Jonathan Raban, "Summer with Empson", London Review of Books, 11/5/2009:
For an English-born reader, America is written in a language deceptively similar to one’s own and full of pitfalls and ‘false friends’. The word nature, for instance, means something different here – so do community, class, friend, tradition, home (think of the implications beneath the surface of the peculiarly American phrase ‘He makes his home in …’). These I’ve learned to recognise, but the longer I stay here the more conscious I am of nuances to which I must still remain deaf. The altered meanings and associations of American English, as it has parted company from its parent language over 400 years, reflect as great a difference in experience of the world as that between, say, the Germans and the French, but in this case the words are identical in form and so the difference is largely lost to sight.
Andrew Gelman, justifiably puzzled ("Two countries separated etc etc", 11/11/2009):
I can't tell if Raban is being serious or if he is making some sort of joke. The paradox of the statement above is that very few readers will be qualified to assess it.
In any case, if someone can explain to me how nature, community, class, friend, tradition, and home have different meanings in English and American, I'd appreciate it. I've read a lot of things written by English people but I have no idea whatsoever what he's taking about.
My own diagnosis is that Raban got carried away with his metaphorical alignment of landscapes and languages:
[R]eading, of the kind that Empson preached and practised, doesn’t stop at books, but makes the larger world legible.
Trying to understand the habitat in which we live requires an ability to read it – and not just in a loose metaphorical sense. Every inhabited landscape is a palimpsest, its original parchment nearly blackened with the cross-hatching of successive generations of authors, claiming the place as their own, and imposing their designs on it, as if their temporary interpretations would stand for ever. Later over-writing has obscured all but a few, incompletely erased fragments of the earliest entries, but one can still pick out a phrase here, a word there, and see how the most recently dried layer of scribble is already being partially effaced by fresh ink.
The resulting overdose of cross-categorial enthusiasm leads him to imply that French and German are separated by a mere 400 years "difference in experience of the world". This is preposterous to start with, but it's a fitting foundation for the equally preposterous notion that American and British English words have become as different semantically as French words are from their German counterparts.
The landscape-is-language metaphor is familiar and by now almost banal, exploited for example by Baudelaire:
La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.
Turning this trope around into the metaphor language-is-landscape has gotten people into much worse trouble than Raban's silly U.S.-English:U.K-English::French:German analogy. Consider this famous passage from Roland Barthes, "De l'œuvre au texte", 1971:
Le Texte n'est pas coexistence de sens, mais passage, traversée ; il ne peut donc relever d'une interprétation, même libérale, mais d'une explosion, d'une dissémination. Le pluriel du Texte tient, en effet, non à l'ambiguïté de ses contenus, mais à ce que l'on pourrait appeler la pluralité stéréographique des signifiants qui le tissent (étymologiquement le texte est un tissu) : le lecteur du Texte pourrait être comparé à un sujet désœuvré (qui aurait détendu en lui tout imaginaire) : ce sujet passablement vide se promène (c'est ce qui est arrivé à l'auteur de ces lignes, et c'est là qu'il a pris une idée vive du Texte) au flanc d'une vallée au bas de laquelle coule un oued (l'oued est mis là pour attester un certain dépaysement) ; ce qu'il perçoit est multiple, irréductible, provenant de substances et de plans hétérogènes, décrochés : lumières, couleurs, végétations, chaleur, air ; explosions ténues de bruits, minces cris d'oiseaux, voix d'enfants, de l'autre côté de la vallée, passages, gestes, vêtements d'habitants tout prés ou très loin ; tous ces incidents sont à demi identifiables : ils proviennent de codes connus, mais leur combinatoire est unique, fonde la promenade en différence qui ne pourra se répéter que comme différence. C'est ce qui se passe pour le Texte : il ne peut être lui que dans sa différence (ce qui ne veut pas dire son, individualité); sa lecture semelfactive (ce qui rend illusoire toute science inductive-déductive des textes : pas de "grammaire" du texte), et cependant entièrement tissés de citations, de références, d'échos: langages culturels (quel langage ne le serait pas ?), antécédents ou contemporains, qui le traversent de part en part dans une vaste stéréophonie.
Here's an English translation from Josue V. Harari, Textual strategies: perspectives in post-structuralist criticism, 1979:
The Text is not coexistence of meanings but passage, traversal; thus it answers not to an interpretation, liberal though it may be, but to an explosion, a dissemination. The Text's plurality does not depend on the ambiguity of its contents, but rather on what could be called the stereographic plurality of the signifiers that weave it (etymologically the text is a cloth; textus, from which text derives, means "woven").
The reader of the Text could be compared to an ideal subject (a subject having relaxed his "imaginary"1): this fairly empty subject strolls along the side of a valley at the bottom of which runs a wadi (I use wadi here to stress a certain feeling of unfamiliarity). What he sees is multiple and irreducible; it emerges from substances and levels that are hetereogeneous and disconnected: lights, colors, vegetation, heat, air, bursts of noise, high-pitched bird calls, children's cries from the other side of the valley, paths, gestures, clothing of close and distant inhabitants. All these occurrences are partially identifiable: they proceed from known codes, but their combination is unique, founding the stroll in difference that can be repreated only as difference. This is what happens in the case of the Text: it can be itself only in its difference (which does not mean its "individuality"); its reading is semelfactive (which renders all inductive-deductive sciences of texts illusory — there is no "grammar" of the text) and yet completely woven with quotations, references, and echoes. These are cultural languages (and what language is not?), past and present, that traverse the text from one end to the other in a vast stereophony.
fn 1 "Qui aurait détendu en lui tout imaginaire." Imaginary is not simply the opposite of real. Used in the Lacanian sense, it is the register, the dimension of all images, conscious or unconscious, perceived or imagined.
Seems like a harmless little flight of poetic fancy? But this seductive collection of Heideggerian ideas has ruined most of literary analysis and much of social science for going on half a century. Raban's absurd exaggeration of trans-Atlantic linguistic divergence is nothing in comparison.