The paradoxes of difference

Salvador Dali, Gestalt

As members of the Language-on-the-Move community know, I was the lucky guest of Ingrid at Macquarie last Wednesday and then the theme of her blog posting. As a reciprocal gift to thank her and the Language-on-the-Move community, I undertook to post this blog, a commentary on some points the blog and the occasion sparked in me. That’s in fact the most important revelation I have to share: that a mere 842-word text could be so resonant. What can it tell us about language that it allows the miracle of communication to keep happening?

Many blogs I’ve read on this site report feelings of pain and anger triggered by encounters through language. The feelings are real, not to be minimised. Yet language can hurt like this because it can touch so subtly and deeply. We’re all driven by a powerful urge to overcome both difference and indifference. Language can perform this miracle. That’s why we study it.

Ingrid’s blog, this and others, shows a ms-tress at work, using language in such marvellous ways that we can all learn from her example why we want to study and understand it.

Her brief blog, produced within a day of the encounter, captured a 3-hour conversation, and distilled an interview out of it I didn’t realise had happened. Afterwards I didn’t feel I’d been mugged by a manipulative word-thief, just in the presence of a brilliant listener and strategist, who could co-construct a beautiful text from what she heard without ever misrepresenting me. That’s so good!

Behind the blog is swirling, enabling cyberspace. Some people lament this new technology. Ingrid uses it creatively, in ways that illuminate how language itself works, and what it may become in the future.

This meeting happened partly because I noticed Ingrid’s contribution on an email list we both belong to. I followed that up to find her wonderful posts, so fresh, interweaving personal and academic interests so well that I felt I already knew her before we met. I arranged to meet her by phone and email. In between the arrangement and the encounter she too did her cyberwork, layering my 21st century self onto an earlier pre-electronic self.

In trying to understand for myself what made Ingrid’s blog so great, so brief yet resonant, I tried counting. 14 links in an 842-word blog, one link every 60 words. It makes this a multidimensional text of the cyber age: perfect English syntax overlaid by a gestalt structure formed by the links. They shadow this brief text with another larger one, existing in a different time, space and mode.

I use the German word gestalt here, from a language Ingrid speaks fluently and which I have only rudimentary knowledge of. In spite of that fact I use it, not because I claim to know it better than Ingrid, but because this word and the great tradition in psychology built around it is so important for me. This loan word means more to me than most English words I use in this blog. If even fragments from another language can change the gestalt of a first language, how much richer will be the linguistic universe of bi-lingual and tri-lingual speakers?

I keep returning to the paradoxical theme of difference. Ingrid notes that ‘at different times and in different countries, Bob and myself entered Linguistics precisely to be repelled by its disciplinarity’. She could have added language, gender and other qualities to the differences.

Yet difference works in strange ways. Somehow apparent difference makes common meanings deeper. Binocular vision gives depth to objects, in this case to language and disciplinarity.

I was fascinated with the productive play of difference and sameness in Shiva’s blog. I was struck by how a microscopic difference created such a huge social chasm, against a background where massive commonalities and differences remained invisible and inactive. But Shiva’s response was creative, triggered into deeper understanding of ‘cap’ than the receptionist would ever attain. He (his gender was doubtless part of the dynamics of the exchange) unthinkingly replicated a small socio-phonetic change. Shiva came to understand all this and more, and wrote about it in flawless, eloquent English. Out of a difference weighted with discrimination she generated difference on the other side of the scale. English isn’t a fixed target language, which all first-language speakers hit and all others miss. On the contrary, its essential dynamic nature can only be understood by thoughtful second-language speakers.

So back to my actual encounter with Ingrid, and another lesson I learned. In fact she’s a better speaker of English than I am, and also a much better speaker of German than me. Languages aren’t a zero-sum game. Yet in the play of over-stated differences and unrecognised similarities in paradoxical packages, I find it exhilarating how often and how profoundly human communication triumphs over all these barriers.

Author Bob Hodge

Bob Hodge is Professor of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney. He has many active research interests: in analytic and conceptual toolkits for social and cultural research (critical linguistics, discourse analysis, social semiotics); in major theoretical traditions in humanities and social sciences (Marxism, psychoanalysis, post-colonialism, post-modernism, critical management studies, chaos theory); in radical transdisciplinarity (including science in the mix) and engaged research; and in specific areas of study (globalisation, cyberculture, Australian Studies, Indigenous Studies, Mexico and Latin America, Chinese language and culture, education, popular culture, literature (classical, early modern, contemporary).
His website is at http://www.uws.edu.au/ics/people/researchers/bob_hodge

More posts by Bob Hodge
  • Thanks, Bob, for this post and welcome to the Language-on-the-Move community! I like the idea of bilingualism as gestalt where one language layers onto the other. Goethe famously said “Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiss nichts von der eigenen.” (‘Someone who doesn’t know foreign languages, knows nothing of their own.’)

    In Applied Linguistics, cross-linguistic influence is – with a few notable exceptions, particularly Uriel Weinreich and, more recently, Aneta Pavlenko – typically conceived as only operating in the direction from the first to the second language and it’s usually seen as negative: ‘interference’ that needs to be attacked with techniques such as ‘error analysis’ … and so we all too often overlook the rich linguistic layering of languages, where bilingualism is much more than simply the sum of its parts.

  • It’s great to be able to “listen to” a conversation between two researchers whose call for interdisciplinarity is both inspiring and challenging. I hope Language on the Move will continue to work as a site where researchers engage in *real time* debates, as such opportunity, despite of this amazing digital age, remains rare…

  • shiva

    Dear Bob,
    After Ingrid’s impressive post, I am so exhilarated and inspired by your fascinating writing with such a formidable pen! I truly enjoyed your thoughtful and inductive analysis of not just the whole but every single bit of the posts which seems to have no way out of your sharp-sightedness. I would also like to thank you for your nice comments on my “flawless, eloquent English” writing, although I owe much to Ingrid for without her instructions I would never have received such a nice compliment.
    Best, Shiva