Who’s Number One?


On Translation

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and the role of the first person.


Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

It can be staggering to realize, suddenly, that something you’ve never thought about—something you’ve always accepted as real—is just an article of faith. Language is often what turns the lightbulb on: someone defines reality afresh with a new word (mansplaining, Rebecca Solnit) or by showing the hidden powers and interconnections of an old word (debt, David Graeber). Rarely is the realization about language itself.

Of all the dogmas of classical antiquity, only grammar has held its ground. Euclidean geometry, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic medicine, Roman law, Christian doctrine—the schools have radically demolished them all. But even now, Alexandrine grammar still reigns.

The quote is from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973), a deeply idiosyncratic Christian theoretician of the modern era. (All translations are mine, from the two-volume The Language of the Human Race: An Incarnate Grammar in Four Parts [Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine leibhafte Grammatik in vier Teilen].) Rosenstock-Huessy inspired a few cognoscenti, including W. H. Auden and Peter Sloterdijk, but he is still, it is safe to say, deeply, deeply obscure. It is hard to know what to do with him. I certainly find off-putting the self-evident all-importance of Christ’s Birth or God’s Divine Purpose, which he regularly tosses into his philosophical arguments. (Auden: “Anyone reading him for the first time may find, as I did, certain aspects of his writings a bit hard to take … Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.”) The grammatical dogma he means, though—and which he spent more than one 1,900-page book in mortal combat against—is the innocent-looking list dating back to the Greeks: first person, second person, third person. I love, you love, he/she/it loves, or, if you studied Latin, amo, amas, amat.

We all learn languages according to these lists. What can possibly be meaningful about them? … In the Alexandrine ordering, every person is subjected to the same drill. All persons seem to speak the same way. This is where the fatal error arises. Much of our confusion about social relations and much of our ignorance of language can be derived directly from this one mistake. Stringing together amo, amas, amat, amamus, etc., gives rise to the impression that all these “judgments” can and should be treated as though they had the same interpersonal meaning. The effect, on anyone who learns such a sequence, is the opinion that every indicative sentence is spoken with the same degree of “passion.” My claim is that amat and amo and amas are worlds apart, from a social perspective, and thus must not be taught as parallel. The Alexandrine list is not serious.

He’s not saying we need to add a “fourth-person” form, for instance for the Ojibwe obviative, or a “zero person” for impersonal constructions as in Finnish. He’s saying that making “I” the first person is the original sin not only of linguistics but of philosophy, science, and social life itself. And he means it. Theoretically, it flattens out lived experience into cold and heartless reports, assimilating everything to a third-person “statement” of “fact” that requires no personal courage, has no social stakes.

Amat is spoken as a fact, without any inner involvement in it. It informs about something. Amo and Amas, on the other hand, cannot be spoken without serious social consequences. Amo is an admission, indeed it confesses a secret. Amas claims something. Both presuppose passion, and so we must study what passion and emphasis mean as social elements of grammar.

Empirically, the Greek list gets it wrong: “first person” does not in fact come first. A child’s self develops as a result of being spoken to, by a parent or other loving caregiver. Someone has to say “you” in the right way for a non-mad “I” to exist at all. (See Peter Sloterdijk, Neither Sun Nor Death, p. 30, which is where I first heard of Rosenstock-Huessy.) Developmentally, psychologically, neurocognitively, “I” is last-person. You’re a good boy. There’s the bottle. I’m hungry.

All our experience teaches precisely the opposite of this Greek doctrine of the primacy of the individual “I”! The child gradually defines itself as an independent being out of the thousand cares and impressions and influences that envelop it, flow around it, press in on it. The first thing it discovers is that it is not the world, not mother or father, not God, but something else. The first thing that befalls every child, every person, is that he or she is spoken to: smiled at, asked something, given something, rocked, comforted, punished, fed. The child is first a You for a powerful external being, above all its parents … Hearing that we exist for others and mean something for others, that they want something from us, thus precedes any statement that we are ourselves, or statement of what we ourselves are. Getting commands and being judged from the outside are what give us self-awareness.

This is the realization that so struck me. First person isn’t first. There’s no list at all, except the ones we make up. What would the world look like if I could see outside this framework? If what came first was a bond strong enough to give you the authority to make claims about someone else’s experience—you love, you’re hungry, you look pretty today, you’re being rude—and then came sharing a view on the world, and only then self-report? The Cartesian idea, “I think therefore I am,” and all the mind/body/self/other splits that arise, might never have come up if Descartes hadn’t been indoctrinated with the idea that “I” comes first. There’s first-person and third-person fiction, but the second person is an outlier, just as we can’t allow ourselves the same freedom to speak for a second person in real life as we do about ourselves in this self-disclosing age. How much more of the nature of fiction, and of the feel of my life, ultimately goes back twenty-two hundred years to the Greek grammarians?

In our modern society, amo and amas are treated as though they, too, were mere statements of fact like amat. And the shamelessness of psychology, the social classifications, the tyranny of the physicists and analysts, are some of the results of this lack of wisdom and authority in the grammatical schema. Everyone is led to think of himself or herself as part of a sequence of facts, as though he or she were a Third Person.

It may be worth mentioning that he wrote these thoughts on tyranny in 1945. And that the “he or she” usage, far ahead of its time, is his.

This puts his or her human relationships on a false basis, an objective basis, which devalues them. For we speak objectively of those who are absent, and who therefore won’t blush at what we say or get angry or need to listen to it at all. Human relationships thrive where we bring to bear secrets of mutual connection and an inner willingness to listen. Human relationships die where all our statements merely claim to assert facts. For then we are constantly insulting each other. Army, factory, school, hospital—they so often insult.

Rosenstock-Huessy traces everything back to this sin, from conflicts with authority in school to schizophrenia, and makes staggering claims for his own “grammatical method” of reframing language. As I say, I don’t know what to make of it all. But here it is, presented to you in alternating paragraphs from me and from him. You are the first person. Do with it what you will.

We can study higher grammar just as we do higher mathematics. When we were still burning witches at the stake, higher mathematics cured us by illuminating the universe so completely that there was no longer any room left for witches. Higher mathematics, by encompassing infinity, enables us to grasp the secrets of mass and energy, natural time and space. The world is no longer magical and bewitched. Its atomic order has become transparent, with the help of higher mathematics. A higher grammar, which attends to the kind of emphasis speech places on the word and on our actions, will enable us to grasp the secrets of social movements, of masses and individuals, of the pathologies and healing of political life. Lower grammar degraded language into an arbitrary tool of the human spirit; higher grammar will put it right.

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.