Particularly in the past, people closely associated legal with historical studies. Joint debating societies evidently emphasised skills such as oratory and rhetoric, although precision in the use of language may have been the most important, supposed, common denominator. This is not always evident.
I used to believe that one of the great pitfalls that can befall those examining the literature of Ireland dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the frequent use of buzzwords that had no literal or precise meanings. However, perhaps this is actually an issue facing all societies in every age? An interesting debate in digital humanities literature is how the use of language sometimes creates ideological prisons that can, consciously or unconsciously, end up framing the thought of whole societies. Perhaps one can call it the use of “fake words”, instead of “fake news”, that create inappropriate premises of thought which, in turn, frame an entire way of thinking.
Many central and eastern Europeans of the Vaclav Havel variety saw their rejection of totalitarian ideologies and the embrace of a pan-Europeanism after 1989 as entirely their own impulse, or creation, rooted not least in a semi-religious conception of freedom of thought that was open to a supranational conception of civil and cultural rights as a direct reaction against a century of ideological straightjackets that had been created by some benighted intellectuals. From this perspective, a western liberal media labelling of the intellectual influence of religion in eastern European as a disturbing “far right” phenomenon may seem not only highly incongruous but also a manifestation of how easy it is for a society to view matters purely through its own peculiar ideological goggles, coining a language that automatically sets up a framework of understanding that does not necessarily fit the picture. How often are isolated individuals labelled as manifestations of real international as well as ideological trends and an entire journalistic and academic trend in linguistics ensues?
Another example may be the saturation media coverage of recent and ongoing events in Britain without a precise use of language by either media or political figures. One might wonder how can “Brexit mean Brexit” when ‘Brexit’ is not actually a word! I am pretty sure that the terminology ‘hard border’ originated purely in an internal British debate on migration and security arising from its war in Iraq, but one would not necessarily gather this from recent usage of the term in the media and by politicians.
Maybe it is not surprising, therefore, that probably the most interesting perspective on what has been taking place in Britain has been a legal-historical one that has emphasised a context of developments that can easily slip one’s mind. The legal concept of parliamentary sovereignty in Britain is superior to that of the legal authority of the courts, while public referendums can have no legal meaning in the United Kingdom not least because Britain, unlike many European countries, is not a republic and has no written constitution. Sovereignty rests in the parliament and the crown, not the courts or the citizens of the state that technically are merely subjects of the crown. Seen from this perspective, Britain is not merely, or even primarily, engaged in a perpetual game of party-political manoeuvring (which some tend to view as a chaotic situation). Instead, it is actually playing out, entirely at its own leisure and according to its own legal premises, a process of constitutional self-reflection in order to reassert the legal issue of the parliamentary sovereignty of Westminster. This will probably be an ongoing process for many years because, according to the British constitutional tradition, it is and has been a perpetual process for centuries, based on a belief that Westminster, by definition, has always occupied its own distinct orbit throughout history. As such, any expectation of a definitive closure to developments in Britain is practically mistaken. Parliament will automatically refuse to be bound by any legal commitment because it will always refuse to bind itself. The rest of the world might be glad if Britain developed a written constitution based on principles such as the supremacy of the constitution, popular sovereignty and citizens’ rights but as no republican movement in Britain has ever won more than 60 thousand supporters in a country of over 60 million people this is unlikely to ever happen. The “R word” is a British taboo, both legally and intellectually, and an extension of this reality is that the terminology used in British analyses of international affairs, including when referring to concepts such as liberalism or even “neo-liberalism”, are often based on very different premises to what readers of other nationalities may infer, even if they use the same English language.
Do you “speak my language” or do I speak yours? When it comes to history, perhaps the unavoidable conclusion one must draw is that language is a lot less precise phenomenon that we may wish it to be! Legal terminology often does have a very precise definition. Yet, it is curious how, culturally at least, it often seems that barristers are frequently fonder of high-flown literary fiction, as well as journalistic commentaries, than are historians because of their greater affection for rhetoric. I have heard it said that Vaclav Havel was a fan of Frank Zappa who was a fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but my unavoidable conclusion regarding language usage tends to flow in a different direction: if instrumental music is the sonic equivalent of maths, then the most logical form of human expression lies there and all else is either a Tower of Babel or else some imitative form of poetry that is aspiring to the qualities of instrumental music. Why then did I feel strangely compelled to write this (improvisational) blog entry in the first place? I do not know. The mystery continues until the tune begins.