Traumatizing the Tongue: Why Universal Languages Collapse

Below is the précis of a book I’ve been working on about the rise and fall of universal languages.

  1. Statement of Aims: Spirituality, Language, and History

Solomon advises us in Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Why is Solomon so worried about human beings following their own thoughts? Jeremiah adds a note to clarify in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

For thousands of years Christian scholars have considered the role of human self-delusion as a central factor that necessitates mental obedience to God. Though much study has focused on the dilemma of Proverbs 3:5 and Jeremiah 17:9, there still exists much work to do in interpreting these scriptures. This book will venture into the area that still needs more analysis: language.

Language is a key part of how human beings understand themselves, the world in which they live, and even God Himself. Virtually everyone in the modern world, even native speakers of modern Greek, must rely on some level of translation to understand the New Testament, for instance. Both Solomon and Jeremiah seem to admonish us to question ourselves and consider our blind spots. It would make sense that we ought to ask ourselves if the language we speak truly encompasses the fullness of meaning we seek when we pose universal questions such as “what makes us all human?”—or when we talk about an almighty and omnipotent Creator. At least four enormous linguistic communities in the modern era (1500-today) seem to have developed an overconfidence about their own understanding of universal questions. As a result, they lived out the scenario that Solomon and Jeremiah warned against.

This study compares the “rise” and “fall” of four great languages (Spanish, French, German, English). Obviously these tongues did not become extinct when they “fell,” but at different points in modernity great historical events did cause the speakers of Spanish, French, German, and English, to believe they had greater understanding than their tongues allowed them to have. The blind spots of their languages became evident in worldly events that led to traumatic impacts. In the aftermath of such traumas, the languages lost their position as the forums through which to pose universal questions about humanity or God. When examining these modern languages, the study prioritizes a focus on the literatures that embodied them at their most universally relevant and aesthetically acclaimed. It maps the fate of these languages onto historical events (the Inquisition, the Terror, the Gestapo, and the Sexual Revolution). These four events figure prominently because they resulted from and exacerbated the languages’ susceptibility to the points made by Solomon and Jeremiah: namely, to the timeless truth that relying too much on one’s own understanding carries enormous collective consequences.

The case of English is still in media res because English’s “fall” is in process. Some might suggest the language’s decline might even be preventable. This book diagnoses troubling trends in the English-speaking world and traces the trends back to the Sexual Revolution, which set off chain reactions that are not incomparable to the upheavals that struck the Spanish-speaking, Francophone, and German-speaking world in earlier centuries. The conclusion of the book includes a challenge to those who believe the Sexual Revolution has been healthy or positive for the English-speaking world.

The linguistic landscape after the Middle Ages shaped what we call modernity (including, for our purposes, post-modernity). A fundamental condition of modernity was global contact and a yearning to know what common experience made everyone human. Spanish, French, and German each served as the lingua franca through which universal human questions could be discussed. While it long resisted the critical problems of the other three languages, English has ultimately reached a falling point similar to earlier moments when Spanish, French, and German became less universally relevant and increasingly viewed as confined to the experiences of certain countries.

Based on experience and research I place the Sexual Revolution alongside traumatic disruptions of earlier eras. I challenge my discipline too. Having spent many years gaining proficiency in eight languages, I saw firsthand that literary scholarship devalued language acquisition in favor of theoretical and ideological litmus tests. Both left-wing and right-wing educational institutions have contributed to the English-speaking world’s obliviousness to its own limitations. Tenured in California, I had to choose between silencing myself or speaking truth to power and losing my chance at an academic career.

I chose to speak truth to power, part of which involves this book. I have lived out my scholarship both in the academy and in deep political trenches (both left and right). My CV, attached, reflects diversity of service. If someone Googles my name he or she will find a trove of defamation and political threats against me. While depressing, this defamatory pattern opens a space to discuss how discourse in English has broken down and how we might fix it. My experience in the public crossfire equips me to handle public relations and turn controversy into a necessary and fruitful “teachable moment.” I remain hopeful to share what I have learned with a broader public.

  • Detailed Synopsis

Table of Contents:

            Chapter 1. Somewhere between Hegel and Marx, Orwell….

            Chapter 2. Spanish—The Inquisition and Quijote’s Madness

            Chapter 3. French—The Terror and Pangloss’s Curse

            Chapter 4. German—The National Socialists and the Illness of Gustave

            Chapter 5. English—The Sexual Revolution and a Farm of Unsexed Animals

Chapter I: Somewhere between Hegel and Marx, Orwell

The first chapter provides a framework to understand the history of the four major languages by reviewing major thinkers who posed similar questions in the past. George Orwell, author of “The Politics of the English Language,” stands out as a prescient and brilliant commentator on how languages decompose and lose their sensibility. Yet Orwell alone cannot fully explain the massive historical factors considered in this book (his essay only dealt with English).

Here a brief review of two political models will enhance Orwell’s points. In Reason and History, G.W.F. Hegel describes the progressive history of ideas, casting the evolving concepts themselves as the drivers of change. In German Ideology, Marx presents the struggle over control of resources (power) as the driver of change.

Seen through a Hegelian view, ideas move toward a higher truth. The shift in relative power among languages is part of the dialectic—an effect of fluxing ideas and increasing enlightenment.

Seen through a Marxian view, the empires that spoke and institutionalized these languages held hegemony for a time and then lost hegemony. Loss of power over resources resulted in the languages’ loss of juridical and economic power. This chapter acknowledges the necessities in both views, since they explain the changes in the ideological and corporeal realms (mind and body).

Orwell’s perspective on the collapse of language allows us to understand what happens in human beings’ hearts and souls as they lose important faculties like compassion, common sense, humility, and reverence. Traumatic shifts in law, culture, or politics, cause a contagion of absurdity, tone-deafness, humorlessness, or inhumanity. Language communities reveal their spiritual and emotional crises in the way they speak and write. This helps the twenty-first-century reader to understand why languages can be the gold standard at one point and then lose their status as the universal tongue at a later point.

Chapter II: Spanish

Spanish is the first case. After the Reconquista by Spain in the late 1400s, the Spanish claimed for a while to be protectors of Christendom. The upheaval caused by Lutheran dissent, the Ottoman menace in the East (mirroring the danger posed previously by Granada), and a flood of wealth from the New World seemed bound to unleash confusion and spiritual chaos on Europe.  A vigorous recommitment to Christian orthodoxy would ostensibly serve a salubrious role in such a context. The Habsburg dynasty, with its global reach, had sound reasons to claim such a role.

During the debate between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda there existed a strong sense that their Spanish words belonged to the whole world. They debated the very essence of what it meant to be human. Later, the Counter-Reformation occasioned a belle époque with giants such as Ignatius Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and even Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (among others, of course). But the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition entangled the language in a network of spies, irrational accusations, torture, racialist frenzy, and hysteria.

By the late seventeenth century, the Inquisition had profoundly changed the Spanish-speaking world. Great thinkers like Desiderius Erasmus, once celebrated in Spanish universities, now were banned. The censorship, propaganda, and overgrown enforcement mechanisms had rendered Spanish words unclear and confusing. The contexts in which Spanish served as the language of communication suffered from distrust and constant dissimulation.

This chapter pays special attention to Don Quixote, a novel that came out well before the collapse of Spanish, but which presaged the collapse with eloquence and panache. Cervantes depicts the decline of reason in the Spanish language through a madman who mistakes the common world around him for the adventurous landscape of fables and epics. The appearance of an inquisitor in the early chapters of Don Quijote, has

Chapter III: French

A similar arc occurs with French. Between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation lay France, home to both a strong Catholic tradition and to the famous Edict of Nantes. France was often considered the “First Daughter of the Catholic Church.” Yet French was the native language of John Calvin, whose Institutes on the Christian Religion became a major text of the Protestant Reformation. In the French-speaking world the best of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation may have had some space to interact richly. The humanism of Montaigne and flourishing in the Bourbon imperial court made French the unrivalled tongue of the Enlightenment.

In the late seventeenth century, the eloquence of Diderot, Molière, and Racine constituted major contributions. One cannot deny the massive influence of Descartes, Pascal, and other giants of French thought. In the eighteenth century the salons of Paris and social figures such as Germaine Necker de Staël provided hubs of intellectual ferment.

By the eighteenth century, the Baroque and Enlightenment eras had given French a kind of wit, playfulness, and humor. But by the time of Voltaire’s Candide, the language games of French had inflicted a senseless disorientation similar to what had happened in Spanish. As Don Quixote’s parodies of madness predicted the eventual collapse of Spanish as a universal language, so Candide presented absurdity in terms far more prophetic than Voltaire may have realized. Decades after Candide’s publication, the Jacobins’ excesses in the French Revolution, like the Spanish Inquisition before it, wounded the French language and rendered it too destabilized to maintain that eminence. The farcical trials, perplexing allegiances, and overreaching attempts to redefine measurements of time and matter made the language itself ill, too weak to carry the ponderous questions that meant a great deal to humanity at the time. Following the Terror and Directory, Napoleon’s fantasist project of domination exposed the French-speaking world’s detachment from commonsensical reality.

Chapter IV: German

Martin Luther’s central role in the Reformation resulted in a vital energy in Germany, as well as massive turmoil. Centuries after the Reformation, German-speakers overcame their geographic disadvantages and political fragmentation to become a global intellectual force.  Romanticism elevated thinkers like Kant, Hegel, Goethe, and Marx to the privileged position formerly enjoyed by speakers of Spanish and French.

The rise of both a world-class university system and a unified German state gave the language a brief moment of universal impact. Nietzsche revolutionized thought. Freud left the world of modern medicine completely transformed. Franz Kafka introduced new twists into the literary landscape, including the interface between German and minor languages such as Czech. Yet the rise of the Third Reich inflicted a disaster on the entire world of unprecedented scale.

As the preceding chapter examined Voltaireto understand how gifted authors presaged the fall of the French language, so in this chapter Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice will be the subject of an extended study. These two novellas prophesied the fall of German-speaking universality just as Don Quixote and Candide did for Spanish and French.

The widespread view that Germany and her people were responsible for the horrors of World War II made the language almost like an “untouchable” in the family of tongues. Decades earlier, both Kafka and Mann presented German-language narratives that depicted social isolation and types of exile resulting from failures in language—either the prevalence of thoughtless social relationships (in the case of Kafka’s Gregor) or of authors’ alienation from their own writing (in the case of Mann’s Gustave).

Common to the German experience as well as the experience of Spanish and French is one profession trying excessively to force redefinitions unwillingly on people. During the Inquisition, ecclesiology assumed excessive power over language, while during the French Terror, jurisprudence prevailed too much due to the high number of lawyers involved. During the National Socialists’ rise, the police profession overwhelmed the German-speaking world with linguistic dictates. For example, the National Socialists forced everyone to alter the meaning of “reich” so that this word could only refer to specific national formations in Germany’s past.

One subsection of this chapter will deal with the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially in the realm of Eastern Europe. While the Soviets had global impact, Russian never had the global status that German had. The simple reality of a different alphabet may have played a decisive role in stopping Russian from attaining the same universality as German. German influences on Russia made much of Russian influence a byproduct of Germany’s intellectual power during her heyday. Catherine the Great was German. German Communist writers, above all Marx, gave the Soviet Union its contours. The fall of the Soviet empire in the 1990s was the final act in the dramatic collapse of German as an intellectual language.

Chapter V: English

Set beside the other three, English presents a case both familiar and unique. It figures as an enigma and also as an illustrative case. The English-speaking world defeated Spain on the high seas, stopped Napoleon, defeated the Third Reich, and held strong against the Soviet Union until the end. The English-speaking world seemed uniquely immune to the forces and trends that brought earlier language empires to an end. This book argues, however, that English’s immunity to the fatal flaws of the earlier languages could not extend indefinitely.

In the decades following the 2020s, English will likely decline in its universality and international prestige. Even if English remains an important language of commerce, many words—particularly those relating to sex—will refer increasingly only to peculiar concepts engineered in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand. To the extent that the English-speaking world believes that it speaks in universal human terms, English-speakers will become increasingly delusional and speakers of other languages increasingly suspicious of English terms.

The precipitating problem will likely be the Anglophone world’s obsession with sexuality and gender. The combined movements of pornography, second-wave feminism, and LGBT have sought to contravene thousands of years of custom regarding sexuality. This triple-headed force aims to upend chastity as a gold standard.

The Sexual Revolution seemed innocuous or praiseworthy when it first took shape in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 2010s, sexual radicalism passed into a phase of excess comparable to the excesses of the Inquisitors, the Jacobins, and the Nazis. The rapid evolution of feminism and the Sexual Revolution from an innocent movement in the 1950s to totalitarianism in the 2010s seems to follow similar arcs in the earlier languages. Often wholesome motives in a movement’s nascent stages give way to the psychological disarray described by Gustave LeBon in Psychology of Revolution, as the movement matures and gains real power. One point remains consistent across all these historical upheavals: the dominant language community is always aware of the last historical disaster and fails to see its own doom approaching, largely because the catalyst for a historical trauma is almost never identical to the last one. For instance, the French knew very well how the Spanish mishandled the Inquisition. When they passed their Civil Constitution of the Clergy, they probably believed they were insulating themselves from the past problems. Even if they did protect themselves from a repeat of the Spanish Inquisition, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy could not save them from the Jacobins.

The collapse of English seems not to match the grotesquerie of the earlier language collapses. The rise and fall of universal language do not rest upon measurements of atrocities, however. Nor should one’s primary concern be which of the historical disruptions appears ethically worse than others. Technically speaking, the Inquisition’s harm would be grossly understated if one only judged it by its death tolls. The English-speaking world was certainly embroiled in large-scale atrocities such as the genocide of the indigenous American population, slavery, and the long history of segregation, yet these gross offenses against human dignity did not cause the fall of English.

Languages do not fall within a set proportionality or due to an overarching moral judgment. Other intangible factors determine when a language loses its privileged position as a universal. In the case of English, sex and gender carry unique meaning because nothing is gendered in English. Adjectives, articles, and nouns are gendered in French, Spanish, and German. When the feverish movement to redefine sex roles took shape in the English-speaking world, the language was already the unrivaled lingua franca. The intricacies of the language itself, combined with such unchecked institutional dominance, left English-speakers vulnerable to blind spots and a loss of ironic self-awareness. Whereas ecclesiology, jurisprudence, and policing overdetermined languages in the cases of the Inquisition, the Terror, and the National Socialists, in the case of English the university professoriate and their influence on political rhetoric have wrought lopsided changes on the English language. The novel to be closely examined in this chapter is Animal Farm, the book that arguably conveys Orwell’s warnings about language in clearest and most forceful terms.

The English-speaking world did not know its own strength as it sought to force people’s thinking into an alternate reality where biological sex did not matter and gender was entirely malleable. The incredibly intimate nature of sexuality made this movement intrusive and invasive. The other movements were not necessarily so. As the movement to impose sex neutrality turned toward bureaucratic coercion, the English-speaking world lost its awareness of its absurdity at precisely the moment when it had the greatest means to force absurdities on others.

The result, according to this book’s prediction, will be a trauma on a massive scale that cannot be fully characterized until decades pass and the damage becomes evident. English will lose its central role as the language in which human questions are posed. It is entirely possible that the earth will move into a dark age similar to what happened when Rome collapsed. Big human questions will no longer be asked, for lack of a lingua franca in which to ask them.