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Schutz’ Stranger

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on April 21, 2009 1 Comment

In reading On Phenomenology and Social Relations, I was struck by some glorious lines Alfred Schutz (1970) penned on language. You find these lines in the chapter entitled Social Means of Orientation and Interpretation, which begins by situating language in the context of culture:

“In order to command a language freely as a scheme of expression, one must have written love letters in it; one has to know how to pray and curse in it and how to say things with every shade appropriate to the addressee and to the situation. Only members of the in-group have the scheme of expression as a genuine one in hand and command it freely within their thinking as usual.” (p. 98)

At first glance, my reaction to these lines was to think of how poetic they were, how sweetly romantic, almost. There’s an aesthetic, magical dimension to the knowing of a language, to being able to lovingly dominate it, I thought. It was as if my spirits soared with the wonder in those words. Then I think again. I have done some of those things in some languages, but not all in any. I don’t recall penning a “love letter” in any language other than English or French. But I have received them in other languages, and basked in their warmth, as an in-group member would-does that count? I know only to pray in Sanskrit, and I certainly can’t maneuver around the language much. I can curse some in English, French, German, Bahasa Indonesia, and Hindi/Urdu, but not at all in Bengali (my mother tongue), because I did not grow up hearing it much outside the home (where cussing was not encouraged, with only the mildest forms employed). And, speaking “with every shade appropriate to the addressee and to the situation”…hmm…not always. Because I grew up speaking Bengali with my parents and my older sister, I still use the most formal “apni” (you) form when speaking to someone I have just met, usually even if they are my age. Bengali speakers growing up in immersion context would start with tumi (you, informal), if it is someone who is close to them in age. I noticed recently when I met a young Bengali post-doc here recently that I stubbornly kept addressing him as “apni” even though he kept saying “tumi.” Finally, it was with some irritation he said, “Why are you saying “apni”? I am “tumi”!” Because of my limited exposure to Bangla outside the home, I end up in these sorts of sticky situations all the time, situations that are jarring to those who would ordinarily perceive me as members of the in-group.

Of course, Schutz doesn’t mean to imply, I don’t think, that we need to be able to do all these things, i.e., cuss, pray, express our love, in a particular language, to be able to know it or manipulate its schemes of expression. It merely expresses the ways in which the scheme of expression can manifest itself among native speakers. But in that episteme, perhaps, I might then be said to have only very partial schemes of expression because my abilities are distributed. I know some of eight languages, do I know most of none? Am I a pure in-grouper in none: excluded, outside, alone in every language? That would possibly be an extreme reading of Schutz’ take…I myself have always felt that my schemes of interpretation multiplied with the acquisition of languages…what if…oh horror…! Am I a stranger in every language I think I know?

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One Response to “Schutz’ Stranger”

  1. aaminahm on: 24 April 2009 at 10:29 am

    Not a stranger. I would think that your are more of a visitor of certain languages. You visit the language whenever you invoke it. As a visitor you are only inclined to access what you can. You are never a stranger when you go home for a visit.

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