National language and literature

Peter Michalovič

In his study Culture as a subject and an object in itself, Yuri Lotman compares culture to the monad. In his opinion “a monad of any level is thus an elementary unit of generating meaning and at the same time has a sufficiently complex immanent structure. Its minimal organisation includes a binary system, consisting (at least) of two semiotic mechanisms (languages), which are in a relationship of mutual untranslatability while they are mutually similar to each other, as each of them, through their own means, models one and the same extra-semiotic reality. The text entering from the outside immediately acquires at least two mutually untranslatable semiotic projections. Inherent within the minimal structure is a third element: a block of conventional equivalences, a metaphorogenic device allowing translation operations in a situation of untranslatability. As a consequence of such “translations”, the text undergoes irreversible transformation. There occurs the act of generating new text.”[1] Lotman argues that culture as a whole is made up of at least two, but really multiple, independent semiotic systems. Each of them has its own organisation focused on generating, conveying and preserving information; in Lotman’s terminology these are the creation, storage and reception of texts.

One of the basic semiotic systems of each national culture is a system of natural or national language and, related to it, other, linguistically organised, semiotic systems, such as literature, philosophy, law, morality, religion, ideology, science, etc. In general, these are semiotic systems capable of generating, conveying and preserving information in the form of discrete texts, meaning texts composed of discrete semantic units, the arrangement of which produces a text endowed with meaning.

The second of the systems of national culture is any non-linguistically organised semiotic system; among these we can include painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, motion pictures, architecture, etc. These semiotic systems are able to generate continuous or linked texts, where the text is dominant and from it derive individual features, or on it depends what can and cannot be considered and interpreted as a feature.[2]  

The sum of these texts, semiotic objects, can be considered as “non-hereditary memory of the collective.”[3] In order for this non-hereditary collective memory to function, the collective memory must comprise the corresponding codes. In their study On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture, Lotman and Uspenskij argue that the duration of texts and codes in collective memory “need not match directly: for instance, different kinds of superstition can be understood as elements of text of an old culture to which the code has been lost, e.g. a text that has outlived its code.”[4] What is true of superstitions is to greater degree as a rule true also of literature and artistic texts, which are usually decoded by a different code than the one used for encoding, so their meaning is constantly constituted in the interval between semantic updating and semantic weathering.

The individual texts as a whole form the collective memory of the nation, and, mutatis mutandis, such collective memory exists either in the form of a functional or storage memory.[5] Functional memory exists primarily in the form of stories, story, and as such determines the life of national culture and its direction. Functional memory can select from the storage memory, understood as a collective fund, and, as a rule, it selects texts or fragments of texts of various kinds, it interprets them in a new way and thus changes their original meaning depending on the pragmatic goals it achieves with their aid.  

National culture then consists of a number of mutually independent semiotic systems, which respond primarily to a common extra-semiotic reality, an undifferentiated continuum. Nevertheless, it would be naive to believe that national culture can evolve as a hermetically sealed and isolated system separate from the systems of other nations’ cultures. On the contrary, “not a single semiotic mechanism can function as an isolated system immersed in a vacuum. A necessary condition for its functioning is its immersion in the semiosphere – in the semiotic space. Each semiotic monad, precisely because of its segregation and semiotic uniqueness, can enter into convergent relations with another (others) monads, at a higher level creating a bipolar unity. However, from two adjacent, unconnected elements, these monads become a higher-level organic unity only when they enter one and the same higher-order grouping.”[6] If one tribe gets to dominate another and is able to “force” upon it their own culture, or is able to take over something from the culture of the dominated tribe, a new culture or at least the germ of a emerging national culture can emerge. Another situation may arise though, where, despite the long-term domination of one nation over another, no new culture has emerged; Lotman cites an example of the three-hundred-year domination of the Mongols over the Russians. “Despite the three-hundred-year domination of the Mongols in Russia, no unified social structure emerged, and the numerous contacts occurring in the military and state areas, which could not have functioned without certain forms of contact, failed to form a common semiotic mechanism. The cause can be seen in the incompatibility of urban and steppe cultures, but also in another interesting fact: the Tatars were religiously tolerant and did not persecute Orthodoxy in Russia. This created an incompatibility with Russian Orthodox culture, in which the church played an utmost important organisational role.”[7] I agree with Lotman, but I would like to point out that individual national cultures, these Lotman’s monads, not only can but usually do interact with other monads. Nonetheless, there may also be the case where some semiotic systems of monads are resistant and inert to one another, while other semiotic systems may interact with one another, with forms of interaction varying on a case-by-case basis.

In terms of culture, the most complicated are the relations between individual national or natural languages, and although I agree with Derrida’s critique of phono-logocentrism and all in all with any critique of linguistic centrism, which warn us against unjustified favouring of the national language at the expense of other languages, ergo other semiotic systems of one or another culture, the disputes concerning the place and function of the national language in the whole of culture remain current to the present day. Naturally, the national language appears differently from the perspective of a foreign language community and differently from the perspective from the inside of the language community using it on daily basis. From the outside, the language appears as a language unit different from the language spoken by another language community. From the point of view of a Hungarian, a Czech, a Pole, an Austrian or a Ukrainian, the Slovak language, if they do not speak Slovak, appears as an internally coherent and homogeneous system, simply a national language, binding on all Slovaks. National languages only with difficulty become equal parts of two different national cultures, but this does not mean that two neighbouring national languages cannot, at least at the border where they meet, influence each other, absorb and incorporate words from one vocabulary into another. Sometimes such mutual influencing takes place at a subconscious level, not even perceived by individual speakers at such a meeting place of two languages. For example, a strong Hungarian accent alerts a Slovak from northern Slovakia that he is speaking with a Slovak from southern Slovakia before it is explicitly stated in the interview that one of the speakers comes from the south of Slovakia. Yet again, the incidence of words of Slovak origin in the speech of Hungarians living in southern Slovakia becomes a reliable sign for a Hungarian from Budapest that he is speaking with a Hungarian from southern Slovakia. Bilateral language exchanges, interpenetrations and changes brought about by the proximity of two languages are possible only if the relations between the two neighbouring nations are friendly, untarnished by politics or ideology. As soon as a potential conflict is about to pop up, the national languages begin to close, pull in, and their users take great care not to take over anything from a foreign language that is at the given moment perceived as hostile. Moreover, the excessive occurrence of non-national, “foreign elements” in the national language may make such a speaker suspicious in the eyes of other members of the nation.

Despite the dynamics of development, the national, natural language retains its identity, albeit a differentially established identity, and therefore for such a language it would be hard to become one of the fundamental identifying features on a mass scale for several national cultures. Yes, you can argue that the Swiss speak French, Italian, German, even Romansh, but this is rather an exception to the rule. In history and the present, we tend to encounter differentiation, i.e. in addition to similarities, differences are also taken into account, especially those differences that are defining for certain language communities. Burke reminds us that “speaking of the English language community in singular is a bit strange; it is more useful to distinguish between different communities and their ‘English’”.[8] Similarly, there are several separate, figuratively speaking, ‘Spanishes’ recognised in the framework of Spanish; currently, linguists take into account the differences between Austrian German and standard German applicable in the Federal Republic of Germany.

The national language is the subject not only of linguistic research, but often the subject of nationalistic-ideologically tainted disputes. During national revivals in the 19th century, passionate debates were held about which language was better than the languages of other nations, or which of the national languages could be considered the legitimate heir of ancient Greek or Latin, generally considered the founding languages of European culture. One of the important stimuli for these discussions is presented by the Humboldt’s and Herder’s initiative, since it was them who translated “supranational and suprahistorical reason into the image of the world inscribed in the order of language. The reason thus relativised to the linguistic image valid in a given nation was ipso facto nationalised: it perished in the spirit of the nation of the relevant culture.”[9] Johann Gottfried Herder, in particular, played an important role in these discussions and disputes, important to such degree that it is possible to speak “of a certain ‘Herder effect’ in the sense that it was a practical application of some of Herder’s key ideas, rather than his own theoretical and political elaboration of his thinking. Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit, 1784 – 1791), undoubtedly Herder’s most famous work, became immediately a huge success after their publication in Hungary (most likely meant as Hungary Kingdom – noted by P.M.), where the Outlines were read in German; it is also known that brief chapter, devoted to the Slavs, had a decisive effect: it turned Herder into a ‘teacher of Croatian, humanity’ and the first man to defend and appreciate the Slavs. The main motif, constantly repeated by Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Czechs (including Slovaks – added by P.M.), Serbs and Croats, was the right and duty to write in a particular mother tongue.”[10] For instance, the representatives of the Czech revival, encouraged by Herder’s views, in their defence of the autonomy and maturity of the Czech language, claimed that “‘the Czech language is pleasant and resonant’, while German is a tongue ‘barking and grunting’ (JUNGMAN), ‘our [language] more beautiful’ than German (JUNGMAN), Czech more musical than German (JUNGMAN), ‘our tongue […] highly above this [= German] […] can float proudly’ (ŠAFAŘÍK – PALACKÝ).”[11] In general, it can be stated that the purpose of philological comparison, which has been from the beginning heavily contaminated by ideologically tainted axiology, is to prove that Czech or Slovak, or other Slavic languages, to which Czech and Slovak belong as dialects, are comparable to other national languages, especially to that of German or Hungarian. This, however, is only the first step, in the second step the Czech and Slovak national revivalists are seeking to prove that they are not only equal to them, but also outperform them in many aspects. For example, in their sonority that is not inherent in Hungarian or German, and therefore they also endeavour to write literature in their national language, create dictionaries, professional terminology, etc.; all these activities from the current point of view can be viewed as testing of the productivity and universality of national languages. From this perspective, the national language then appears as a collective body of the collective spirit of the nation or a blanket that can cover all the members of one linguistic community.

Nonetheless, from the perspective of a member of the same language community, e.g. a Slovak working in one way or another in the area of the scientific reflection of language, the Slovak language no longer appears as a universal and internally homogeneous language system. On the contrary, it appears as a space in which relatively separate language units complement each other and compete with each other – the so-called languages within a language or functional languages (Prague Linguistic Circle), speech games (Ludwig Wittgenstein), small speech genres (Michail M. Bachtin – Valentin N. Vološinov), various discourse genres (Jean-François Lyotard). If we were to look at the ‘national language’ from this perspective, then we find that what at first appears to be a single language system is internally broken down into several subsystems, relatively separate language units. On the horizontal plane, different regional dialects are placed next to each other, differing from each other to a greater or lesser extent. On the vertical plane, one language space suddenly houses different jargon, argots, professional languages, social group languages, “genres”, or generational languages, etc.; each member of a given community can speak and as a rule speaks multiple languages existing as if inside one national language. According to Bakhtin, “a mere illiterate farmer, miles away from any centre, naively immersed in his way of life, which was motionless and unshakable, lived in several language systems: he prayed to God in one language (Church Slavonic), sang songs in another language, spoke in a family circle with a third language, and when he was dictating to the scribe a request for authorities, he tried to speak in the fourth one (official, cultural, in a language of ‘authorities’). All these are different languages, even in terms of abstract socio-dialectological symptoms. These languages were not in the linguistic consciousness of the farmer in a dialogue relation; he passed from one to another without a thought, automatically: each of them were in their own place, indisputable, and their place was indisputable. Such a farmer was still unable to look at one language (and its corresponding verbal world) through the eyes of another language (see the language of his daily life through the language of prayer or song, or vice versa).”[12] Furthermore, it proves useful to the purpose to distinguish between spoken and written forms of language, whereas this, as Bakhtin aptly called it, realistic stratification and divergence of languages is used in an exemplary way by literature, primarily one of its genres and that is the novel. Why is it the novel? Because the novel belongs to dynamic genres, i.e. the novel is characterised by constant development. “The novel is pure plasticity. It is an ever-seeking, ever-self-searching genre that is being built in the sphere of direct contact with the emerging reality.”[13] In addition, the novel, according to Bakhtin, is one of the “secondary (complex) speech genres.”[14] Besides novels, secondary speech genres include “dramas, all kinds of scientific studies, major journalistic genres.”[15] These “are created under the conditions of a more complex and relatively highly developed and organised cultural intercourse (mostly written-artistic, scientific, socio-political, etc.). In the process of their formation, they absorb and transform various primary (simple) genres, which were developed in the conditions of immediate speech intercourse. After their incorporation into complex genres, these primary genres transform and change their nature: they lose their direct relationship to the true reality and to the true external statements. For example, replicas of ordinary dialogue or a letter in a novel retain their form and vital significance only at the level of the content of the novel as a whole, i.e. as an event of literary art, and not as an event of everyday life. The novel as a whole is as much a statement as a replica of a dialogue or a private letter (they have the same essence), but unlike them, the novel is a secondary (complex) statement.”[16] If one reads this quote as an explanation of the phenomenon of intertextuality, then one reads correctly, because, as Julia Kristeva convincingly proved, Bakhtin in his works described intertextuality with precision without using the name of the concept.

Can this be understood as meaning that the recognition of plurilingualism thus eliminates the space for reflection on the national language? Certainly not; there is something that is professionally referred to as official language, and the designation ‘official language’ suggests that this language regulates primarily written and spoken forms of verbal communication, more precisely the official, academic and various governmental forms of written intercourse. Although the official language is one of many languages, its ambition is nevertheless to act as a centrifugal force, as, however boldly it may sound, a common denominator to which all the languages mentioned can be translated; languages which act as centrifugal forces in respect of the official language, preventing homogenisation and unification. It should be understood that the official language and the language of literature are two relatively separate and mutually different systems. Despite this, it can be said, especially as regards the relationship of these languages to other language communities, “that literary capital is national. Through its constitutive relationship to language – which is always national because it is inevitably ‘nationalised’, i.e. appropriated by various national representatives as a symbol of identity – the literary heritage is linked to the national interest.”[17] It is generally assumed that the national language and literature are interconnected vessels; the national language enables the existence of a certain national literature and the national literature in return cultivates, expands the possibilities of the national language while at the same time it distorts, reforms, and changes applied meanings, creates linguistic puzzles, develops all layers of irony. Given this meaning of the issue, there is no problem between the official and literary language, nor a problem between one or another national language. Though, as soon as one national language and national literature begin to hierarchically take precedence over the other national language and literature, then there I see a problem – a big problem – as well as unfortunate consequences that can often times manifest themselves as an irrational reason for starting bloody wars between two states or ethnic groups. In place of confrontation, possibilities for cooperation must be sought, and in this respect the translations of literary texts from one language into another play a huge role. Translations make it possible to get to know other literature, be inspired by it or look for original alternatives. I believe that the more translations there are, the more intimately we will get to know one another, thanks to which the distance between us will be shortened and the initial enemies can become partners in dialogue, the otherness can be turned into our otherness, that is, the otherness that will make us realise who we truly are.

Besides the cases where two semiotic systems of the identical type as part of two different national cultures retain their autonomy and interact only to a small extent, and this only in a certain historical time and geographical space, and the effect of this interaction is reflected in the change of these two systems, we also record cases of massive, mutually beneficial and politically unlimited interaction. An interaction that is massive to such extent that the texts generated by such a semiotic system, such as the language of fine arts, can be considered part of the cultural heritage of the two nations; in this context it is enough to mention the names of Ladislav Medňanský or Dominik Skutecký, and it immediately becomes clear to a member of the Slovak or Hungarian nation what I am hinting at. The paintings of both these artists represent a part of the history of Hungarian fine arts, while the same works are also considered by Slovak historians of fine arts to be an integral part of the history of Slovak fine arts. Another example of successful interculturation is music; regardless of whether we mean artificial, the so-called classical music or folk music. In the case of classical music, the languages of music can be successfully internationalised, individual initiatives arising on the grounds of this or that national music culture can be mastered and often successfully developed or modified by other national music cultures. This is made possible, among other things, by strictly defined sound units (tones) and a binding system of rules (musical syntax), allowing these sound units to be combined into harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structures.

As regards folk music, the situation here is even simpler, as the melodies migrate almost in an unchanged form from one national culture to another, frequently becoming a permanent part of three or more national cultures. I think that few people succeeded in this field as precisely as Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945), who collected many folk songs on his ethnomusicological work trips across Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, thus earning admiration not only from Hungarians but also from Slovaks and Romanians. In my opinion, Bartók showed one of the possible paths to be followed by those who care for the success of interculturalism and who want to make it a model for getting to know one’s own identity through the knowledge of otherness, and especially how to not consider otherness as something negative, threatening, hostile, but to perceive it as our otherness, as a challenge to become different and especially more sensitive towards the world of nature as well as the world of people. Yes, it sounds like a phrase, but I still believe it, and it seems that no one will shake this faith of mine so easily.    This study was created as part of the grant project Artwork: Mediality, Rules of Art and Interpretation (VEGA no. 1/0541/20).

[1] Yuri M. Lotman, Culture as a subject and object in itself. In: Text a kultúra. Bratislava: Archa 1994, p. 10.

[2] For the distinction between discrete and continuous texts, see the study LOTMAN, Yuri M.: Rhetoric. In: Text a kultúra. Bratislava: Archa 1994, p. 67– 90.

[3] Yuri, M. Lotman – Boris A. Uspenskij, On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture. In: Exotika. Výbor z prací tartuské školy.  Brno: Host 2003, p. 39.  

[4] Ibid. p. 40.

[5] At this point, I make free use of Aleida Assman’s views. See ASSMAN, Aleida: Spaces of remembrance. Forms and changes of cultural memory. Prague: Nakladatelství Karolinum 2018, p. 151 – 157.   

[6] Yuri M Lotman, Culture as a subject and object in itself. In: Text a kultúra. Bratislava: Archa 1994, p. 11.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Peter Burke, Languages and communities in early modern Europe. Prague: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny 2011, p. 11.

[9] Manfred Frank, What is neostructuralism? Prague: SOFIS in cooperation with PASTELKA 2000 publishing house, p. 15.

[10] Pascale Casanova, World Republic of Literature. Prague: Nakladatelství Karolinum 2012, p. 103 – 104.

[11] Quoted according to Vladimír Macura, Sign of birth. Prague: Academia 2015, p. 51.

[12] Michail M. Bakhtin, The Word in Poetry and Prose. In: Problems of novel’s poetics. Bratislava: Slovenský spisovateľ 1973, p. 53.

[13] Michail M. Bakhtin, Epos in Novel. In: Problems of novel’s poetics. Bratislava: Slovenský spisovateľ 1973, p. 110.

[14] Michail M. Bakhtin, Aesthetics of verbal formation. Bratislava: Tatras 1988, p. 268.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. 

[17] Pascale Casanova, World Republic of Literature. Prague: Nakladatelství Karolinum 2012, p. 53 – 54.