Friday, January 21, 2011

Lingua tertii imperii/The Language of The Third Reich

Wednesday I attended a panel meeting arranged by Danish PEN at Literaturhaus about Victor Klemperers book "Lingua Tertii Imperii" on the occasion of its first translation into Danish.

Here is a small quote from the preface (mine, so probably different than the authorised version):
"Words effect us like small doses of arsenic: They are swallowed unnoticed, they don't seem to have any effect, but after some time the toxin shows its face after all."

Klemperer was a jewish linguist during WWI + II, who recorded and described the linguistic changes during these years. And most importantly, how these changes affected policy-making and the rise of the Third Reich. I haven't read it yet, but it's on the top of my list!

 With this book as its starting point, the debate mostly concerned the function of language in today's political reality. I was a bit annoyed by the debate, since it was a gathering of 80 people all agreeing on all issues: The government is wrong, right wing politicians are racists, and if they simply go away, all our troubles are solved. Not that I don't agree at least partially with these points of view, but - as one of adience members pointed out - it's simply too easy to just blame the government in office; the truth is that left wing parties have also radicalized their language use the last decade in a degree few had imagined. So, in order to go against this radical, xenophobic use of language, we have to look into not just the government but all political parties; not just into clearly racist talk, but small, unnoticed changes; the words we normally consider to have a universal meaning, but gradually are taken to mean quite different things.

 I won't go on and on about this for hours (unless you really want me too?), but for those of you interested, the rhetorical critic Michael McGee wrote an interesting article about these ideological changes in specific words three decades ago. It's called “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology”, and you can find it in the Quarterly Journal of Speech from 1980.

For the Danish speaking among you, it might be interesting to check out a radio show made by "The Second Radio" (Den anden radio) about the book and its author.

1 comment:

Rasmus Therkildsen said...

I was at the discussion to. It really started some thoughts about how we use the language and also about what we are really saying without knowing it.
LTI can only be recommended.