Derrida's thoughts about language
Recently Waqar, Polina and Tanja joined a reading circle and talked about Derrida’s book Monolingualism of the Other; or; The Prosthesis of Origin (1998). In the book Derrida writes about languages, mother tongue, culture and identities among other things. First we tell shortly about Derrida and then discuss some of the quotes that we found most interesting.
Derrida’s contribution to philosophy
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was a philosopher who was born in Algeria and died in France. He has written about philosophy, literature, languages, anthropology and psycholinguistics. The work of Derrida is significant in poststructuralist thinking. His paper on 'Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences' presented at John Hopkins University in 1966 critiqued 'structuralism', a dominant theory in social sciences in the 1960s, which later appeared in ‘Writing in Difference’ in 1967. According to Derrida (2016), structuralism seeks the ‘objective reality’ by emphasizing the 'center of meaning', just like many western philosophies. He attacked the idea of center and proposed a 'notion of non-center' in the pursuit for ‘truth’. This attack was equally oriented toward theological doctrines that place the ‘divine’ as the center of meaning. For Derrida, meaning when placed in the ‘center’ creates a space for monopoly of truth and knowledge. For example, Rene Descartes, a French philosopher and founder of modern rationalism, thought that ‘thinking’ is the basis for the truth, as his popular maxim goes: ‘I think therefore I am.’. Likewise, Rousseau, a French philosopher considered ‘nature’ as the primary source of meaning for life and truth. Derrida, however, deviated from ‘center’ as the dominant meaning in the way of understanding ‘reality’.
Derrida introduced the concept of ‘deconstruction’ that served as an engine for poststructuralism. The term ‘deconstruction’ was first used by Derrida in his seminal work, 'Of Grammatology', published in 1967 to examine language and the construction of meaning. Like other post-structuralist thinkers, Derrida sees no fixed connection between the word and its meaning. Meaning for him lies in power and identity. Derrida argued that there are no absolute meanings, nor are there any absolute truths. The words in poststructuralist thought are seen as ‘unstable entities’. Additionally, Derrida also deconstructed the binary oppositions that prevailed in the western philosophy over the centuries. He deconstructed all the binary oppositions (e.g., male/female, light/dark, life/death) and considered them the result of cultural manipulation of power since he believed that if there exists a binary opposition, there would be a notion of priority of one category over the other.
Quotes and reflections from the book Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin (1998)
In the book Derrida touches upon many issues related to language. He talks for example about the relation between an individual and their languages, the role of culture, citizenship, identity and belonging in relation to languages. He raises these questions against the backdrop of his personal experience as Algerian-French of Jewish descent, raised in a multilingual country.
I find the following quote by Derrida interesting:
There is no natural property of language; language gives rise only to appropriative madness, to jealousy without appropriation. Language speaks this jealousy; it is nothing but jealously unleashed. It takes its revenge at the heart of the law. the law that, moreover, language itself is, apart from also being mad. Mad about itself. Raving mad. (p. 24)
According to Derrida, language is a socially constructed phenomenon, rather than having any intrinsic properties. Its subject-matter – the rules that govern it – are socially determined. Languages therefore contain bias; and what we think of as 'knowledge' or 'truth' is an outcome of linguistic processes. Language constructs 'truths' that are considered as 'absolute' and 'universal'. Derrida questions and doubts knowledge as it is constructed through language. According to him, language is unstable. Meaning is not fixed as it appears in dictionaries. Rather, meaning is a dynamic process. It is constantly changing.
In another quote, Derrida talks about how our sense of self is constructed:
Disorderness of the identity affects the very construction of ‘I’, the formation of the speaking, the ‘me-I’, or the appearance as such, of a ‘pre-ecological ipseity’. (p.29)
Derrida argues that the self as perceived to be ‘fixed’ and ‘stable’ is actually a product of language. A person's "self" is often conceptualized as their "identity" in the natural sense. But for Derrida, both the ‘identity’ and the ‘self’ are problematic notions. This is because he believes we get lost into the language; our ‘being’ or ‘self’ is a linguistic construction. The language we use constructs our sense of self. As the language we use is unstable, the meanings that create our sense of self are also unstable, thereby affecting our sense of self. It is the linguistic "self" that we refer to as "identity". For Derrida, the human ‘self’ is a disorder of identity, which implies that it is influenced by the linguistic and social processes.
The discovery of French literature, the access to this so unique mode of writing that is called "French-literature" was the experience of a world without any tangible continuity with the one in which we lived, with almost nothing in common with our natural or social landscapes. (p.45)
In the paragraph preceding this quote, Derrida contemplates what he has learned from French education while Algeria was under French colonial rule. In this quote Derrida reflects on the outcome and on the forced nature of French culture. I find it interesting how he refers to discontinuity between the forced French and the everyday natural world. This illustrates how the rules, norms and ways of thinking and doing are imposed by the colonizer and these impositions often disregard and sometimes even erase the heritage of the colonized.
One entered French literature only by losing one's accent. I think I have not lost my accent; not everything in my "French Algerian" accent is lost. (p.45)
In the passages preceding this quote, Derrida points out that he especially enjoyed French literature, however he refers to it as “French-literature” – a unique mode of writing. Here Derrida accentuates on the disparity between the “proper” French and “French Algerian” literature. He builds his argument on, at first glance, two contrasting points. First, he accentuates the idea that French literature can be accessed only after one loses their accent and approaches “pure” French but next he asserts that he has not lost his accent. It is important to note that Derrida uses quotation marks which align with the constructed nature of “French Algerian” accent. I think that the two quotes illustrate deconstruction in action – Derrida erases the line between the binary of writing and speech, by referring to French-literature as a mode of writing and asserting that one needs to lose one’s accent to enter it.
I am monolingual. My monolingualism dwells, and I call it my dwelling; it feels like one to me, and I remain in it and inhabit it. It inhabits me. The monolingualism in which I draw my very breath is, for me, my element. Not a natural element, not the transparency of the ether, but an absolute habitat. It is impassable, indisputable: I cannot challenge it except by testifying to its omnipresence in me. It would always have preceded me. It is me. For me, this monolingualism is me. (p. 1)
I find this quote interesting because it describes the meaning that language has in our everyday life. Derrida’s mother tongue was French, but in the book he reflects on what kind of French he has learned in French Algeria and its relation to his heritage. This quote manages to capture the presence of language in everything we do. The metaphor of a language that’s inhabiting a person makes one think about how language and communication surrounds us, and is in us: in thinking, in writing, in speaking and in understanding. It really has omnipresence in us. This is a quote that makes language teacher to think about the importance of learning languages. Quote goes on:
That certainly does not mean to say, and do not believe, that I am some allegorical figure of this animal or that truth called monolingualism. But I would not be myself outside it. (p. 1)
The language, and mother tongue, is a complex issue for Derrida, as he says that French is the language he learned, but he can never call it his “mother tongue” (p. 34). He claims that no one can possess or own their language and call it theirs, even though for national, political and colonial reasons we have tried to claim so, language is rather always someone other’s (p. 23-25). In the quote “But I would not be myself outside it” he notes the importance that language still has for building’s one’s identity and self, as Waqar also wrote above. Derrida also writes how language is an essential part of our passion, prayers and hopes - even love, which are all crucial elements in constructing ourselves. Because of that, we need to also think, how to save disappearing or dying languages, as to survive in our times, it’s quite often necessary to learn the dominant language - be it national or language of capitalism and machines (p. 30).
Derrida, J. (1967). Sign, structure, and play in the discourse of the human sciences. Writing and difference, 278-293.
Derrida, J. (1998). Monolingualism of the Other; or; The Prosthesis of Origin. Translation by Patrick Mensah. Stanford University Press: Stanford.
Derrida, J. (2016). Of grammatology. Jhu Press.
Waqar Ali Shah is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Applied language Studies (CALS), University of Jyväskylä, Finland. His areas of research interests include politics of the official knowledge, textbooks and curriculum analysis using critical and poststructuralist traditions in applied linguistics. He has contributed several newspaper and magazine articles. In addition, he authored a book entitled ‘De-idealizing Cultural Orthodoxy’ in 2019 as a social critique of Pakistani society.
Polina Vorobeva is a doctoral researcher in Applied Linguistics at the Department of Language and Communication studies, University of Jyväskylä. Her research interests include multilingualism, especially family multilingualism, family language policy and nexus analysis. She is currently working on her dissertation which explores family language policy in single-parent families.
Tanja Seppälä is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Applied Language Studies (CALS), University of Jyväskylä. Her research interests are Finnish as a second language learning, integration and language education. She is researching second language learning and use in her dissertation.