Consequence of Writing in English

Stamp Hannah Arendt
Stamp Hannah Arendt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often wonder which language I should use. I used to be obsessed by the English language, trying to learn it as fast and as good as I could. Until I realised that whatever I would do, I would never be considered a native speaker, even when my command of that language would be well-above average. I even met native English speakers who were not pleased when I confronted them with their poor command of their own language. So, I decided to stop my obsession, and recognise my being Dutch above all. I even write plays in Dutch again. Who would have guessed!

But now I find myself writing my PhD in English. I actually prefer it over Dutch, my own native language, as it forces me to think more carefully. Dutch is still my high school language, anyone who tries to talk philosophy in Dutch, seems funny to me. Unless it is of course Heideggerian-language translated from German to Dutch. That can be considered the highest form of nonsense available in the Dutch philosophy circles, according to my humble opinion, of course.

So, I write in English. I translate my thoughts constantly. It makes my writing a little slower and more precise, if that is even possible in continental philosophical circles… And it makes me look up words that I write in the dictionary, words of which I don’t actually know the meaning, but seem to fit perfectly. So far, this has always been the case.

Writing in any language is problematic. Maurice Blanchot even says that language is killing the thing named (Work of Fire, chapter “Literature and the Right to Death”). But he was not the first. Plato’s agitation of focussing on the reflection on the Ideas on the wall of the cave and Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author play around with the same theme. And let’s not forget Walter Benjamin’s lovely reflection on translation.

Somehow I am still attracted by Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, recently (2002) published in full (2 parts). It is extremely interesting even if just from the point of view of the use of language and translation. As she wrote her diaries only for herself, she writes an entry in the language that is most available. She does not translate. Greek quotes are commented upon in German. English entries become more frequent as Arendt resides longer in the US. Interesting how language works. But it would be extremely interesting how language works on thought. Exactly.

Author: Nobyeni

Freelance Philosopher (PhD). Writer. Thinker. Interested in radical change and human being. Playwright. Dutch World citizen. Lover of books, language, art and coffee.

3 thoughts on “Consequence of Writing in English”

  1. Interesting point! I studied some linguistics during my BA and there is a lot of literature on how language effects thought. Most bilingual speakers do report a change in their thought-patterns when talking and thinking in different languages, so there certainly is an effect. This issue was also addressed in the BBC’s documentary series ‘Planet Word’ with Stephen Fry.
    As for choosing which language to write in, it is something I have also struggled with. I wrote a blog post about it here: http://emmivisser.com/2013/05/11/writing-different-languages/
    However, that post pertains to creative writing only. For academic writing, it is 100% English for me. I have only written a handful of academic articles in Dutch and it was always a struggle. English has grammatical constructions that work very well for academic language and Dutch simply doesn’t have those. To me, Dutch academic sources always sound a bit amateurish. Which is prejudice, of course!

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