates vitality, making inherited culture current through change. Much as change in a language is always built on continuities, so too is change in poetics. The spread of new forms of versifying such as rap attest to the vitality of the languages in which they become used, even as the new poetic form impacts the broader poetic ecology of the particular language. These impacts are perhaps most pronounced and dynamic in multilingual environments where different languages offer complementary and competing resources, facilitating and stimulating creativity in the negotiation of shared frames of reference across communities.

Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. 2015. What is Poetry? – Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kuusi, Matti, Keith Bosley & Michael Branch (eds. & trans.). 1977. Finnish Folk Poetry – Epic: An Anthology in Finnish and English. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.

Venla Sykäri. 2017. “Beginning from the End: Strategies of Composition in Lyrical Improvisation with End Rhyme”. Oral Tradition , 31(1): 123–154.