Some Thoughts on Language

by Derek Neal

I went to France to study abroad as a 20-year-old in my third year of university. At the time, I had been studying French for eight years, but when I arrived in France, I found I was unable to express myself beyond the most rudimentary statements, and I couldn’t understand the rapid-fire questions sprayed at me by curious French students. After attending a dorm party that first weekend, I realized the gap between myself and the French students was simply too large to bridge; the most I could hope for from them was small talk and polite chatter—deep, meaningful conversation, and thus friendship, would be impossible.

Luckily, a group of Italians came to my rescue. Their English skills were more or less equivalent to my French, and their French, while being much better than mine, was at least comprehensible to my ears. I quickly fell in with them, we used French as our lingua franca, and my language ability rapidly improved.

After a few weeks, I stopped translating what I would say from English to French, and then I stopped forming sentences in my head altogether; I just said whatever I felt like saying, often to the amusement of my interlocutors (for whatever reason, foul language doesn’t seem so serious in another language). Eventually, I reached a point that seems to me a benchmark for all language learners: using a word without knowing its equivalent in one’s native language. A word pops into your head and you’re not sure exactly what it means, but it feels like the right word in the right moment, so you say it and judge the appropriateness of its use based on the reaction of the person with whom you’re speaking. The conversation continues, indicating you’ve made the correct choice. This is, in fact, how most language works, and it’s why learning a language in an educational environment where theory is emphasized over practice can be so difficult. In France, I quickly realized attending courses wouldn’t actually help me learn how to speak French, so I skipped class and went to the cafés instead; my grades suffered, but my fluency increased.

There’s an anecdote I once heard which illustrates my above point about using a word without knowing its meaning. I can’t remember where it’s from, but the story goes that two elderly women were attending church shortly after the language of mass had switched from Latin to the vernacular. As they listened to the service they’d heard all their lives, they were baffled to find that they understood nothing of what was being said, even though it was finally being spoken in their native language. When they heard one particularly strange phrase, perhaps it was “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” one woman leaned over to the other and asked, “Now what does that mean?” to which she responded with a wave of the hand, “Oh, you know, it’s Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.” “Right, right, of course” the first woman replied happily, content to finally hear something familiar.

Language does not exist outside of context, and it cannot exist outside of its use. While the women in my story could not have explained the meaning of the Latin words they knew, they could use these words in their appropriate context and communicate meaning, just as one may be able to use a word but struggle to define it without using the word itself. To be able to do this in a foreign language becomes doubly difficult when one can’t connect the word to a referent in one’s native language, but it’s possible when one enters that oft talked about but little defined state of “thinking” in a foreign language.  This is a strange sensation to describe, but it feels as if you’ve entered a sort of parallel universe, one in which you become aware that language is the medium through which you think and move, and that the language you use is an artifice coloring reality in a certain way. Before this moment, one can be tricked into thinking that words really do represent the things they claim to, and that language is simply an impartial way to describe reality. After this moment, language can seem a cheap imitation, and the idea that words contain some essence of the thing they are describing becomes a bizarre notion. We say the word “arm” to describe an appendage of our body stretching from the shoulder to the hand, but we could have just as easily agreed upon some other word to describe this body part; French speakers agreed on “bras,” Italian speakers agreed on “braccio,” and so on with the other languages of the world.

After achieving this level of fluency in French, I noticed how much I enjoyed speaking the language. Conversations that I might have let die out in English, I actively pursued in French, purely because the thrill of speaking the language made even the most mundane conversations seem exciting. In other words, speaking a different language made me act as a different person. Other curious things happened as well. At times, and mainly because of my lack of advanced vocabulary in French, the world came to seem a simple place. If I had a thought that I lacked the language to develop, I simply stopped pursuing the thought. Any problem I had, or thought I had, vanished because of my inability to articulate it. Indeed, instead of meditation or the other various techniques people use to calm their overactive minds, learning a new language to an intermediate level may be the best solution.

Another solution may be to speak no language at all. In The Voices of Marrakesh, Elias Canetti describes the experience of walking around the Moroccan city without being able to understand any of the local languages:

There were incidents, images, sounds, the meaning of which is only now emerging; that words neither recorded or edited; that are beyond words, deeper and more equivocal than words…During the weeks I spent in Morocco I made no attempt to acquire either Arabic or any of the Berber languages. I wanted to lose none of the force of those foreign-sounding cries. I wanted sounds to affect me as much as lay in their power, unmitigated by deficient and artificial knowledge on my part.

Canetti, as a writer, notes the power of stripping away language to remove the biases and assumptions contained therein. Language conceals and distorts just as much as it reveals and illuminates. Before this passage, he comments on his own attempts to capture what he’s seen in Morocco:

Here I am, trying to give an account of something, and as soon as I pause I realize that I have not yet said anything at all. A marvelously luminous, viscid substance is left behind in me, defying words. Is it the language I did not understand there, and that must now gradually find its translation in me?” (23)

Canetti seems to be claiming that all language is translation; indeed, it is the translation of our lived experience into another form.

All of this drives home the fact that the language we use shapes to some extent the way we think; it then follows that speaking a different language would cause one to think and act differently. This is an idea that seems to appear in popular culture frequently—think of the movie Arrival, in which Amy Adams’ character learns an alien language that allows her to perceive time differently—but it also seems to be criticized frequently as well (numerous pieces appeared after Arrival “debunking” it and the Sapir-Whorf theory that it supposedly portrays). Perhaps this is because the phenomenon we are discussing is difficult to prove in a scientific manner. Nevertheless, its continued presence in films, books, and video games seems to attest to its plausibility, as well as the fact that there is so much emphasis on what sort of language should be used in public discourse. The truth of language’s influence on our understanding of the world is implicitly accepted each time an organization advises people to use or to avoid specific terms.

If the above claims are accepted, they naturally lead one to wondering what impact the disappearance of minority languages and the global dominance of English will have on the world. This is a question taken up in the 2015 video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Set in 1984, the game follows the story of a mercenary named Snake in Afghanistan, Angola, and Zaire, fighting with or against soldiers from the Soviet Union and the Mujahideen along the way. The game is a piece of historical fiction, featuring real events and actors, but it is also fantastical, with a subplot imagining a virus that can infect people by way of the language they speak.

Of the game’s many characters and groups, some seek to eliminate English in order to free the world from what they consider to be its oppressive grip, while others attempt to extinguish every language but English in order to unify the world under a singular vision. This plot is developed through cassette tapes that the player can choose to listen to or ignore; of course, many players may choose to bypass the story altogether and stick to the gameplay itself, but when the tapes are listened to (there are hundreds of them) one finds a complex and intriguing story. In fact, the game’s creator, Hideo Kojima, has been considered as a sort of visionary prophet in the same way as Michel Houellebecq: an astute critic of the world’s current ills who can predict where we are headed via fiction. Kojima’s most recent game, Death Stranding, features a courier as its protagonist; he must deliver essential supplies to isolated groups of people who cannot have contact with others in the wake of a catastrophic event. The COVID-19 pandemic began around the time of the game’s release.

In Metal Gear Solid V, one of the main players is Cipher, which can refer either to a commander in the CIA or the covert organization that he leads. The goal of Cipher seems to be to bring the world under its control and direction by flattening all distinctions and differences among the world’s populations. In the same way that global capitalism can be seen as bringing the entire world into one market at the expense of local cultures and traditions, so too is English envisioned by Cipher as the tool that connects everyone by erasing difference. To do this, Cipher develops “vocal cord parasites,” a pathogen that infects people via the language they speak. Once infected, the host will pass along the virus through speech, and eventually, die. If one becomes aware that they are infected, they may refuse to speak a particular language to prevent transmission of the virus, and this may also allow them to survive.

To establish the absolute dominance of English, Cipher attempts to develop parasites for every language except English. As explained by another character in the game, Code Talker:

Man thinks in words, or rather, words are man’s very means of thinking. If you erase a word representing some concept, the concept itself disappears from the world…Cipher, being based in America, is pushing Englishization for this very reason. Suppose all 5 billion people on this planet come to read, speak and think in English. Their wills could also be streamlined under English. Cipher’s control would be all the easier.

This process of “Englishization” is more and more our present reality; no vocal cord parasites have been necessary to create it, but the fictional plot device works as a metaphor which throws our linguistic reality into relief, and like all good dystopian fiction, it imagines an exaggerated version of our present to make us more aware of our current surroundings. It is beyond the scope of this present essay, but one has to consider what it means when the world’s population is able to communicate instantaneously in a common language, and more often than not via the crude interface of social media.

Working against Cipher is Skull Face, a rogue agent who has created his own breakaway group within the organization. He is aided initially by Code Talker as they both share a common experience—having their native language taken from them as children. Code Talker, a Navajo Native American, tells the story of being forced to attend a boarding school where he had to give up his name and his language. As he says, “To erase our words was like erasing our people…Over time, the overt persecution of our language stopped. But to this day, it continues to be eaten away by the lingua franca that is English.” Skull Face, on the other hand, was born in a remote Hungarian village whose border was constantly changing. As he tells it:

I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders, I was made to speak their language. With each new post, my masters changed along with the words they made me speak. With each change, I changed, too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong.

Skull Face’s goal is “revenge against those who would use language to subjugate people.” To do this, he isolates an English strain of the vocal cord parasite, which he plans to release to exterminate the English language. Code Talker, sensing the implications of this, leaves Skull Face and attempts to thwart his plan. You, as the mercenary Snake, are caught in the middle of these forces.

Language is a tricky thing to pin down. Part of the appeal of the vocal cord parasite plotline in Metal Gear Solid V, or perhaps the language of Newspeak in 1984, is the idea that controlling language could be possible. We respond to this because we understand the power that language has while also realizing that any attempt to regulate it will ultimately be futile. Indeed, creating a world where language can be consciously manipulated is a seductive and compelling fictional idea in large part due to the difficulty one has doing this in real life. But even in video games such as the one I’ve been describing here, the best laid plans can go awry. A character named “Quiet” is the sole carrier of the English virus strain, but she refuses to speak, thus eliminating the possibility for the virus to spread. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid.