When is a language not a language?


As a linguist originally reared in the Chomskyan tradition, but that aside, as a native English speaker, I have always been suspicious of the use of the term language in a metaphorical sense. Chomsky restricted the term to something human and even more specifically to a particular faculty (he used call it a black box, but has long since moved from that description), a distinct feature of human communication which no other created being appears to have, even if they can mimic many features of it.

I became interested, then, in the increasing use of the term linguaggi (it is the plural form about which I am commenting, largely) in official Salesian documentation, and have investigated its use of the term since it was first used in 1977 in GC21. As a secondary issue, I am interested in how we translate it – though one can readily understand that it invites the gloss languages without further argument. But I believe there can be further argument and I will suggest later, with an example, that it is another case of a ‘false friend’.

The investigation turns up some valuable information, and suggests that the English speaking reader of our official Salesian documents needs to keep fit in the mental gymnastics needed to really understand what our documents are saying. It also suggests that even in Italian there is not a via libera, or if you prefer French, carte blanche, for applying linguaggi to almost any form of communication.

Part of the difficulty comes from the very different approaches to linguistics one finds in the European schools on the one hand (think back to Saussure and structuralism, Levi-Strauss, the Prague School) and the British, North American, Australian schools (think Chomsky, Crystal, Halliday, Dixon) on the other. The former come out of structuralism and semiotics, the latter moved in different directions either in cognitive linguistics, sociolinguistics or applied linguistics.

What is common to all of the ‘English’ schools of linguistic thought is that they have but one word, language. European, Latin-language schools consider three words: langue, langage and parole, to use the Saussurian, French terms, but you find them in Italian too – linguaggio, lingua, parola. In English, language is applied to a human faculty, and languages are those spoken (and written or signed) by human beings. By extension we have become accustomed to body language, which, like signing, still has direct connection with the human being, and computer languages, which seem to exhibit some sort of syntactic structure, but we do this knowing we are being slightly metaphorical. Beyond that, any other use of language or languages is decidedly metaphorical and ‘slippery’. In other words, vague, nice poetry but unwise prose.

Instead, and this is the point, linguaggio, in Italian, is a more abstract term, and when we move to the point of abstraction at which human languages and cinema, music and young people’s subcultural styles fall together, then we are at a point where almost all kinds of behaviour could be included under the mantle of language.

Back to our documents. With a corpus of our official documentation from the early 1960’s onwards, it is very easy to find each use of a term. The following statistics were true in 2006. There are 91 appearances of linguaggi over that period, some 213 uses of the singular, linguaggio. What is interesting is that the usage is gradual and mirrors almost precisely the debate going on in the wider world of linguistics (in English-speaking cultures) and semiotics (in Europe).

In the mid 1960’s (we are talking GC 19) there is but a single use of the term linguaggio in the context of catechesis and the inappropriateness of linguaggio ‘scolastico’. Six years later in 1971, still in the context of discussion of catechesis and appropriate language, the term still appears in the singular, but this time with the appearance of the adjective nuovo, hence bisogno di un nuovo linguaggio (#291), in recognition that young people have il loro sistema di comunicazione that ha uno stile caratteristico. This citation is important I believe, because it first sets the tone of future discussion – the term linguaggio is immediately assigned to a communication system with a certain style. Already we are moving, in 1971, divergently from Chomsky’s famous lecture on Mind and Language in 1968 when he clearly restricted the use of the term language to a ‘specific type of mental organisation’. GC20 even recognises at one point that it is using linguaggio in the strict sense – presumably meaning here the sense in which someone like Chomsky was saying it should be used: linguaggio abituale (in senso stretto) (#61).

It is not until GC21 in the later ‘70s that we get the first tentative uses of the plural form and the level of abstraction is immediately evident: linguaggi delle subculture giovanili (#85), and a term which is then picked up again several times, linguaggio totale della comunicazione, which offers the further elaboration that this can embrace audiovisivi, espressioni drammatiche, creatività – which includes, painting, other art – musica. It is in this period that there is a debate going on in both the English speaking world and in Europe on whether cinema is a language. It was triggered by Christian Metz’s Film Language (1974). The debate fragments along cultural lines – many Europeans accepting Metz’s view that the cinema is a semiotic system worthy of the term linguaggio, the others arguing that it is only in a metaphorical and not very helpful sense that you can call cinema a language.

What I think was happening in our case is that there was never much debate – in official documents (General Chapters, for example) there is no real debate about the terms, rather the Salesians involved are more interested in resolving the problem of the growing divide between young people and themselves and focusing on how to be again faithful to Don Bosco. I have no problems with that, obviously! It is just that we must recognise that while there wasn’t a debate amongst ourselves on the use of terms like nuovi linguaggi della comunicazione sociale, linguaggi multimediali, linguaggi dei media, della musica, TV, videoclips – which we had reached by GC23 and have continued to develop since, there was a debate going on in the world around us, and English speakers were often feeling uncomfortable with these terms when translated directly into English – what did we really mean by ‘the language of music, theatre, young people’ and so forth? In what precise sense is an audiovisual presentation a language, for example?

As an example of this debate, the Dizionario di scienze e techniche della comunicazione, a San Paolo edition (1996), makes this point – which I translate here for simplicity’s sake: “it would be good to note, therefore, that if all these new ‘languages’ were to be embraced in the field of semiotic research, it would have to be done in a provisory manner, as a working hypothesis….; as a rigorous term, it [linguaggio audiovisivo] has never been proven”. The entry on linguaggio audiovisivo goes on to say that the so-called audiovisual languages have never overcome this obstacle, “after thirty years of research it has not been possible, despite notable effort, to demonstrate the existence of cinematic or television languages”.

Where does this leave us? I think there are certainly ways in which we can use the term language in English or linguaggio in Italian, including its plural form in both, in metaphorical ways. We already do this in English anyway, but we recognise immediately that it is metaphorical. The problem comes when we refer to things like ‘youthful languages’, or ‘the languages of theatre and music….’. There is not even the degree of clarity that we have when we speak of computer language which can be further delineated as C, C++, Python and so on, each having a finite set of rules.

I would advise (1) more care in our application of the term language(s) (in Italian too, since documents often originate in that language) when it is being applied to Salesian abstractions of the kind mentioned in this paper, and I would hope that (2) we might, somewhere, include some more precise definitions of these terms if we are settling on them for a particular context. (3) As for translation – if the term is there in Italian, it invites language or languages as its gloss in English. But I do wonder if we could not at times avoid this by studying what other English texts do when talking about the same kind of thing – we are not the first people to be discussing the various expressions of young people, nor are we the first to be discussing the variety of expressions of media. There may be times when language(s) is a good enough term to use. I think in most occasions we should seek another term – there are plenty of them. I note that when the Vatican translated the last Pope’s final Apostolic Letter, 'Rapid Development', his reference in Italian to linguaggi inediti (no. 3) was glossed in English as simply 'vocabulary'. That choice tells us that the Vatican translator is very much aware of the problem. The solution in this case is a good one and could give a lead to the rest of us.

Julian Fox sdb

April 2006