What Language Does Europe Speak? Value Terms in different Countries
Bywords are a tricky thing, especially if they have been pocketed for political purposes. A good example is the term “freedom”. Originally the value-neutral designation for the possibility of acting or deciding without compulsion, it has as part of the motto of the French Revolution been charged with connotations that have to do with legal equality, political participation and economic development. From the point of view of socialist-inspired theorists, on the other hand, economic liberalism founds and consolidates social inequality and so is looked upon as the root of bondage.
Differences of nuance lead to problems of understanding
So far liberals and socialists can argue marvellously well in words the value of freedom, its meaning and the means of its defence. Especially when they come from different countries and, for good measure, from Western and Eastern Europe. The realisation that terms are used very differently in different political and social systems was the starting-point for a research project of the Universities of Jena and Halle. “We have a common core of convergent meanings, but often exactly the connotations of nuances are different, and that can lead to problems of understanding”, says Rosemarie Lühr, Professor for Indo-European Studies at the University of Jena, who is in charge of the work pertaining to the linguistic analysis of meaning.
As only those who know a country and its language well can grasp these connotations, the project is not only interdisciplinary but also international. Its goal is to develop a multi-lingual concordance of norm and value terms in East European languages such as Albanian, Armenian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Rumanian, Slovak, Hungarian and West European languages such as German, English, Italian and Spanish. According to the project description, these terms are to be explained on the basis of their social, intellectual and above all ethical backgrounds and compared using linguistic, philosophical and sociological methods. The research results will be entered over the next year into a database with an accompanying manual that places the key Eastern and Western value terms in their inter-cultural context.
After-effects of the break-up of systems
An international conference that took place in September 2010 in Jena reported on the state of the research. Jörg Oberthür, one of the organisers and assistant to the sociologist Professor Hartmut Rosa, who studies the social causes and consequences of differences in meaning and interpretations of value terms, was impressed by the findings of the linguistic analysis. They show, he said, that the much talked about process of European unification has to some extent long been underway. Striking, however, are the sometimes persistent after-effects produced by the break-up of political systems in the twentieth century.
When, for instance, the Treaty of Lisbon or the European Charter of Fundamental Rights speaks of freedom, equality and justice, it is far from guaranteed that each of these terms, which form the shared European coordinate system, is interpreted in the twenty-two other national languages that are currently spoken in the EU exactly as it is in Germany. “There is a certain basic common denominator of what democracy means”, says Oberthür, “namely popular participation in political decisions, or what human rights are, but there are also quite different interpretations of when and in which form the terms should be used, and so on”.
The issue of distributive justice in East and West
This can best be illustrated by the linguistic dilemma in Europe about the term “solidarity”. Whereas in the press reports that served as the basis for the research the term was in Germany bound up inseparably, like a “semantic particle”, with the idea of social “justice”, in Poland, where it is the designation of the eponymous resistance movement against the Communist regime, it is strongly associated with the struggle for freedom. Oberthür: “In Poland no one thinks of dragging the term into a fundamental controversy between political forces. Solidarność stands for the fight for freedom, and if it has axiological components, then they derive from the Christian discourse of brotherly love”.
But in spite of all divergences in detail, sociologists have observed a bottom line development in the direction of convergence. The irony of history is that it appears to have been born from necessity and is related to the shared experience of socio-economic upheavals in the wake of the systemic break-ups of the 1990s. The thesis proclaimed in the 1970s and 80s of a post-materialist value shift to idealist categories such as freedom, participation and self-development no longer appears to be in the cards. Today the number one issue is distributive justice, and it is equally on the mind of people in both East and West.
The author is a freelance editor, journalist and writer based in Landshut and Munich.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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