A people separated by a common language, a person formed by multiple languages

On occasion my lectures will touch upon sociological issues and quite often this will cause me to go into high Academic English gear. I catch myself and mumble: “This is John-speak”, so named for one of my thesis supervisors who speaks very good Academese and whose discussions of ethnography and politics have rubbed off on me, so that I unconsciously use his way of presenting the issues.

Gillian Evans is an English academic who, due to financial hardship, ended up living with the Lower Classes for over a decade and finally decided to study and document this strange tribe, which resulted in a book, several articles and lots of commentary in the Guardian. It is all very interesting but also, unintentionally or not, absolutely hilarious, as for example when she translates from the prole-speak of her informants into her own analytic English:

When I ask other people what being common means, they tell me that it is about “knowin' what it's like to be skint—down to your last two quid. There's no more money until next week and there's kids to feed.”

Being common clearly has something to do, then, with economic position and, in particular, the experience of what it is like to be constrained by the limited availability of disposable income [&hellip]

Evans makes a number of interesting points (the validity of which of course may, and should, be argued over) about how for example schools embody middle class values which may be at odds with what gives status and credibility in a working class (or frequently these days—unemployed class) context.

But, I was also driven to some introspection (I tend to think of myself a lot, don't I?), group membership and language. In a superficial sense I am trilingual, yet my language use is very much situationally bound, tied to what I say and how I say it.

My native language, my mother tongue, of Finnish is the language of my childhood. The form I speak is that of Finnish in the 1940s and 1960s, when my parents moved to Sweden. I have a day-to-day vocabulary and speak without an accent, yet I'm not fluent in technical, professional Finnish and I tend to be silent until spoken to (unimaginable as it may seem to those who've met me in person).

My everyday language is Swedish, it is what I speak with friends and family and I probably have the largest vocabulary in absolute terms in Swedish. Some people claim they can detect traces of a Finnish accent, others shake their heads at the idea.

Then, my professional language is English, it is the language that lets me discuss technical issues and it is the language in which I do the absolute majority of my writing. Even when nominally speaking Swedish with colleagues, our speech is peppered with English expressions or English words in Swedish form, not necessarily because there are no corresponding Swedish words, but because the English is closest at hand. [The “domain loss” of Swedish for research purposes is a hot issue these days, I'll probably return to it in some later post.] It is not merely because I want to share my thoughts with non-Swedish-reading friends that this blog is in English, but it is the language in which I normally write. The English I speak is a mirror of the English I read, it is academic, complex, dense with polysyllabics.

Of course, at the centre I still am a single person that reads a lot, has scientific training and perhaps more than a smidgeon of a need to show off, and this shines through as “posh” turns of phrase, regardless of what language I speak in, but in Finnish and Swedish I am much more likely to drop into the vernacular (and not use words like “vernacular” to begin with).

There is also some kind of class journey involved, from a working-class, lower middle-class background where we did not have “house rules” to some kind of economical upper middle class, but where I still think Magdalena Ribbing is a complete waste of space and that a person wearing shoes indoors is destined for the nearest lamppost.

Still, if you know me in one language, I may not be quite the same person in another language…

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