The Magla Vocables
Language as a Weapon in the Former Communist Bloc
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
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Written: December 8, 1999
The Macedonians have a word for it - "Magla", fog. It signifies the twin arts of duplicity and ambiguity. In the mental asylum that the swathe of socialist countries was, even language was pathologized. It mutated into a weapon of self defence, a verbal fortification, a medium without a message, replacing words with vocables. Easterners (in this text, the unfortunate residents of the Kafkaesque landscape which stretches between Russia and Albania) don't talk or communicate. They fend off. They hide and evade and avoid and disguise. In the planet of capricious and arbitrary unpredictability, of shifting semiotic and semantic dunes, that they inhabited for so many decades (or centuries) - they perfected the ability to say nothing in lengthy, Castro-like speeches. The ensuing convoluted sentences are Arabesques of meaninglessness, acrobatics of evasion, lack of commitment elevated to an ideology. The Easterner prefers to wait and see and see what waiting brings. It is the postponement of the inevitable that leads to the inevitability of postponement as a strategy of survival.
It is impossible to really understand an Easterner. The syntax fast deteriorates into ever more labyrinthine structures. The grammar tortured to produce the verbal Doppler shifts essential to disguise the source of the information, its distance from reality, the speed of its degeneration into rigid official versions. Buried under the lush flora and fauna of idioms without an end, the language erupts, like some exotic rash, an autoimmune reaction to its infection and contamination. And this newspeak, this malignant form of political correctness is not the exclusive domain of politicians or "intellectuals". Like vile weeds it spread throughout, strangling with absent minded persistence the ability to understand, to agree, to disagree and to debate, to present arguments, to compare notes, to learn and to teach. Easterners, therefore, never talk to each other - rather, they talk at each other. They exchange subtexts, camouflage-wrapped by elaborate, florid, texts. They read between the lines, spawning a multitude of private languages, prejudices, superstitions, conspiracy theories, rumours, phobias and mass hysterias. Theirs is a solipsistic world - where communication is permitted only with oneself and the aim of language is to throw others off the scent.
This has profound implications. Communication through unequivocal, unambiguous, information-rich symbol systems is such an integral and crucial part of our world - that its absence is not postulated even in the remotest galaxies which grace the skies of science fiction. In this sense, Easterners are nothing short of aliens. It is not that they employ a different language, a code to be deciphered by a new Champollion. The Cyrillic alphabet is not the obstacle. It is also not the outcome of cultural differences. It is the fact that language is put by Easterners to a different use - not to communicate but to obscure, not to share but to abstain, not to learn but to defend and resist, not to teach but to preserve ever less tenable monopolies, to disagree without incurring wrath, to criticize without commitment, to agree without appearing to do so. Thus, Eastern contracts are vague expressions of intentions at a given moment - rather than the clear listing of long term, iron-cast and mutual commitments. Eastern laws are loopholed incomprehensibles, open to an exegesis so wide and so self-contradictory that it renders them meaningless. Eastern politicians and Eastern intellectuals often hang themselves by their own verbose Gordic knots, having stumbled through a minefield of logical fallacies and endured self inflicted inconsistencies. Unfinished sentences hover in the air, like vapour above a semantic swamp.
In some countries (the poorer ones, which were suppressed for centuries by foreign occupiers), there is the strong urge not to offend. Still at the tribal-village stage of social development, intimacy and inter-dependence are great. Peer pressure is irresistible and it results in conformity and mental homogeneity. Aggressive tendencies, strongly repressed in this social pressure cooker, are close under the veneer of forced civility and violent politeness. Constructive ambiguity, a non-committal "everyone is good and right", an atavistic variant of moral relativism and tolerance bred of fear and of contempt - are all at the service of this eternal vigilance against aggressive drives, at the disposal of a never ending peacekeeping mission.
In other countries, language is used cruelly and ruthlessly to ensnare one's enemies, to saw confusion and panic, to move the masses, to leave the listeners in doubt, in hesitation, in paralysis, to gain control, or to punish. There, symbols are death sentences in both the literal and the figurative senses. Poets, authors and journalists still vanish regularly and newspapers and books are compiled into black lists with dreadful consequences. In these countries, language is enslaved and forced to lie. There are no news - only views, no interest - only interests, no facts - only propaganda, no communication - only ex-communication. The language is appropriated and expropriated. It is considered to be a weapon, an asset, a piece of lethal property, a traitorous mistress to be gang raped into submission.
And yet in other places in the East, the language is a lover. The infatuation with its very sound leads to a pyrotechnic type of speech which sacrifices its meaning to its music. Its speakers pay more attention to the composition than to the content. They are swept by it, intoxicated by its perfection, inebriated by the spiralling complexity of its forms. Here, language is an inflammatory process. It attacks the social tissues with artistic fierceness. It invades the healthy cells of reason and logic, of cool headed argumentation and level headed debate. It raises the temperature of the body politic. It often kills. It moves masses. Submerged in and lured by the notes issued forth by the pied piper of the moment - nations go to war, or to civil war, resonating with the echoes of their language.
Language is a leading indicator of the psychological and institutional health of social units. Social capital can often be measured in cognitive (hence, verbal-lingual) terms. To monitor the level of comprehensibility and lucidity of texts is to study the degree of sanity of nations (think about the rambling "Mein Kampf"). There can exist no hale society without unambiguous speech, without clear communications, without the traffic of idioms and content that is an inseparable part of every social contract. Our language determines how we perceive our world. It IS our mind and our consciousness. The much touted transition starts in the mind and consciousness determines reality. Marx would have approved.
Annex: The Shifting Sands of Finance Lingo
In 1976, the word "subprime" used to mean: a loan offered to desirable, creditworthy clients with its interest rate set below the prime rate. Within less than 15 years it came to be defined by this arbiter of proper usage, the Oxford English Dictionary, as: “Of or designating a loan, typically having relatively unfavorable terms, made to a borrower who does not qualify for other loans because of a poor credit history. ”
But, this is far from being the most startling transformation in the field of finance. The word "bank" is derived from the old Italian word "banca": a bench or a counter. Italian "bankers" (money dealers) used to conduct their business on such implements. Hence the word "bankrupt" ("banca rotta", or "broken bench", which is what irate clients did to the furniture of bankers who did not honor their commitments).
Fittingly, the word "broker" comes from the hedonistic French bon mot "brokiere", someone who opens bottles of wine (and then consumes their content - usually, at their clients' expense, needless to add).
The origins of the ponderous word "budget" are no more venerable: French tradesmen during the Middle Ages carried their money in a bouge (diminutive: bougette), a leather bag or knapsack. Later, the word came to signify the contents of the bougette. In the 18th century, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer (minister of finance) would present his annual statement and, thus, "open his bougette (budget)".
Finance is a field of human endeavor replete with conflict and murky dealings. Consider the origins of the ubiquitous word "negotiate". It literally means "not to be at ease" or "not be done at leisure". The Romans also gave us "bills". Official documents were sealed with a wax bubble called "bulla". Later, the very documents thus stamped acquired the name "bulla" or "billa". Hence "bill".
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