Is Language a Virus? Starring Punished “Venom” Snake | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios


Here’s an idea. Your language is your homeland. Also bet you can’t see me. This episode of Idea Channel
is brought to you by Dropbox. “Metal Gear Solid V:
The Phantom Pain,” which is the 22nd entry
into the metal gear series of action adventure
stealth games created by famed video games
skipper Hideo Kojima and published by Konami
begins with this epigraph. “It is no nation we
inhabit but a language. Make no mistake, our native
tongue is our true fatherland.” This quote is taken from
“Anathemas and Admirations” by the Romanian born
philosopher Emil Cioran, who’s best known for his work written
not in Romanian but in French. It’s more commonly
translated into English as, “One does not
inhabit a country. One inhabits a language. That is our country, our
fatherland and no other.” What’s funny and weird
and maybe kind of perfect is that “Metal Gear Solid V”
doesn’t take this quote out of context. It has no context, not really. It comes in a long list
of unconnected theses. The one before it reads,
“Immense, supernatural aridity, as if I were beginning a second
existence on another planet where speech is unknown in a
universe refractory to language and incapable of creating
such a thing for itself.” Inconceivable! We may be led very
rightly to ask what Cioran is getting at exactly. And weirdly, I think
“Metal Gear Solid V” sort of answers that question. But before the theory, let’s
begin with a bit of big bots background. If you’re already familiar
with “Metal Gear Solid V,” you can click here
to skip ahead. But if not, be forewarned,
spoilers ahead. So “Metal Gear Solid
V: The Phantom Pain” is about punished Venom
Snake’s quest for revenge after the destruction of his
former mercenary organization NSF and its headquarters,
the Mother Base, at the end of “Metal Gear
Solid V: Ground Zeroes.” In the process of
said destruction, Snake ends up in
a nine year coma. And “The Phantom Pain”
begins with him waking up. Eventually, Snake learns that
his longtime enemy, and man both with and named
Skull Face, who commands the CIA
covert unit turned renegade paramilitary
organization XOF, has developed a
bioterrorism plot to kill everyone who speaks English. Skull Face was snatched
from his home as a child but says it wasn’t
until he was forced to abandon his native
tongue of Hungarian that he was truly
torn from his elders. English is the
language of captors and is itself parasitic
in more ways than one. Destroy it, he suggests,
and chaos would ensue. That chaos in his
mind would ultimately return cultures and people
corrupted by the global lingua franca of English to
their former integrity while also ushering
in a world united by a different common
tongue, nuclear weapons. Skull Face, not an OK guy. Also kind of makes
me wonder what Kojima thinks about English. How would he do
this, you may ask? Well, Code Talker, an old
Navajo parasitologist, discovered a vocal cord
parasite on the remains of a dead sharpshooter–
don’t ask– which has mutated into two strains. One infects people via
a specific language and kills them if they speak it. How convenient. And another infects people
via a specific language and gives them crazy super
fast zombie superpowers which sometimes
require that they wear basically no clothing. How even double convenient-er. [TAKES BREATH] I’m gonna go sit down now. So now that the
background’s covered, why would Skull Face do this,
create and release a language parasite? To answer that,
we’re going to start with another quote
about language from scholar of Yiddish Max
Weinreich, who popularized the idea that a language
is a dialect with an army and a navy, which compresses
into a very small space the relationship between what
one speaks or understands and where geographically,
politically, and culturally they are from. We’re going to talk about
those three things, location, politics, and mode of
thought, as they relate to the distinction between
language and dialect in order starting
in northern Europe. It could be argued that
Danish and Norwegian, given their similarities, are really
dialects of the same language and not two distinct languages. But Norway and Denmark both have
states, borders, and armies. So this makes it much
easier to see theirs as separate languages,
though their vocab and syntax resembles
those of two dialects within the same language. On the other hand, Wenzhounese,
a dialectical Wu Chinese nicknamed the devil’s
language because of its notorious
difficulty, isn’t considered its own
language, though yes, it is nicknamed one, even though
it’s so different that most Chinese can’t speak or read it. The Wenzhou people are not
of sufficient political power to warrant a state apparatus. So what they speak is a dialect,
even though its individuality means it resembles a language. This means that we can read
Metal Gear Solid’s epigraph differently based upon how we
consider language to indicate someone’s linguistic origin. Is it how they
communicate, the words that come out of their mouth,
or where geographically they live that determines their
true linguistic fatherland? On the one hand, how
we speak with one another can establish
or advertise a powerful sense
of belonging, one that complements or
transcends the sense of belonging based on whatever
border we’re enclosed by. A dialect can be
our true fatherland, distinct from the
larger linguistic, political,
geographical situation that the speaker lives within. That stuff becomes context
but not necessarily country. But on the other
hand, Norwegian, Danish, Chinese, and
English are all languages with countless diverse dialects. Speakers of those dialects
can perhaps unwillingly be conscripted into
whatever ideals those languages represent. Unique dialects don’t indicate
any particularly distinct home country from this perspective. And all people who live
under the national banner of a particular language
become homogenized, though they may not easily
understand one another. So then which is it? Is one’s fatherland the people
with whom they communicate the best or the political and
social banner under which they live? Well, Skull Face I
think has an idea. Language to him is
a political entity. English specifically
signifies a group of people who have infected
the world, unmoored it from tradition. He wants to kill everyone
who speaks English. And I think he means
English, the language with an army of
disparate speakers, and not English, the collection
of dialects spoken by people who understand one another. His concern isn’t
the sound of English or even the specific
people who speak it but its political associations. It’s not an ethnic
cleanser, he says. It’s a liberator. Whoever speaks English, Skull
Face says, is afflicted. Skull Face’s theory
hinges on something known as linguistic determinism,
that the language one speaks affects how they view the world. Each particular language,
this theory goes, organizes the perceptions
of its speakers. Essentially, we can’t
fully experience what we can’t properly
formulate with language. And there is some
scientific backing to this, which you can check
out here, boop, if you want. In “Metal Gear Solid V,” Skull
Face is a die hard, literally, linguistic determinist. He’d say that language afflicts
its speakers with perceptions, politics, ideologies,
and outlooks. Of even himself, he says,
language is peculiar. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts and my personality,
how I saw right and wrong. But remember,
Skull Face is a man with a skull for a face, trope
numero uno for, he’s a bad guy. I am not nice. In real life, it’s
not so black and white. Speakers of two
different languages aren’t necessarily prone to see
right and wrong differently, though they may experience
colors, groups, numbers, relationships, or even their
own feelings differently. It’s sort of like
how in English we don’t have an exact analog for
schadenfreude, the kind of glee that you feel seeing someone
else totally bite it. But at least when
I first learned it, I was like, oh, whoa, I
didn’t know that there was a word for this feeling. It was like a spotlight
shining on a dark place in my own brain or possibly
a virus infecting it. It’s possible that
Skull Face happens to be a fan of beat novelist
and renowned substance abuser William S Burroughs,
who in his 1970 essay “Electronic Revolution”
famously declares, “language is a virus.” He means it pretty literally. He says, this is not an
allegorical comparison. Western languages are in
point of fact actual virus mechanisms. The language virus, he
says, has infected humanity for its own survival,
but there are side effects, an unconscious
response to linguistic cues. Burroughs focuses on highly
conspiratorial stuff, like inciting riots. But some of it weirdly
connects to Skull Face and linguistic determinism. Language, each person’s
own language, in some way infects the culture
and perceptions of the people who speak it. It structures our
understanding of and reactions to
the world in ways beyond our immediate grasp. Reality, Burroughs says,
is produced by the language virus inside the host. To Skull Face, the subjective
reality produced by English is a sickness, awful,
and perhaps more virulent than other languages,
worthy of destruction. Skull Face is also
a supervillain. However, one half of maybe one
half of Skull Face’s gripes is sort of on point. There are downsides to global
cultural homogenization often marked by the dominance
of one particular language. But responsibility
for those things can’t be laid at the feet
of one set of speakers. Skull Face says English
is sucking minds dry. But really, its
modern global spread is a symptom, not
the sickness itself. In both the game and
our real, actual world, markets, politics,
media, and culture are all implicated as well. Either way, the
ability of language to structure different
subjectivities based on its strengths
and shortcomings is an amazing and imminently
celebratable feature of both communication
and the human brain. Differing subjectivities
are the bread and butter of human experience. Philosopher of cultural
anthropology Dorothy Lee, writing about differing
languages describing reality, said, translating between
languages and therefore realities, quote, “may
even eventually lead us to aspects of reality from
which our own code excludes us.” The flip side of this is
that the ability for language to structure
subjectivities which feel so foreign, to
support and even help construct experiences
of the world which are so unfamiliar, so alien to
one’s own is exactly what can make some group of
people seem so other. If you’re like Dorothy Lee,
you may see these rifts as possibilities and
perspectives which as a sum total could
contribute to some greater understanding of
the world more so than one language
or one perspective ever could on its own. However, if you’re
like Skull Face, you may see the whole
arrangement as dangerous and potentially
dehumanizing, at which point you may aim to wage nuclear war. Based upon what I
know of you though, I’m guessing that you’re
more like the former, more like Dorothy Lee. I guess I’m– maybe I’m
hoping that you’re more like the former, like Dorothy Lee. Please don’t wage nuclear
war is what I’m saying. What do you guys think? Is language a virus? Or in what way do you
think the language you speak is your homeland? Let us know in the comments, and
I will respond to some of them in next week’s comment
response video. In this week’s comment
response video, we talk about your thoughts
regarding whether or not it’s possible that
Ron is Dumbledore and if JK Rowling’s thoughts
on the matter matter at all. If you want to watch that,
you can click here or find a link in the doobly doo. And hey, before we get any
further, it’s nice to be back. It’s good to see everybody. I mean, I can’t actually see. I’m not spying on you. But it’s nice to be–
it’s nice to be back. I hope everybody had
a good Thanksgiving or, I guess, Thursday,
as the case may be. Oh. And also in the
comment response video, we talked a little bit
about your thoughts regarding Christmas creep. That’s also in there,
just a couple of those. That comment section
was really good, by the way, very interesting. I learned a lot. This week’s tweet
of the week comes from Kyle Wyatt, who points
us towards an Errant Signal video, which is just good
like they always are. Man, I love Errant
Signal’s videos so much about “Fallout 4” and its
relationship to role playing. It is a great, great watch. Not surprised. Chris, you do such good stuff. This week’s episode
of Idea Channel was sponsored by Dropbox. Whether you’re designing,
presenting, writing, or building, Dropbox makes
it easy to work together on any file. Because if you can work with
anyone, anywhere, any way you want, the world
will surely be full of more interesting things. Dropbox. All yours. We have a Facebook, an
IRC, and a subreddit link in the doobly doo. And of course, this
episode would not have been possible
without the hard work of these fine, solid, liquid,
venomous, punished snakes. I mean, they’re people, but
you get what I’m saying.

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