Thursday, February 4, 2010

On hviskeleken

It took me some googling to figure out the English name of what I wanted to address in today’s blog. Hviskeleken is the Norwegian name of the game that (according to the never-failing source of useless information, Wikipedia) in English often is referred to as “Chinese whispers” (which isn’t all that common anymore, apparently, because it can be considered offensive. Though this is still the name of the Wikipedia entry…), “(Broken) Telephone”, “Whisper Down the Lane”, “Gossip”, or, my favourite (I suspect it stems from the 1950s and the contemporary view on certain parts of the world), “Arab Phone” (to support my argument, I can reveal that it is not uncommon among US state department officials in the 1950s to refer to the Arab population in the Middle East as “culprits”. Clearly there were some ethical guidelines not yet invoked in the linguistic department at that point…).

Regardless of its complicated name, the game is a pretty simple one. The first person makes up a phrase, and then whispers this to the player next to him (or her). Extra points are often awarded if you are able to make up a phrase that phonetically resembles dirty words. The phrase is repeated through whispers one player to the next, until the last in line says what he (or she) heard out loud. By then the original phrase will almost always have been altered beyond recognition. “I like to eat potatoes” can easily have been translated into “Vikings greet tomatoes”.

Frequently, I find myself suspecting that this is the game played in academic writing.

Professor So-and So researched the relationship between State A and State B. He put extra emphasis on the brief period the two were in war with each other, because this fitted with his theory of mutual aggression between states in this particular area. From this, Professor This And That deduced that State A and State B were in a continuous hostile relationship with one another. This interpretation was picked up by Professor Up’n Comin’, who used it to show that all the states in the area most likely would take part in the ongoing war between State A and State B. The opinion of the players in this game of hviskeleken becomes the accepted truth, regardless of its origin. Talk about a feather growing into five chickens! (I’ve no idea if this is an expression in English, or what the proper idiom to use would be. When I tried googling it, it only came up with sites for either cooking or performing first-aid (!) on chickens, plus the occasional “how fast does a chicken’s feather grow”…)

Fortunately, the above example is extreme. I rarely come across violations of the principles of science as grave as this one. However, there have been more than one occasion when I most specifically wondered if the Vikings indeed were greeting tomatoes, or if something had been lost in “translation”. A few times I have even been able to consult original sources and call the bluff.

Will I revolutionize history with my critical eye? Of course not. We (and by “we” I mean history students, but it is fair to acknowledge that the description easily could have been extended to apply to other students as well) are already indoctrinated to read critically, write critically and think critically. If the criticism was to include a questioning of the entire foundation of our science, we might readily discover that there is no foundation.

And we can’t have that.

As a disclaimer, let me assure you that like all proper sciences, history has indeed questioned its foundations and discovered that there are none. And then the great historians created a foundation instead, and it is this splendid journey that today is known to all students of history as historiography. Oh joy. As a cynical student, however, it is my duty to trash said historiography, and it is my pleasure to do so without proof or justification.

I might use this as the preface to my thesis.


Jan Morrison said...

I found you on the tartlett's site (Confessions of a watery type). I totally appreciate your mind! I'll be back.

Cruella Collett said...

I can't believe I missed this comment - especially considering I try to take good care of new readers... Welcome Jan, it's a pleasure to see you over here (I've seen you on Tami's blog too)! Hopefully my mind will be able to produce more blog posts soonish - at the moment it's preoccupied with the ongoing game of hviskeleken...

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