Monthly Archives: January 2021

The intranslatability of linguistics?

Johannes Angermuller is a Professor of Discourse, Languages and Applied Linguistics at the Open University.

While linguists study languages, they have given little attention to the fact that linguistics itself comes in a language. One counts around 6000 languages worldwide and when linguists communicate their ideas, they have recourse to exactly one of them. The choice of language is never neutral as any given language constrains what linguists can and cannot say and who can or cannot react.

Linguistics is no exception as linguists typically study language through the lens of one language. And I regret that in English we cannot build on the neat distinction between langage (French) or lenguaje (Spanish) as the human capacity of producing meaningful utterances and langue(s) (French) or lengua(s) (Spanish) as a particular system of choices and constraints.

Words have connotations which structure the way we think about objects. While German Sprache is more or less coterminous with “language” in English, it conveys a sense of speaking activity (as it derives from sprechen, speak) whereas “language” (just as “linguistics”) comes from French langage and Latin lingua (tongue), which like Greek γλῶσσα (glossa) and Russian язык (iazyk) evokes the speaking organ, the tongue. The Latin, Greek and Slavic words, therefore, present language as something that you use whereas Germanic words suggest language is something you do. Is it just a coincidence then that the founder of German-language linguistics Wilhelm von Humboldt conceived of language as energeia whereas language-in-use traditions dominate in the Anglophone world?

Yet the problem of rendering basic linguistic terms across languages goes deeper and many concepts are tricky because certain distinctions cannot be made. An example I have treated in more depth is the area which has been known as “speech act theory” in English since Austin’s seminal work. While English mobilises a mix of words with Latin and Germanic roots, Romance languages such as French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese can draw on the many variations with a single Latin root, enunti-, which, among specialists of linguistics, goes well beyond the standard translations of “articulate” or “declare” since it covers all aspects of human communication (see my work on French enunciative pragmatics, Johannes Angermuller, ‘Poststructuralist Discourse Analysis. Subjectivity in Enunciative Pragmatics’ (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). If a speech act is defined as the enactment of an utterance by a speaker in a context, the Latin enunti- root can be used to express all aspects of this definition. Therefore, it would not be inconceivable to define a speech act in Romance languages as “an enunciation that is enunciated by an enunciator enunciating an enunciate in a context of enunciation”. What generates gibberish in English is in fact a powerful apparatus of terminological possibilities available to speakers of Romance languages.

Even though my Poststructuralism Discourse Analysis is now available in French, German and Portuguese, I have become ever more sceptical as to the success of my project. Language resists translation, and especially it seems the concepts and terminologies that linguists like to use. Yet monolingualism is a problem, especially for a discipline like linguistics: it is built on hierarchies, creates borders and streamlines the human mind. Perhaps as linguists we should consider speaking and writing in and across languages?

Johannes Angermuller has been Professor of Discourse, Languages and Applied Linguistics at Open University since 2019. He holds a binational doctorate in linguistic discourse analysis (University of East Paris, France) and sociology (University of Magdeburg, Germany)