World English, English World

I love the English language. I genuinely do. I’m not writing in English because I have no other choice; location being (almost) everything, there might be many advantages to writing in German. And while I did recently have a book published in Greece and loved working on that, the truth is that I do have a thing for English. A connection, you might say. Even my accent sounds kind of vaguely British. I love many aspects of what one might call British culture, whether it’s the poetry of William Blake or the comedy of Frankie Boyle. You can see it in my work, in my influences. My games have been described as “very English” more than once, and I don’t take offence at that.

And America? Well, we all know quite a lot about America. Partly because its culture is just so damn pervasive, partly because it’s bloody terrifying. People in the rest of the world tend to know a lot more about American politics than Americans know about international politics, for example, simply because we’re scared. We follow what’s going on in the United States not because we’re afraid that the American President will say something mean, but because we’re afraid of where the bombs will drop next. That sort of thing makes you pay attention. But even beyond that, despite all the terror, there’s plenty in American history to be inspired by. The history of the Civil Rights movement, for example, is full of truly courageous people, fighting against a system of apartheid that was frighteningly backwards even for its time.

English, as anyone interested in postcolonial/transcultural literature can tell you, is a world language in a sense that goes far beyond tourism and Hollywood movies. In fact, what could be a more perfect illustration of that than the fact that as I came over from Greece to Germany all those years ago, the book I read on the plane was Paradise Lost? I write in English.  I think in English. I speak English all the time. A big part of why people love my games is how they use the English language.

All of which is fine.

There’s a thing that happens, though: because I can participate in the English-language discourse a lot better than most non-native speakers, people tend to place me in categories that aren’t really appropriate. One of the most frustrating things about the Anglophone world  is that it is often very inwards-looking. (Something to do with having so few borders, perhaps?) A lot of people, including people who would place themselves on the Left, whatever that means, seem to have absolutely no idea that systems of thought other than their own exist – it’s not that they disagree about how to best describe reality, but that they instantly categorize anyone who doesn’t follow their particular logic and idiom as a terrible, terrible bigot. And the standard response to a form of thought critical of certain tenets (i.e. that racism is only when one race oppresses another, not when humanity is categorized into races in the first place) is to call the person expressing these thoughts “privileged” and “white” – to categorize them, essentially, as a white middle-class American, the traditional bogeyman of a certain type of radical politics.

What does not seem to be apparent to the people reacting in this fashion is the ridiculous cultural imperialism behind their response – the assumption that everyone can be neatly categorized into the tiny bit of the world that surrounds them. It is a bizarre spectacle to see American radicals raging about the white privilege of people from countries like Greece or Argentina; countries in which their simplistic dichotomies of “white” and “black”, barely applicable to the societies that originated them, are at best ludicrous, at worst accidentally supportive of fascists. The only people in Greece who would seriously argue that Greeks belong to some sort of “white race” are the neonazis of the Golden Dawn. My dad’s skin is quite brown, and that’s hardly unique where I come from.

The details of my background have nothing to do with the fantasy that I am “just another white dude”, to slightly paraphrase what I’ve been called by angry identitarians who are put off by Marxism. My Greek grandmother was a Pontian refugee; she and my Greek grandfather were resistance fighters. My German grandfather also fought in the war – but on the other side. A hundred years and a few days ago, the city I grew up in still belonged to the Ottoman Empire. There are histories and complexities here that have everything to do with colonialism and imperialism and racism and nationalism – and nothing to do with whiteness or other Anglophone discourses.

The fact that I speak English doesn’t mean you can throw labels at me. I’m not a middle-class American. I’m not English, either. I’m not your bogeyman. If you’re saying these things, you don’t know the first thing about me – or the world we all live in.

But I’m not the inscrutable Other, either. You can do your research. You can understand where I’m coming from. Greeks and Argentinians and Romanians and Poles and Venezuelans are not aliens – we’re people, just not the people you’re used to blaming. It’s really not that difficult to understand that diversity means more than a bigger variety of Americans who subscribe to the same ideology. It also means understanding that English is a world language, but that that doesn’t mean the world is English.

Thankfully, though, there is one language that is truly transcultural – the language of logic and facts. Instead of resorting to labels, we can do the hard work of finding out what’s going on in the rest of the world and trying to engage with it. We don’t need to agree about everything, but we can’t get anywhere if we never look beyond our borders.

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5 Comments

  1. I remember you tweeting about how the US Left relates to the human races by thinking about them differently than the Right, while in the rest of the world the Left relates to human races by simply rejecting the notion as ludicrous.

    Some people got really mad about that, it’s weird. They thought you were defending some sort of post-racial stuff or something? Never understood what they’d read in your tweet.

    From an outside perspective, they looked like they were doing some kind of free association exercise: read tweet, focus on first thing that comes to mind, argue like that thing is what the tweet’s author actually stands for.

    I’m from Argentina by the way, and what you say really resonates with me. In here, racism and xenophobia practically indistinguishable, all the categories tangled up and the only people that really talk about B&W dichotomies are the ones that most ferociously defend racism.

  2. Iurii

     /  August 14, 2013

    Well, English is quite a fine language. Just like any other language.
    I love Jonas’ games, but I would definitely like to see them being available in many languages of the world!
    Fan-made translations could be both free and brilliant at the same time, you know.

  3. I object! English should not be the global language. We need a language which does not favor another in the learning process, which has only a few experts, but a lot of documentation. Klingon is obviously the best choice.

  4. I also enjoy English. I am, however, concerned at times that it too easily allows a person to purport the illusion of a collective. It is of course broader, but not unlike the illusion of a collective purported by the idea of citizenship. You wrote an important insight:

    “It’s really not that difficult to understand that diversity means more than a bigger variety of Americans who subscribe to the same ideology.

    A lot of talk in America concerning rights centers around the idea that people deserve rights as Americans, which is preposterous because “American” is an invention only loosely tied to people of a certain geographical area, and most certainly not a qualifier of rights. People deserve their rights because they are people, not because of imaginary lines drawn on a map or declarations written on paper – however true those declarations may be.

    I know some of this is far off from what your post concentrated on, but I mention it to make a broader comment that the collective identify always fudges something, if not everything about the individual’s identity. You’re right to assert your individuality and reject broad labels; language is certainly not the only thing to allow for people to be clumsily grouped together, but I think you’ve made a good case for why it’s one of the most pervasive.

  5. People deserve their rights because they are people, not because of imaginary lines drawn on a map or declarations written on paper – however true those declarations may be.

    This is so important, and yet most discussions of rights these days completely ignore it.