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Tom’s Tale – A Young Hungarian Refugee in England: January-June 1957, and after…   1 comment

The International ‘backcloth’…

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In January 1957, a number of members of the British Parliamentary Labour Party, wrote a letter to the Editor of Pravda about the use of Soviet armed forces in Hungary. They included Fenner Brockway, Barbara Castle, Dick Crossman and Anthony Wedgwood-Benn. In it they asked a series of questions, perhaps the most important of which was…

do you consider that the present government of János Kádár enjoys the support of a majority of the Hungarian people? Would it make any difference to your attitude if it did not? We ask this question because, on November 15th, according to Budapest Radio, János Kádár said that his Government hoped to regain the confidence of the people but that “we have to take into account the possibility that we may be thoroughly beaten at the election.”  

Whatever Kádár himself may have believed, or been given to believe, in mid-November, by January 1956 there was little or no prospect of free and fair elections taking place, as the Nagy Government had promised. Hungary would remain under direct Soviet occupation, with the Red Army remaining until all traces of resistance had been eliminated. Anna Kethly, giving evidence to the United Nations Special Committee (see photo above) on her mission from the Nagy Government, declared that Kádár was a prisoner of the Russians, and that she could not believe that he would have accepted his part voluntarily.

First School Term and Easter Holidays…

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Cross-country run, class 3B of Tollington Grammar School, Muswell Hill, February 1957 (Tom is fourth from the right)

For Tom Leimdörfer and his ‘half-siblings’, learning English and adjusting to school life in England dominated the early part of 1957. Tom’s ‘Uncle Brandi’ had approached the Headmaster of Tollington Boy’s Grammar School and the Headmistress of Tollington Girl’s Grammar School. He explained the situation of the children’s flight from Hungary and arrival in England, and stressed the fact that Ferkó and Tom had attended two of the top high schools in Budapest. While their English was not very good, it was improving daily. Marika was not of high school age in the Hungarian system, but she had been doing well in her elementary school. She was trying hard in making a start with English, but understood very little. Tom described how…

Ferkó and I found ourselves in the study of Mr. Percival, a greying and sombre looking man, sat behind his desk, crowded with books and papers. He asked us a couple of questions. I managed to answer one, but the others my uncle had to translate. Mr. Percival said we could start there for a trial period to see if we would fit in and could keep up with the work. He introduced me to class 3B (the middle of three sets in the year group) and Ferkó to class 4A, which was a year below his correct age group, but this was inevitable as he could not be expected to take the dreaded O level exams within six months. So started our school days on Muswell Hill.

Tollington Boys’ Grammar School was situated in a road called Tetherdown. The unimposing red brick pile is still part of the complex of buildings of the present Fortismere Community School. The school was originally founded in the late nineteenth century and moved to Muswell Hill from Tollington Park (hence the name) at the beginning of the twentieth century. It gave the impression of a somewhat overcrowded and slightly chaotic place with equipment and resources inferior to the school Tom had left in Budapest. The plans for a brand new building and the amalgamation with Tollington Girls’ Grammar School were already well advanced by Middlesex County Council, which was then the local authority, before the days of Greater London boroughs like Haringey (which administers the present school). Only children who passed the old eleven-plus exam could be normally admitted to grammar schools and in Middlesex that was less than twenty per cent of the school population. Tom thus felt grateful for the opportunity, but it did not stop him feeling even more of an ‘alien’ when at school:

The first few weeks were totally bewildering. Almost everything was different. School assemblies with prayers and hymns, school lunches with oddities like shepherd’s pie and puddings with pink or green custard, exhausting cross-country runs in Coldfall Wood in the freezing cold or the pouring rain, an incomprehensible team game with an odd-shaped ball called rugby were all part of a strange initiation into a new culture. Some lessons were beyond my comprehension, but I soon noticed that I was well ahead in mathematics, physics and chemistry and the teachers started to show appreciative surprise when I started answering questions when no other hands went up in the class. In geography and biology, I simply tried to copy down as much as I could from the board. Mr. Ron Davies, our history master dictated all his notes. At first, this made things very difficult especially as I had to get attuned to his broad Lancastrian accent. I gathered that the Spanish Armada had just arrived and been defeated, but not much of that found its way into my book. However, by the time we got to the Stuarts, I became good at taking down his dictation and then checking the spelling afterwards. I also tried to memorise as much as I could. At the end of the year I actually came top in history by simply regurgitating the notes and being able to answer just the right number of questions.

For all its oddities for me, Tollington school was a humane and generally tolerant place. The boys of 3B initially reacted as if a Martian had landed in their midst. They asked questions about Hungary, but I often misunderstood or struggled with words and they did not have the patience to listen. However, they all knew that Hungarians were supposed to be brilliant at football (the national team having beaten England twice) and I was included in playground games with the right shaped ball. They were soon reassured that I was just about average for their standard… After our first three weeks, Ferkó and I were summoned to Mr. Percival’s study. He said it was time we attended school in proper school uniform (green blazers and caps with gold badge). He said he no longer wanted to see me ‘looking like a canary’, referring to my yellow jumper by courtesy of the WRVS ladies at Heathrow. That meant we were accepted as proper Tollington students. As an afterthought, he added that we were both doing very well and he was pleased. At the end of term, I was ‘promoted’ to class 3A, probably because in maths and science I was too far ahead of the class.

Meanwhile, there were momentous family developments in Budapest. When Bandi informed Tom’s Aunt Juci that they had safely arrived and were getting settled, he told her that he could also get visas for her and Uncle Gyuri, their three children, as well as Tom’s grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi). This came as a great challenge for them, as they had good jobs and a lovely flat they would leave behind. Times were growing darker there, however, with a repressive communist regime back in charge, though they had been through all that before. They thought and prayed a lot about it before thinking about submitting a passport application. The border was closed, of course, and chances of getting passports to the West were remote. It was at this point that a strange twist of Hungarian politics produced a miraculous opportunity. Kádár imprisoned hundreds of liberal activists who were associated with the revolution and executed dozens, but he wanted to signal that his administration would be different from that of the hated Rákosi regime. He invited the left-leaning, puritanical Reformed Church Bishop of Debrecen, who was not actually communist party member at the time, to be in his government as Minister of Culture (years later he was to be Hungary’s Foreign Minister). The bishop accepted, after some hesitation, and was therefore looking for a flat in Budapest. This was known to someone in the Ecclesiastical Office, who also knew that Juci and Gyuri were thinking of emigrating. A deal was done within days: seven passports for a large comfortable upper ground floor flat in Buda with garden.

The excitement of hearing that his beloved uncle, aunt, cousins Jani, Andi and Juli were to come to England, followed shortly after by his paternal grandparents, lifted Tom’s spirits as he visited his mother in hospital. He still has two letters written by his mother to ‘Sári mama and Dádi’ as they were preparing to come to England. She was anxious to reassure them that her illness was not serious and her cough was getting better. She also wrote:

Throughout his years at school, my Tomi never gave me as much joy as he has these past weeks. It is such a surprise to see that now when I dared not demand too much from him, he has worked harder than ever.

Tom saw his mother for the last time at the very end of March. She was weak, but still insisted that she was getting better. This time she asked to have a few minutes just with him. She said she was proud of him and also that it gave her much joy that Aunt Juci and family had arrived in England. They had just landed at Dover and were going to Ramsgate, where they had temporary lodgings in a guest house run by the Hebrew Christian Alliance. Ferkó and Tom were going down there for the Easter holidays while Marika stayed with her father’s friends:

Our first term at school ended, we packed our bags, Bandi took us down to Victoria Station and we boarded the train for Ramsgate. Juci, Gyuri and my cousins met us at the station and it was a wonderful feeling to see them. Ferkó hardly knew them, but was treated as part of the family immediately and fitted in without fuss, as he always did. The guest house was a grim place run by an austere elderly couple. They found fault with everything we did, rationed our use of soap and toilet paper and turned off the heating even though it was a cold and drizzly start to April… Aunt Juci set about ensuring that we children had as good a time as possible. It was the first time Ferkó and I saw the sea, so a walk along the promenade was a novelty. There was also a miniature model village and some other traditional seaside attractions.

Then, on 11 April, Tom received the shattering news of his mother’s death. He went down to the sea at Ramsgate, sat on a rock, and watched and listened to the waves breaking and crashing on the shoreline for what seemed like ages. Aunt Juci continued to ensure the children had as much fun as possible during the next few days, going by bus to Margate and Folkestone. They then met up with Bandi, Compie, Gyuri Schustek and Marika at Golders Green Crematorium for Edit’s cremation:

We sang Mami’s favourite hymn ‘Just as I am..’ in Hungarian, some prayers were said by the Presbyterian minister and her coffin was gone. I knew I had the support of close loving relatives but I also felt that my life was mainly in my own hands. I must try to fulfil Mami’s dreams for me.  My childhood was over; I had to be an adult at the age of fourteen and a half.

Gloomy Relations…

International relations over the Hungarian ‘situation’ also continued to get gloomier during the early part of the year. In January 1957, the UN General Assembly had adopted a resolution establishing a specialist committee to investigate the situation in Hungary, also calling on the Soviet and Hungarian authorities to allow committee members free access to the country. The Hungarian government had retaliated by requesting the recall of the Head of the US Legation, Minister Wailes, whom it alleged was conducting his activities without having presented his credentials for formal acceptance by the new government. Wailes left Budapest on 27 February, following which the US was represented by Chargés d’Affaires ad interim until 1967. In March, Soviet and Hungarian officials had finally responded to the UN resolution by issuing a joint declaration denying the right of the UN to any purview over Hungarian affairs. Relations with the West deteriorated still further that month when the US began using a postal cancellation stamp reading, Support Your Crusade for Freedom on letters sent to Hungary. The Hungarian government protested that the stamp encouraged counter-revolutionary elements and violated the Universal Postal Union Convention. Mail bearing the stamp was returned to senders. In April, the US Legation replied that the stamp was meant to encourage voluntary contributions to privately supported organisations, and was in general use only during the first quarter of 1957. Officials denied that the stamp had any political intent, adding their ‘surprise’ that the Hungarian authorities seemed to consider aspiring to freedom as counter-revolutionary.

Also in April, Soviet and Hungarian military personnel detained US Military Attaché Colonel J. C. Todd and his assistant, Captain Thomas Gleason, charging the latter with espionage and demanding that he leave the country. The US Legation denied the charges against Gleason and demanded his release from detention. In a tit-for-tat move, on 29 May, the US demanded the recall of a Hungarian Assistant Military Attaché. The Hungarian government then demanded that the US Legation reduce its staff by at least a third and make proportionate reductions in its staffing by local employees. On 10 June, the Legation replied that it did not accept the concept of the Hungarian Government determining the size of the US mission. Ten days later, in New York, on 20 June, the UN Special Committee issued its report on events in Hungary. It concluded that a spontaneous national uprising had occurred in October and November of 1956 and that…

… the ‘counter-revolution’ consisted in the setting up by Soviet armed forces of Mr Kádár and his colleagues in opposition to a Government which enjoyed the overwhelming support of the people of Hungary.

Despite its de facto stability, significant, continued, passive resistance and the lack of international recognition still denied the Kádár régime full legitimacy. On 26 June, representatives of the twenty-four countries that had sponsored the January resolution met to discuss the prompt consideration of the report by the General Assembly. The GA then adopted a resolution in September endorsing the Special Committee’s report, calling on the Soviet Union to desist from repressive measures against the Hungarian people. It also appointed the President of the General Assembly, Prince Wan Waithayakon of Thailand, as its special envoy to further study the situation in Hungary. However, the Kádár Government refused to allow the prince to enter the country.

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On 23 October, the White House issued a statement proclaiming the anniversary of the uprising to be Hungarian Freedom Day. In December, President Eisenhower announced that his emergency program for Hungarian refugees would come to an end at the end of the year. About 38,000 refugees had been received in the United States and a total of $71 million had been spent on their assistance, including $20 million from private and voluntary contributions.

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The Hungarian Communities in Britain…

Of the approximate total of 200,000 who fled Hungary in 1956, about 26,000 were admitted as refugees to the UK, a respectable number for their hosts to have accepted then, given the relative size of the population and the fact that the period of post-war ‘austerity’ in Britain had only recently ended and there were still some privations. A British-Hungarian Fellowship had already been established in Hungary in 1951. After the refugees arrived, many more clubs and associations began to be established and to thrive. Three other area associations were formed between 1965 and 1971. In one area the Hungarian community only ‘fifty-sixers’, while in the two other areas it also included earlier immigrants.

Diplomatic tensions between Hungary, the Soviet Union and the ‘West’ continued throughout the 1960s and ’70s, however, and tight restrictions on travel to and within Hungary meant that exiles remained cut off from their familial, linguistic and cultural ties in their homeland. To begin with, those who spoke up among the exiles (others feared reprisals against their families back home) did so in uncompromising terms. After news came through of Imre Nagy’s execution in June 1958, Tibor Meray, wrote an account of the uprising called Thirteen Days that Shook the Kremlin. He concluded:

To say that Hungary’s history had never known a leadership more thoroughly detested than this ‘Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’ would be in no way an exaggeration… Little by little the rule of the Rákosi-Gerő clique was restored… The activities of the Kádár Government soon gave the lie to the glowing promises with which it assumed power.

Due to the extent and continuation of the Hungarian diaspora after 1956, as refugees were joined by emigrants simply wanting a better life, there was a low ethnic and linguistic vitality of the Hungarian speech community in Britain. Given the rapid shift from Hungarian to English which, it would appear, has taken place in the second and third generations of ‘exiles’, it is not altogether surprising to note that mother-tongue teaching did not seem to be generally demanded by those of Magyar descent. Marriage to non-Hungarians consolidated assimilation for some while others attempted to integrate their partners into existing Hungarian circles; some partners and children attended language classes especially to enable them to converse with relatives when visiting Hungary or when relatives visited Britain. Three of the five associations held language classes in 1988, students ranging from age eight to forty-five and one group even helped with preparation for ‘O’ and ‘A’ level exams in Hungarian. The School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London also offered courses in Hungarian.

One of the very few sources of information on Hungarians living in Britain in the 1980s was the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) Language Census, which showed that in 1981 there were ninety Hungarian speakers attending schools in the capital; in 1983 there were 86; 1985, 83, and in 1987 there were 86. However, because numbers were so small, the Hungarians were aggregated with ‘other Eastern Europeans’, so that it is impossible to say whether these were descended from 1956 exiles, and were bilingual, or whether they had arrived more recently and were in need of ESL (English as a Second Language) support. ILEA funded HFL (Hungarian as a Foreign Language) classes in Pimlico, and there was a new Saturday morning class in Highbury for young children. It included folk-dance teaching, as did the various social clubs which also showed Hungarian films, held dances and performed other traditional, social functions. Hungarian commemoration days were observed traditional crafts such as embroidery were taught, and there was an annual Hungarian Cultural Festival.

Nevertheless, due to the easing of the political situation in the seventies and eighties in Hungary, and particularly the restrictions on the travel of ordinary citizens in 1986, there was an awakening of interest of ‘second generation’ exiles in their ‘roots’. Few of these clubs and associations survived into the third generation of the late 1980s, however, so new organisations were needed to facilitate the coral growth of inter-cultural links and exchanges which now emerged.

The Reform Communist governments of the late 1980s in Hungary attempted to foster Hungarian language knowledge and a knowledge of Hungary among the children of Hungarian descent living abroad by running summer camps for 7-14 in three locations in Hungary. In the summer of 1988 eight camps were held of ten to fourteen days’ duration. Although the prices in the online brochure were given in US dollars, most of the participants were from Hungarian ethnic minority families in the bordering Slavic countries rather than from third generation refugee or exiled families in ‘the West’.

The relative difficulty of learning the Hungarian language as a non-native, second or foreign language in the UK may help to explain why, in 1988, only eight students entered for the University of London School Examination Board’s ‘A’ level in Hungarian, compared with eighty entries for Polish. Even allowing for the comparative sizes of the two communities, the proportion of entries for Hungarian was disproportionately small.

Living Adventurously…

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Above: Tom (centre), standing behind his wife, Valerie,

outside the Friends’ Meeting House at Sidcot, c 1990

Tom Leimdorfer graduated in Physics from London University, where he met his wife, Valerie. They both joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1971. He had a career as a Science teacher before becoming Headmaster of Sidcot (Quaker) School in Somerset in 1977, moving there with Valerie and their three children, Andrew, Gillian and Karen. They stayed at the school until 1986, when Tom left to do a master’s degree in Bristol. He then began working for Quaker Peace and Service (QPS) as their Education Advisor at Friends House in Euston, London. This was when I met him in 1987, as I began working for the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project, based at Woodbrooke in Birmingham. Tom and I attended the International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn that year, meeting teachers from the Hungarian Peace Council. We acted as hosts to their delegation which visited the UK the next Spring, including Woodbrooke, and Tom invited me to join the QPS teachers’ delegation to Hungary the following Autumn, 1988, just as the major changes were beginning to take effect in the country. It was then that I first heard his incredible story of how he had escaped Hungary in 1956.

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Tom visited again in May 1989, taking part in a symbolic cutting of the barbed wire on the Austrian border, close to where he had crossed thirty-three years earlier. I returned in the summer, to establish a teachers’ exchange between Coventry and its twin town of Kecskemét, where I met Stefi, my Hungarian wife. Tom and Valerie attended the Meeting for Worship in celebration of our forthcoming marriage in Hungary, which was held at Bourneville Friends’ Meeting House in Birmingham on 6 January, 1990. His advice to us, given during the meeting, was to live adventurously!

Seeking alternatives to despair…

We took his advice, living and working as English teachers in southern Hungary for most of the next six years, while it underwent ‘transition’ to a democratic society. The area also provided a base for NATO troops and UN peacekeepers working in the war-torn areas of Former Yugoslavia. Three years into this period, Tom visited us at our home in Pécs, on his way to a conference in Osijek, now in Croatia, not long after that country’s war of independence. The town had seen some of the worst fighting in the conflict, as it is close to the border with Serbia as well as with Hungary. Tom gave me a copy of his presentation to be given at the Children at War Conference. In its introduction, he wrote:

Anyone coming to Osijek must come with a feeling of humility. How can we, who have watched only on the screen the horrors which were experienced by those who lived through it, relate to what you felt and are feeling still? 

I need to search the memories of my childhood, for I too am a child of war. Born in neighbouring Hungary, I was barely six months old when my father died near the shores of the river Don, where the Hungarian army had no business to be; I was two years old when my grandparents were taken to Auschwitz and when we lived in hiding through a siege which brought both terror and hope of survival. I was fourteen when I saw tanks on the streets of Budapest in 1956 and became a refugee soon afterwards.

My work has been mainly with children as a teacher, then as a head of a school where many children came from abroad, often from places of tension or conflict. In my present work, as Education Advisor for the Society of Friends (Quakers), I run courses in conflict resolution techniques for teachers, educational psychologists and others involved in education both in Britain and central/eastern Europe. Such work has special significance in places of ethnic, cultural or religious conflicts such as Northern Ireland, Romania or indeed in your country, but children are growing up with violence all around them everywhere. They not only see violence on television, they can experience it daily in the school corridors and playgrounds, and on the streets. A child’s life can be made hell by the children or adults around her or him anywhere, even without a war… Does it all demonstrate that human beings are fundamentally evil and there is nothing to do but despair?

I regard much of the work I am doing as seeking the alternatives to despair. The starting point of such work is encapsulated in some lines written by the Hungarian poet Attila József :

Ti jók vagytok mindannyian: Miért csinátok hát rosszat?’

(You are good, all of you; so why should you commit evil?)

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The fundamental aim of Peace Education is to lead each child, or adult, to a form of self-respect which is not only tied to being Croat or Serb, Catholic or Orthodox, Muslim or Jew, Anglican or Nonconformist, Marxist or Nationalist, Monarchist or Republican, but simply to being human. From this child-like, simple understanding they may aim to develop a spirit of affirmation of the worth of ‘others’, even when they disagree with them and need to challenge them with the truth of Attila József’s words above. Violence comes from a feeling of despair. Peace Education aims to empower people to seek alternatives to despair. That is Tom’s witness and testimony, and mine: it is also the story of his life.

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Published Secondary Sources:

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Department of State Publications.

Marika Sherwood (1991), The Hungarian Speech Community in Safder Alladina & Viv Edwards, Multilingualism in the British Isles: The Older Mother Tongues & Europe. London: Longman.

Valerie Leimdorfer (1990), Quakers at Sidcot, 1690-1990. Winscombe, N. Somerset: Sidcot Preparative Meeting.

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The Language of History – Part Two: ‘Figuring it out’.   Leave a comment

Figuring it out: What is History Teaching and Learning?

I asked this question of a number of colleagues in the 1990s in the context of an ethnographic research programme carried out into dual language teachers and learners of history in Hungary. One teacher, Robi, put it like this:

History is not at all giving out dates and definitions; it’s a kind of thinking style or a framework of mind – and if you can give it to them…then that’s very important… I try to make parallels…because I want them to realize that history is not a separate…subject which you learn and there is no connection with life, so I like making parallels; some people don’t like (that). I had a teacher in university who firmly believed that we shouldn’t make any parallels, I remember. But I like making parallels because (although) sometimes they are not good, sometimes they can help understanding.

On the question of the presentation of different historians’ perspectives, another of my colleagues, Stefi, felt that whilst students may find it difficult to cope with a wide diversity of views in the time available, they needed at least to be moved away from the notion that whatever was written down in the history book, that’s true and this is how it was! In particular, they needed to be made aware that answers, whilst never final, are to be found in the complex webs of causation. Robi felt that if we had more books presenting differing perspectives, the students could then figure out (for) themselves by only using the facts…why that happened. They would then, obviously they thought, ‘come up with different views’. This is where we came, in our discussions, to the classroom discourse, and how collaborative it could be.

Stefi recalled that, after a certain time of looking at a certain topic, she moved away from looking at it as a collection of data and dates and names by trying to analyse the particular problem in the topic and predict the questions which the students might have, producing a presentation as a kind of answer to these questions. Robi agreed with this, defining a topic in history as a collection of problems. This also redefines the role of the history teacher as problem-poser rather than problem-solver, and suggests that the most important teacher-competences were therefore the ability to identify and present general issues or problems to students, to ask more specific questions of the students in clear, precise language, and to provide ‘model’ answers without giving the impression that they are either ‘correct’ or ‘objective’.

These brief extracts from our workshops in Hungary (see also the appendix) illustrate something of the value of developing teachers’ awareness of self in relation to subject. The next stage in teacher development is to explore teachers’ own theories related to what they perceive the discourses of their subjects to be. A useful way of doing this is through the exploration of metaphors. For instance, with history teachers, we might describe the discourse of history as being somewhat like an iceberg in terms of our awareness, i.e. that for most learners and teachers it is the story or narrative element which is above surface, most apparent in setting it apart from other curriculum areas. This is the one-fifth of the iceberg which always appears above the surface, but it is supported in this by four-fifths of chronicling and interpreting which lies beneath the surface, not so apparent or obvious in its day-to-day usage. This can be best shown in the following pictogram:

Fig. ‘The Iceberg Principle’

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The iceberg diagram therefore represents a hierarchy of historical language. In developing this metaphor, I would explain that some theorists have argued (Husbands, 1996) that history has no specialist vocabulary, since it deals with length, breadth and depth of human experience. However, this does not mean that historical language can simply be acquired; there are key elements of the discourse which can be taught, including key terms and core concepts, starting with the terminology used to describe the tiers of historical language themselves.

Chronicling:

So, starting from the bottom up, two-fifths of the language of history could be described as the essentially fixed language of chronicling, the past-into-present intercourse, including the division of historical time into era, century, millennium, period, ancient, medieval, modern; the authentic names for events, dates, sources and artifacts, and the period-specific terms or ‘archaisms’ e.g. fief, beadle, reeve, galleon (used in the past only). Put simply, this is the raw data of the past itself and the discourse markers are usually conveyed in question form by simple ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘when?’ prefixes. To answer these, the learner is required to demonstrate a clear understanding of chronology and an ability to relate past events and people to each other within a series of timescales.

Interpreting:

The middle two-fifths of the iceberg could therefore be described as comprising the more shifting language of interpretation, the present-into-past intercourse of historical description and analysis (cause, factor, similarity, difference, change, continuity, primary source, secondary source, evidence), combined with terms which have shifted their meaning in transition from the past into present (nobility, monarchy, manufacture/ factory, orders, classes, revolution, radical, conservative, liberal, democracy). The typical discourse features of this tier in the hierarchy would be represented in question form as ‘what factors/ causes…?’, ‘what was the significance of…?’, ‘what do you think were…?’, together with questions prefaced by ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ To operate successfully within this tier, the learner is required to demonstrate an ability to use the language of enquiry in framing their own research questions, to retrieve and evaluate information from a variety of sources and resources, including archaeological evidence and artefacts, and to supply coherent answers relating the processes of change and continuity in human societies over periods of time.

Narrating:

The final fifth of the iceberg, representing the most sophisticated tier of discourse, combines all the structural and functional language contained in the four-fifths below the surface in addition to narrating the past using historical concepts and figures of speech such as the Victorian Working Class(es), the English Revolution, Enlightened Absolutism. These are labels for larger sets of ideas, drawing on higher levels of abstraction (Edwards: 1978). Questions at this level might be phrased ‘how far…?’, ‘to what extent…?’, ‘was this….or…..?’ Alternatively, they might be given simply in a statement form which is followed by a request to the student to ‘explain’ or ‘discuss’. The ability to produce extensive and ‘mature’ narratives at this tier of discourse requires the learner to demonstrate a clear understanding of historical writing, including the turns of phrase and figures of speech used by historians; to organise and communicate the results of enquiries in a variety of written, oral, pictorial and dramatic forms, including debate, role-play and re-enactment.

In addition to linguistic awareness, skills and abilities, learners in all three tiers also need to apply, to varying degrees, the other core educational competences in geography, numeracy, computer literacy, problem-solving, inter-cultural values and conflict resolution. These are common humanistic competences which are perhaps less dependent on linguistic skills. Therefore, historical learning cannot be treated as a metaphorically isolated ‘iceberg’, but needs to be placed within a more holistic ‘ecology’ of education. That, of course, is the responsibility of ‘craft’ historians, history teachers and educators in general. We need to remind ourselves, as well as our students, that history is about the whole of human life in the past, related to the present.

What does this look like in practice? Teaching and Training.

In our initial workshops, Robi highlighted the difference between chronicling and narrating when dealing with a topic like the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Whilst a purely chronicling approach might deal solely with the events in sequence, a what happened at Crécy? approach, a truly narrative approach might focus on the role of the Welsh bowmen in the battles of Crécy (1349) to Agincourt (1415) relative to other military factors and developments. It would result in a question emerging in preparation and teaching such as how did warfare change by the power of the longbow? It would refer back to previously gained knowledge about these changes from studies of earlier chronological topics. So, a narrative approach would, in simple terms, combine ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ to result, through interpretation of the relationship between events, factors, in an explanation of ‘how’ the change transpired. A chronicling approach, by contrast, would simply confine itself to ‘when?’ and ‘what?’ and result in students producing a timeline of dates and events in their notes.

Narrative approaches turn time-lines into flow-diagrams or web-charts, on which references back to earlier factors and changes are shown. The ‘mature’ narrator is thus able to produce an extensive explanation of the process of change following the ‘SEE’ pattern familiar to many history teachers – make a Statement, Explain its validity and provide Examples from sources of evidence to support it. In any teacher-training course, the tiers of historical discourse would need be matched with these types of notional cognitive and linguistic hierarchies. Whilst a great deal of work has been done in recent decades on adolescent cognitive development (Shemilt: 1980, 1984; quoted in Husbands: 1996), very little work has been done on linguistic competences of students, whether in their first or second language, beyond the general recognition that historical description is drenched in linguistic convention (Husbands).

More positively, ‘studying’ history should enable the learner, at any level, to personalise topics and content more generally, to ‘unpack’ complex historical processes and relate them to descriptions in their own lives (Husbands). The metaphor of unpacking personal baggage in a training workshop is potentially a useful tool for a variety of reasons; a specific use here might be to demonstrate how students need to ask and answer the question ‘what’s your story?’ by getting them to relate the happenings they can label in the lives of recent generations of their own families to contemporary-historical events, developing elementary chronicling language in the creation of simple time-charts or time-lines.

At the level of interpreting, activities might be developed to bestow ‘significance’ to ‘historic’ events in teachers’ lives, perhaps drawing twists and turns along a teacher’s ‘career path’, encouraging the use of interpretative language. Finally, being asked to explain or narrate their path (or those of others) involves changing word order and tense structures to show cause and effect, etc. The representation of significant events in words and pictures might also provide plenty of scope for the exploration of figurative language in narrative accounts. Activities like these might enable teachers to personalise ‘the iceberg principle’ as well as providing an introductory exercise with students to gauge both linguistic and cognitive levels.

 

Story as a Vehicle to Learning and Teaching History

In any teacher-training course, this sequence of activities would lead on naturally to considering ways of working with stories, or ‘Story as Vehicle’ (Garvie, 1990) for language learning. Whilst English language teachers have come to accept this as a valid methodology in their teaching in recent decades, it has tended to be jettisoned from the ‘baggage’ of many history teachers, largely because narrative approaches have been seen as methodologically counterpoised to interpretative ones. Teachers telling stories, giving anecdotes or providing parallel narratives, fell out of fashion in the 1970s and 80s, to be replaced by an emphasis on students developing analytical tools and skills in pursuit of scientific ‘objectivity’ (Husbands); in Hungary, as demonstrated in my workshops and interviews with Hungarian teachers of history, the method has survived such ‘pedagogical’ pressures, and has continued to be used as a means of helping students to access the past.

Some skeptical ‘western’ academics have represented the narrative form as an immature mode of analysis; history teachers have also tended to be dismissive, associating it with the ‘great tradition’ and ‘active didacticism’ of the history teacher relaying a mainly national folklore to essentially passive pupils (Sylvester: 1994, quoted in Husbands). This was never a real problem in Hungary and in central Europe more generally, where the post-war linguistic, philosophical and pedagogical traditions were, until recently at least, never so nationalistic. More recently, cultural anthropology has reinstated the role of narrative accounts in history throughout Europe, particularly through the development of ethnographic approaches to primary sources (Husbands). A pan-European training course for history teachers would need to build on these approaches to show how they have led to a methodological emphasis on students themselves figuring out what the stories mean or show.

In this approach to story, the temporal sequence is often subordinated to explanation and interpretation – back-tracking to clarify causal connections (Lively, 1979). The teacher therefore facilitates the story-telling, or collaborates in the telling; he certainly does not provide a moral, though he may help learners to discover their own – the exercise of history is never an amoral or neutral venture. No story is simply received or heard; it is re-made, recounted, with the sequence and characters altered. The listeners have an active role in this process, and their expressions of interest, boredom, apathy and concern shape the story. They are taught to listen to the silences among the traces left by people of past times (Williams, 1979), because these pauses may be evidence in themselves, which also need interpreting. Their stories thereby become shared experiences, as they are ‘related’ to ‘the organising principles’ of causation, continuity and change involved in the development of complex historical discourse (Husbands). This is the major difference between the language of interpretation and that of narrative; the former is essentially divergent, because it explores the past in relation to differing present positions (a woman probably will not ask the same questions as a man, for example). Narrative language attempts to arrive at a shared understanding of the past, and is therefore integrative and convergent.

In a training pack, or on a training course, these theories could be given a practical focus by lesson planning based on language classroom activities similar to those set out by Morgan and Rinvolucri (1983), Rosen (1988) and Garvie (1990), among others. Their use of ‘staging-posts’, repetitions and other story-telling techniques could be used to demonstrate the concept of discourse markers. Teachers could then be asked, in collaborative groups, to reproduce historical narratives from their own teaching experiences, sketching simple outline chronicles, then re-ordering, using a variety of different time-expressions and tenses (according to predetermined language levels), also incorporating staging-posts and repetitions. Each group could then, in turn, present their story in a micro-teaching exercise to the other participants.

Developing Language Awareness

As a means of developing language awareness among both pre-service and in-service teachers, they could be given the following ‘grammatical guidelines’ for reproducing stories (examples taken from/ adapted from Fisher & Williams, ‘Past into Present 3’ (1989: 31-33):

  • For chronicling, use the simple past to show a sequence of events; e.g. …

“In July 1789, people in Paris attacked the Bastille; In August, they published ‘the Declaration of the Rights of Man’.”

  • Use the past continuous with the past simple to show the relationship between general activities and specific actions; e.g. …

“By mid-1793 France was at war with most of Europe. The British, Dutch and Austrian armies were invading from the north, the Prussians from the north-east, the Piedmontese and Austrians from the east, and the Spaniards from the south.”

  • For interpreting and narrating, use the past perfect to show the relationship between the event you have chosen to begin with and an earlier causative event or situation, e.g. …

“A young army volunteer, Gabriel David, was found guilty of writing ‘infamous words’ and was imprisoned. He had written ‘shit on the nation’ on his leave pass.”

Ten Steps on a Linguistic Staircase

A linguistic framework would help move history teachers away from a transmission model of history which is increasingly inappropriate in both multi-lingual and inter-cultural terms, in the context of the modern multi-cultural and international classrooms in Europe (Husbands). It would replace this with an interpretative-narrative model, in which teacher-talk and the way learners interact with both the teacher and their peers, play central roles in how they learn about the past. All learners need the scaffolding of historical language in order to interpret human experience, and within it their own individual, familial and cultural identities. In addition to raising awareness about discourse features and markers, there are some specific techniques which history teachers can be helped to develop to provide students with greater access to an increasingly international curriculum, whether delivered in their first or second language. These are partly adapted from Sears (1998) and are set out here as ‘ten tips’, rather than as a set of formal recommendations, so that teachers can be encouraged to experiment with them as part of their own classroom action research:

  • stop to ‘talk with texts’, especially by displaying the text on an interactive white board, so that the learners can also engage in dialogue with the text in a shared activity, rather than viewing reading and interpreting text as an individual exercise;

  • show students how to highlight and extract information which they can then summarise in their own words; modify and gloss texts, especially using cloze gap-fill exercises;

  • develop group jigsaw reading techniques, so that learners are not overcome by the sheer volume of text, but can share ideas in working out meanings, and can then collaborate in presenting their own interpretations and summaries;

  • use visual adaptations, especially web-charts to show factors in a web of causation; use interactive CD-roms, Power-Point presentations and subtitled DVDs, providing glossaries as appropriate;

  • provide a balance of activities in all four skills areas – reading, listening, speaking and writing – with plenty of pre-reading and post-reading comprehension activities; don’t allow any students to be passive; challenge them to explain meanings, give synonyms and make simple linguistic and cultural comparisons;

  • give presentations of new ‘key’ concepts and terms, especially for abstract archaisms; present ‘shifting’ vocabulary in context, e.g. ‘comrade’; a glossary may not be enough; a web-chart may be better, showing context and collocation, or etymology and parts of speech;

  • use visual prompts through ‘vocabouts’, identifying simple words, phrases and especially archaic usages in mini ‘field’ trips, and realia, photographs, maps and other pictorial clues in the classroom; make clear distinctions between ‘past only’ and ‘past into present’ vocabulary;

  • allow translation with fixed meanings in bilingual groups, in conjunction with an English to English glossary with phonic spellings; encourage learners to do preparative reading and note-making before topics are dealt with in classwork, giving them an opportunity to prepare the new vocabulary; set up, encourage and monitor L1 subject reading, using the Internet where other L1 resources are limited or unavailable.

  • teach learners a list of common abbreviations (including Latin forms – e.g., etc., i.e.) and show them how develop their own ‘shorthand’ system to take and make grammar-less notes at speed, and then to re-formulate these into connected prose;

  • set process-writing exercises, especially in project work and collaborative course work, so that learners can benefit from your comments before producing a final draft; don’t set writing only as an individual homework activity or use homework simply for writing-up; use the SEE pro-forma – Statement, Explanation, Evidence as a ‘template’ for academic writing in groups.

These ‘tips’ have been given in no particular order of priority, since this will be determined by the teaching and learning context, together with the needs, language levels and ages of learners.

The Continuing Upward Spiral of Development

My own teaching and classroom research have shown how ethnographic approaches, an essential part of ‘the Humanities’, lead to a form of continuing professional development which enables teachers to focus on areas of concern and enthusiasm within their own teaching. In my case, a shared interest in the nature of collaborative discourse in the dual language history classroom has led to a significant raising of awareness and sharing of teaching resources and insights. Personally, I continued to develop them to meet challenges involved in integrating second language students into mainstream English-medium subject area teaching, and more recently in multi-lingual contexts in international secondary schools. These have provided fresh discourses through continuous engagement in new ethnographic cycles and collaborative upward spirals with learners and teachers.

Appendix: On ‘What is history?’ (Jan 1996)

“Robi: It’s the accumulated experiences and knowledge .., the past …, events of the past=

“Stefi: =Or story about the past=

“R: =Story about the past, yes …,=

“…….

“R:=Events of the past …, interaction …, .., what processes and events had an influence on processes and events in other parts of the world ..,/=

“/=………………………..

“R: ..,/= .., how the events happening in different parts of the world interlinked with each other …, connected to each other .., is a cumulative process …, how one thing instigated the happening of another thing (…….) …, that’s what I’m most interested in .., this part of history ..,=

“……………………………………………….

“R: .., ‘történelem’ .., comes from ‘történet’ …, linked with story .., the word story, I think ..,=

“S: = Something which happened some time ago …

“……………………………………………..

“R: One thing that I read once and I really like this .., that if you take logic .., as a discipline (….) logika? /mm/.., if you take formal logic .., then, according to formal logic, you have a premise or two premises; you have a conclusion and you’re almost certain, especially in sciences, if that happens ((..)) certainly something else will happen ((non-verbal actions)) .., (for example) if you boil the water and the water’s going to be hot .., it will evaporate .., OK? //mm// .., so that’s why .., you can ((coughs)) e:r, e:r, foresee, …, or you can foretell (…) what will happen .., because the direction of logic (so it’s) forward-going //mm// but with history, OK? /mm/ e:r .., the enquiry – or the enquiry of history – is turning backwards /mm/.., so it’s not necessary .., so what will happen according to formal logic in sciences – what will happen later on – is necessary .., /mm/ but if you have an event which happened – let’s say there was a war in 1515, OK? .., you cannot say with certainty what was the cause of that war, because it happened earlier …, /mm/ do you understand that? And the rules of logic – the rules of formal logic – cannot be applied to that /mm/ , so one thing can have many causes /((……..))/=

“/=………………………/

“/=………………………………………../

“R: = /((………)) If we go further and further back then we don’t have enough information, if we’re talking about the Roman .., e:r, Roman Empire or the , e:r, Greeks .., we have limited resources (…), sources (…), and on the basis of that limited sources we have to figure out why the thing happened /mm/ .., right? So partly we have limited (re)sources and partly the rule(s) of formal logic is forward-going, so we cannot say that that happened exactly because of that. //aha, mm// Because, e:r, e:r, the reasons behind the events, or behind certain processes, could be, e:r, could be absolutely different; so it could happen because of the social situation; it could happen because of the economic crisis; it could happen because of personalities (right) /mm/ for example, the French Revolution (and the) Jacobins, when they argued with each other /mm/ – Danton and Robespierre – it was all about personalities; or the Girondins and the Jacobins, it was all about personal, e:r, e:r, what is that?, e:r, ..,=

“S: =Rivalry?

“R: =Yes, personal rivalry /aha/ yes, they wanted to have more .., so there could be several causes and we can never be sure, e:r, what exactly contributed to the, e:r, development of a certain situation, and that is very interesting, I think /aah/ in history.

“…………………….

((pause in recording))

“((conversation in Hungarian))/

“Andrew: / Right, so, (….) what you’re saying… is that when you do a scientific experiment, for example, /uhhumm/ you can isolate what the cause or the catalyst of a certain reaction is /exactly! yes, .., with great certainty!/ …, I mean I often talk about catalysts when I’m teaching history as well as causes, you know – origins, causes, catalysts etc., /uhum/ and it’s a very complex situation /yes!/, and you’re saying that history therefore cannot be seen as a kind of science in that way?/exactly!/ or certainly not as a pure science?/yes,yes!/ but the most it can be seen as is an, uhm, applied science /yes/ if you like, e:r and I suppose the other question is there .., of course we apply ourselves to the past, don’t we? /uhum/ and we look at the past, e:r /uhum/ with our own particular concerns .., so the /yes!/ questions a woman asks about the past /exactly!/ (….) would be different from the questions a man /exactly/ asks; …, different the..the..e:r questions a central European /uhum/ would ask would be different from a western European /yes!/, different from an African etc.? /yes/

“R: Yes, that was exactly another point that I wanted to raise (out) of that; that was one of the points that I said to the American students when I was teaching there .., I..I..I see history and I teach history in a subjective way; there is no objective history teaching, I think, //uhu, aha!// because everybody .., yeyeah, there’s a difference between a woman and a man asking questions about history and our personal interests, our personality, what we are interested in (…), so I think history teaching is subjective.”

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Chandler, A.J. (1996), Dual-ling in Hungary: An Overview of Dual Language Education in Hungarian Secondary Schools (unpublished article).

Cook, C. (1998) A Dictionary of Historical Terms. London: Macmillan.

Cook, G. (1989), Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Doughty, S. and Thompson, G. (1983), Problem English: A Practical Guide for Hungarian Learners of English. Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó.

Edwards, A.D. (1978), The “Language of History” and the Communication of Historical Knowledge, in Dickinson, A.K. and Lee, P.J. (ed.) History teaching and historical understanding. London: Heinemann.

Ellis, R (1985), Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freeborn, D. (1992), From Old English to Standard English. London: Macmillan.

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Gay, P. (1975), Style in history. London: Cape.

Gunning, D. (1983), The history teacher and the problem of written language in Fines, J. (1983), Teaching History. Edinburgh: Holmes McDougall.

Gunning, D. (1978), The Teaching of History. London: Croom Helm.

Howel, S. (1657), Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London….whereunto is added…Westminster. London: Twiford.

Hungarian Ministry of Education (1986), Curricula for Academic Secondary Schools: History. Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó.

Jenkins, K. (1992), Rethinking History. London: Routledge.

Jenkins, K. (1995), On ‘What is History?’: From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White. London: Routledge.

Koselleck, R. (1985), Futures Past: on the semantics of historical time. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Lee, P.J. (1978), Explanation and Understanding in History, in Dickinson, A.K. and Lee, P.J., History teaching and historical understanding. London: Heinemann.

Lively, P (1979), Treasures of Time. London: Heinemann.

Louch, A. (1969), History as Narrative, in History and Theory, 8

Lukács, Gy. (1962), The Historical Novel. London: The Merlin Press.

Marshall, B.K. (1992), Teaching the Postmodern. London: Routledge.

Marland, M. (1977), Language Across the Curriculum: the Implementation of the Bullock Report in the Secondary School. London: Heinemann.

Marwick, A. (1970), The Nature of History. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1848), The Communist Manifesto. London: The Communist League.

Mohan, B.A. (1986), Language and Content. USA: Addison-Wesley.

Nikolov, M., et. al. (1999), English Language Education in Hungary; A Baseline Study. Budapest: The British Council.

Országh, L. (1985), Magyar-Angol Szótár. Budapest: Akadémia Kiádo. (Hungarian-English Dictionary).

Paluch, S. (1968), The Specificity of Historical Language, in History and Theory, 7.

Partington, G. (1980), The idea of an historical education. London: NFER.

Rogers, P.J. (1987), History: Why, What and How? London: Historical Association.

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Ryan, C. (1991), The Budapest Dual-Language Programme – EAP for History (unpublished M.Sc. dissertation).

Ryan, C. (1994), recorded interview with the author, July 1994, Plymouth. Mimeo.

Saville-Troike (1982), The Ethnography of Communication – An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sinclair, J.M. and Coulthard, R.M. (1975), Towards an Analysis of Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Weninger, E. (1994), recorded interview with the author, September 1994, Kecskemét.

White, H (1978), Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

White, H. (1987), The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Zalotay, M. and Salamon, G. (1995), Hark! I hear a white horse coming. Budapest: Elsö Kiadás.

The Language of History: Part One – Defining the Discourse   Leave a comment

The Language of History: Defining the Discourse

A ‘Preamble’ into Early Modern English:

While searching for reading material on historical discourse, I found a tract from Exeter Cathedral library, written by the antiquarian Howel in 1657, with an enchanting title; Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London… Interestingly, the verb to perlustrate means to traverse, survey… to go through and examine thoroughly (Webster’s Dictionary, 1981). The title thus reveals that the identification of the nature of historical discourse as that of surveying the past is by no means recent development. In addition, the use of ‘perlustration’ as a synonym for discourse suggests a close connection in the discipline between the need to investigate and narrate past events. These are regarded the two essential tools, or modes of discourse, to be used in the historical craft.

A British teacher researching into Dual Language Education in Budapest (Ryan: 1991) showed how a choice between these two modes resulted in what he defined as the lecture approach and the concept approach. In the first, the lesson is characterised by what Rod Ellis (1986: 176) called lockstep teaching, in which the teacher controls classroom communication through a series of elicitations of a closed kind or through lengthy informing moves and dominates quantitatively by assigning a large proportion of the talk to himself. Ryan adds that most Hungarian students expect this approach, treating history as a story told by teacher to students. In Hungary, teachers who pioneered the concept approach argued that the only way to ensure that students learnt the language of history in both Hungarian and English was to get them to talk about history. Ryan believed that it was not only possible but necessary to insert descriptive or explanatory concepts into any linear overview of a country’s history. This was precisely what happened in dual-language history teaching in Hungary in the early 1990s, resulting from a real and personalised philosophy among history teachers about their subject. Back in Exeter Cathedral library, I was interested to note how resonantly this view, one which I had also encountered in schools in Wales and more recently in France, seemed to echo that of Elizabethan writers, such as Thomas Blundervill (1574):

I can not tell whyther I may deryde, or rather pittie the great follie of those which having consumed all theyr lyfe tyme in hystories, doe knowe nothing in the ende, but the discents, genealoges, and petygrees of noble men, and when such a King or Emperour raigned, and such lyke stuffe, which knowledge though it be necessarie and meete to be observed, yet is not to be compared to the knowledge, that is, gotten by such observacions as we require, & be of greater importaunce: to the obtayning whereof, I wish all readers of Hystories, to employe theyr chiefest studie, care and diligence.

Blundervill’s second kind of knowledge, that which we might refer to today as the enquiry mode was, he considered, the essential means of enabling the reader of Hystories to gather judgement… as you may be the more able, as well to direct your private actions as to give Counsell lyke a most prudent Counsellor in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace. Readers and observers of history need first to become masters and apprentices in the craft of perlustration, or investigation, to use a more familiar modern English word. By enquiring into past events, historical investigators also equip themselves to learn from such events, not simply about them.

Inter-cultural definitions: a comparative etymology

Interestingly, the Hungarian term ‘visszapillantás’, meaning an ‘historical survey or review’ (Országh, 1985), does not have the metaphorical idea of a study in depth, of a detailed survey or ‘perlustration’ going right down to the foundations of a building (Webster, 1981). It has the sense of a brief, summative overview of past events, with the prefix ‘vissza’ (back) definitely making the view a retrospective one. It does not suggest, necessarily, any connection between past, present and future.

Certainly, in its earliest uses, both in English and Hungarian, history, or ‘történelem’ (from ‘történet’, meaning ‘story’ or ‘tale’), was seen as a simple account of past events. However, the Greek root-word ‘istoria’ also had the early sense of an Inquiry (British English dated form, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 1995). The sense of history has therefore always ranged from a ‘factual’ chronicle of past events to a narrative explanation of past events prompted by a more detailed inquiry.

Just as in Hungarian word ‘történet’ can be applied broadly to ‘fiction, fable and yarn’ (Országh, 1985), so too the English words story and history were used interchangeably to identify accounts of either imaginary events or of events supposed to be true, a usage which persists in literature and popular culture. However, from Blundervill’s time onwards, the uses of the two words diverged, with history being used to describe accounts of past real events, set down in writing, hence the use of ‘an historical discourse’ to introduce so many early modern tracts. The more generalised sense of history that Raymond Williams (1983: 146) referred to as ‘organised knowledge of the past’, was an extension of this. ‘Historian’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ follow mainly this generic sense, as they do in Hungarian.

This established sense of history is undoubtedly the predominant shared meaning both in English and Hungarian. However, in terms of both the discipline, or craft, and discourse, or language, of the subject, it is important to distinguish the sense of history that goes beyond a body of organised knowledge, ‘történelemtudomány’ in Hungarian (Országh, 1985) into the realms of interpretation and explanation of that shared body of knowledge. In simple terms, histories need to do more than simply chronicle or describe past events; they also need to explain them.

This sense is one that emerged with the Enlightenment and treats history as the explanation of human self-development, through a continuous process connecting past events with present and future outcomes. The various choices of interpretation within this process combine to make history a more abstract discipline than others within the Humanities. History, in this ‘modern’ sense, contains at least three competing interpretations of human development; the classic liberal interpretation of Civilisation; the philosophical (Hegelian) interpretation of a world-historical Spirit or Élan, and a more political interpretation of historic forces, originating in the French Revolution and developing with socialist, specifically Marxist political economy. Taking the last of these views first, recent rejections of all forms of historicism have also been at risk of jettisoning the more neutral method of studying the past by tracing precedents of current events. Marx himself, before the emergence of Marxism, stressed this as being part of his approach to history:

Events strikingly similar, but occurring in a different historical milieu, lead to completely dissimilar results. By studying each of these evolutions separately and then comparing them, it is easy to find the key to the understanding of the phenomenon; but it is never possible to arrive at this understanding by using the passe-partout of some historical-philosophical theory whose great virtue is to stand above history.

(Quoted in Carr, 1987: 65).

By rejecting all attempts to produce over-arching philosophies of history, much recent historiography has tended to lead to rather cynical views of past events as chapters of accidents, and tales with little significance for understanding the present. As the somewhat out-of-fashion Hungarian writer Lukács (1962, quoted in Carr, 1987: 66) pointed out, there is a danger, even in a lighter vein, of retrospectively reducing the study of history itself to ‘a collection of exotic anecdotes’. Although such anecdotes certainly have their place, often berated or underrated, in historical narrative, they do not justify its status as a major academic discipline.

A further linguistic dichotomy can be seen by looking briefly at adjectival forms connected with history as a discourse. In English, while ‘historical’ belongs mainly to language about the past, e.g. ‘historical characters’, ‘historic’ is more often used to describe present events and processes, which whilst having their origins in the past, relate more to the future within an overall sense of destiny, e.g. ‘historic forces’, ‘historic moment’ (for which we could substitute the common adjective momentous). As Raymond Williams (1976: 148) pointed out, the generic noun ‘itself retains its whole range, and still, in different hands, teaches or shows us most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future’.

The main point to extract from these definitions, for the purpose of doing history, is that the language of history will be more or less abstract, depending on which philosophy is applied to the subject. Whilst there are five ‘keywords’, based on the Greek root, used to define the study of the past in English – history, historiography, historic, historical, historicism – Hungarian uses at least ten key words or phrases which, through suffixation, convey more precisely the shades of meaning in the continuum from story to inquiry, and from chronicle to narrative.

However, the essential stem is still story, ‘történet’, and it is this sense of history which persists and predominates in Hungarian consciousness, the sense of an inherited shared story, often strongly linked to a notion of national heritage. This story is capable of interpretation and reinterpretation, according to current predominant political philosophy, but this, of itself, does not make it a legitimate historical inquiry or scientific survey. Making or re-making history, mythologizing or re-mythologizing it in order to make it conform to a sense of national destiny does not equate to doing history, any more than following crude historicist models enables us to do justice to the collective memory of the Hungarian people, or any other people for that matter.

The re-mythologizing of Hungary’s past is most evident to guests in the plethora of memorials that have sprung up in recent years both in its capital, and in its provincial towns such as Kecskemét, where eighty per cent of the current population lives. In the town centre, next to the Town Hall, is a memorial to the crown territories lost by Hungary as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1921, as a part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War. It takes the form of a huge stone map, with the current geographical form of the Hungary laid over the Big Hungary, or Greater Hungary, three times the size of the present-day country. It is a map of Hungary as it never was, or as it was ‘in a way’, or as some Hungarians would like it to be. The shape of ‘Nagy Magyarország’ is for them one which they stick to the back bumper of their car. It refers to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Hungary was part of the Dual Monarchy from 1867-1918. This Hungary therefore never really existed in reality, because it never had these borders as an independent country, but only as part of an Austria-Hungary in which the Austrians were the top dogs, with the Hapsburgs as rulers.

001

002

Above: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (scale 1: 4,500,000) in c.1930

This fictional or mythological map of Hungary is based on the borders of Austria-Hungary as shown in Atlas maps, like those above, from before the First World War and after. Books published in Hungarian from the time of the Trianon onwards, refer to the Treaty as an act of betrayal, or treason. They provide examples of the language of interpretation. The maps showing the boundaries as they were before 1914 and then after Trianon show us the facts of the matter, but these facts are then subject to interpretation. Whilst it is true that Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and a third of its pre-war Magyar population, but whether it ever had a right to those areas of modern-day Croatia and other parts of the former Austrian Empire is debatable. Yet today, there are many Hungarians who still believe in a nationalist narrative that would like to see Hungarians living outside the current borders of the country returned to their native nationality and state. This brings it into continual conflict with the surrounding Slavic states about the treatment of the minority Magyars in their countries. All this is part of a modern-day nationalist narrative, based mostly on interpretations of Trianon and not always on the basic factual material, or chronicle, of the events pre-dating and surrounding the Trianon Story.

The problem arising from this approach to interpreting the events of the past is that it is the shifting sands of these interpretations, rather than the bedrock of solid evidence, which end up being set, not simply in text, but in symbolic tablets of dead stone monuments. A real historical narrative, the diamond in the rough, can only be exposed through the hard labour of chipping away at the stone which helped to form it through the pressure of real causes and catalysts, the relevance and purpose of which are not always apparent, often falling discarded in order to reveal the essential core of the gem, the narrative.

Humanistic principles and perspectives therefore apply especially to studying History, which does not have its own technical language, but does require the development of abilities to enquire into, to discuss, to debate and to narrate past events. Whilst rules of evidence and scientific objectivity have their place in guarding against the dangers of over-interpretation and mythologization of the past, an approach which becomes overly dependent on them is no more helpful than to understanding the past than the one which concentrated on facts, facts, facts, in Victorian times.

More recent philosophies of history, formed in relation to linguistics, reaffirm the usefulness of narrative tools in crafting histories, asserting as they do that stories about the past are created by historians through interpretation, rather than having a life of their own. This understanding of history as a narrative discourse with the people of the past people is of primary importance to the task of interpreting their stories, and therefore deserves further investigation.

Definitions of Discourse and The Historian’s Craft

In general modern English usage the word discourse refers to formal communication in speech or writing (Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995). In linguistic terms, it refers to ‘larger units of language such as paragraphs, conversations, and interviews’ (Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992: 111). The word can be translated by at least three words in Hungarian the noun ‘értekezés’ usually refers to a formal piece of writing on a particular, serious subject, whereas ‘eszmecsere’ refers to the semi-formal talk/ interchange of ideas, a dialogue perhaps. The noun ‘társalgás’ is used to refer to informal conversation or ‘chats’ on particular topics.

Historical discourse is characterised fundamentally by its dependence on written forms in both primary and secondary sources. In this sense, the important distinction for the historian is not to be drawn so much between spoken and written forms of discourse, but between formal ‘acts’ of narration and interpretation, whether these are conveyed in writing, in a dissertation or essay, or in speaking, through a lecture, seminar or presentation, involving dialogue and discussion. Such events clearly need distinguishing from less formal conversation and talks. In other words, we need to examine the distinctive register and style of language used in historical communication, whether spoken or written. It is in this sense that I use the term ‘historical discourse’ to indicate the use of language involved in any serious study of the past, though not necessarily only those undertaken by professional historians. Indeed, the fact that the vocabulary used is indistinct from that used in Standard English make it a craft that engages many educated individuals with the motivation to investigate the past, provided they have the right tools and know how to use them.

Dialogues between Present and Past: Historiographical debate 

Although E.H.Carr’s (1987) widely-read and therefore influential work, ‘What is History?’, was originally ‘delivered’ as a series of lectures in 1961, Carr’s work is still worth reading as a starting point for any discussion on the discourse of history, because it contains many interesting and useful insights into the relationship between history and language. His answer to his own question helps us to move towards a view of history as a distinctive discourse:

The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence…the very words he uses – words like democracy, empire, war, revolution – have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. Ancient historians have taken to using words like ‘polis’ and ‘plebs’…this does not help them. They, too, live in the present …the historian is obliged to choose…the use of language forbids him to be neutral… History, then, in both senses of the word – meaning both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he inquires – is a social process in which individuals are engaged as social beings. The reciprocal process of interaction between the historian and his facts…the dialogue between present and past, is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday.

(Carr, 1987: 24-25, 30, 55).

The idea of historical discourse as a dialogue between the historian as a contemporary social being and the society of yesterday is one which is worth pursuing, particularly in the light of Carr’s suggestion that past peoples are not simply passive objects for historians but are somehow actively engaged in metaphorical conversations with them.

More recent writers on the nature of historical discourse (White, 1978, 1987; Jenkins, 1995) have taken up this theme; at the same time criticising Carr for his advocacy of history as a social science. There are major differences in the types of language that the historian uses to approach the past from those used by a physical scientist. Lecturing on objectivity in history, Carr himself pointed to the complexity of the discourse and called for a new model of historical understanding. In the post-modern era, something approaching this new model has been worked out, based on a linguistic approach, making particular use of discourse analysis.

Towards a new model of historical discourse: The Metahistorical.

The basis for this new model can be found, originally, in the work of Hayden White (1978, 1987). A more recent survey and summary of his complex and extensive work has been made by Keith Jenkins (1995). White himself built on the work of Richard Rorty, who was concerned to bring about the collapse of boundaries between discourses and to enable them to engage in the construction of meaning and the problems of representation (Jenkins, 1995: 4). What certainly has collapsed is what Jenkins refers to as ‘history in the upper case’, the classical liberal view that we have already touched on. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Whig’ view of history, of which Jenkins remarks that nobody really believes that particular fantasy any more.

The new model philosophers of history point out that no discourse simply grows organically, spontaneously, without nurture or cultivation. In this case, historians cultivate their field and construct accounts of the past that can be circumscribed by the term historiography. For White, therefore, the historical work is a verbal artefact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented – or as much imagined – as found (Jenkins, 1995: 18-19). Consequently, all historical accounts are ultimately metaphorical and therefore metahistorical. People in the past did not deliberately live their lives as stories, so to see them in story form is to give an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherence to the past that, in reality, it never had. Therefore, we must be careful not to mistake the historian’s narrative of the past as the past’s own form; the story emerges from the historian’s interpretation of past events as recorded in texts and other traces surviving from the past.

At their most explicit, these texts and traces were consciously recorded in chronicle form e.g. in diaries. It is mainly the historian’s consciousness that transforms them into a meaningful, public narrative. In this sense, Jenkins defines the writing of history, historiography, as an act of translation, a carrying over of meanings from one discursive community to another (Ibid.: 24).

In a language-based conception of this process, the extreme textualist view would be that there is no historical reality outside that created by the historian. This view would lead to the dissolution of history as a subject since if texts are seen as reflecting other texts and not reality, historical study cannot be distinguished from literary study, and the past dissolves into literature. However, White does not go this far, arguing that:

Historical events…are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described…in some kind of natural or technical language…The description is a product of processes of linguistic condensation, displacement, symbolisation and secondary revision of the kind that inform the production of texts. On this basis alone, one is justified in speaking of history as a text…

 (White: 1989, quoted in Jenkins, 1995: 32).

This statement does not necessarily contradict other statements already examined about the nature of history; what it does is to provide a definition that serves rather than dominates the methodological purposes of the study of the past. Jenkins’ sets out the four key principles b of the textualist position as follows:

  • All accounts of the past (and the present) come to us textually through some kind of natural or technical language – we might equate ‘text’ in this sense with the historian’s use of ‘source’, whether in spoken or written discourse, or in the form of an artifact or other ‘trace’ of the past;

  • The past cannot express itself – it always needs to be spoken for and constructed. The historian distinguishes between what is historical and what is not and between what is significant, or historic, and what is not;

  • Whether history is considered simply as the past, the documentary record of this past, or the body of reliable information about the past, there is no such thing as a distinctively historical method by which to study it;

  • Historians, whether professional or otherwise, cannot define history as resting on foundations that go beyond textual reality and discourse.

(Jenkins, 1995: 34)

The historian’s sense of a dialogue with the past means that they are able to develop their historiography more in terms of its rhetorical and conversationalist style of discourse, rather than approaching their craft as a narrow academic code or discipline. This should help them to demystify the subject for their apprentices. Brenda Marshall has recently (1992) expressed this transformation in the following terms:

History in the post-modern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? … Histories forgotten, hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It’s about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognisable pattern – all set for us to make sense of. It’s about chance. It’s about power. It’s about information…

With this approach, teachers and learners can feel liberated to construct their own texts free from the constraints of orthodoxy and ideology, and in their own terms. Similarly, White has no time for those who define history in neat, constricting terms. He is more concerned with freeing up history to be whatever we want it to be, linked not just with views of the past, but also with visions of the future. However, when pushed, he answers Carr’s question with the answer that it is a narrative discourse, but one which can never quite grasp the past in this form. Reinstating language in the centre of the subject, as opposed to the application of rules of evidence to the historical record, he argues for a re-emphasis on the rhetorical.

(Jenkins, 1995: 140-1).

History as explanation

White’s theory of historical narrative is one which helps both the professional and apprentice historian to process the past, beginning with the relatively unprocessed historical record (archives, relics, records) in order to provide data on which a chronicle can be based and, through further interpretation, a story formed, which may finally be contextualised into a narrative. Historians work from their own narrative, prefiguring and surveying the historical field to discover the primitive elements of the historical record, which they then fashion into historical accounts. To produce an account from the primitive elements, traces or sources of the past, historians use three types of explanation:

  • Explanation by argument; making a choice between an integrative argument, seeking to integrate different aspects, through identified principles, into a macro-theoretical process, and a dispersive argument, depicting the variety and uniqueness of events;

  • Explanation by emplotment; the fashioning of a sequence of events into a narrative of a particular kind, chosen from the literary forms of romance, tragedy, comedy and satire providing the main modes which convey the myths endowing human processes with meaning;

  • Explanation by ideology; the commitment to a form of knowledge leading to generalisations about the past, chosen from conservative, liberal, radical and anarchist perspectives.

Forms of historical language

In addition, and perhaps most importantly in terms of developing a new model of historical discourse, White borrows from modern linguists and literary theorists to argue that this discourse contains four turns of phrase, or figures of speech:

  • Metaphor;

  • Metonymy; i.e. using the name of one thing to stand for that of something else with which it is associated, e.g. ‘lands belonging to the crown’ or ‘demanded action of the City Hall’.

  • Synecdoche; i.e. making the part stand for the whole (‘fifty sails’ for ‘fifty ships’), or the whole stand for the parts (creature for person).

  • Irony.

We can make use of these in our investigation into historical language by referring to them generically as figurative forms in order to distinguish them from the three forms of metalanguage, which we might summarise as follows:

  • Key historical concepts, which are widely-shared, applied broadly and sometimes controversially as a means of referring to past events, e.g. Revolution;

  • Archaisms, which are usages of language in past texts that are not usually encountered in present Standard English texts;

  • Historical terms, which are generally recognised expressions referring to events, movements etc. They were used contemporaneously and have remained in usage, e.g. Luddite (Cook: 1998).

Thus, historical discourse employs specific literary metalanguage, together with the use of key concepts, terms, and the interpretation of archaic language.

Chronicles and Narratives: Metalanguage and meaning

Exploring historical metalanguage also helps to distinguish stories and narratives from chronicles. Whilst chronicles are chronological arrangements of events and people, which may or may not follow a particular theme, in stories these events are organised into a process of happening with a beginning, middle and end. In a story, events are given a hierarchy of significance, so that the sequence of events is related to social and cultural processes, with some elements in the story receiving more emphasis than others, as in the following chart (capitals indicate significance):

Fig.   Hierarchy of significance

  1. A b c d e ……   A is the ‘explanatory factor’

  2. a B c d e ……   B ……………………………………..

  3. a b C d e ……   C ……………………………………..

  4. a b c D e ……   D ……………………………………..

  5. a b c d E ……   All facts can be seen as leading up to E                                                                                                                                                      

Present meanings and Past tenses

Thus, if historians simply recorded the facts as they found them in the traces of the past, they would merely be chroniclers. In simple linguistic terms, they would need (in English) only the past simple tense to describe a sequence of random, unrelated events, rather like in the keeping of a Journal or Diary. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between the grammar of past tenses and the semantics of the past. Historians find the simple chronicle of the past, but they provide it with the semantics; its meaning, its significance. Historians of the Dark Ages in Britain will not simply follow the order of events set out in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, nor will they accept unquestioningly the significance given to some events compared with others given by the contemporary chronicler. In changing such priorities between past chronicler and present narrator, they frequently (unconsciously or subliminally) also need to change the tense structures relating past events. For instance, in line 1 above ‘A’ may be represented by the past simple as the main explanatory factor. However, in line 2, where it is not the main explanatory factor, but is an event that occurred in previous chronological order, it might well be related to the main event through the use of the past perfect.

Figurative language and discourse

Since history has no generally accepted technical language, the historians have to use the techniques of figurative language and discourse, in which the four turns of phrase are set.   They recognise that there is a fictitious element in all-historical narrative. They are able to find in the theory of language and narrative itself the basis for a more subtle presentation of what historiography consists of than one which simply tells the apprentice historian to go away and find the facts and then write them up in such a way as to tell what really happened (White, 1978: 99).

Figuring out the chronicle into a story raises questions such as what happened next? and how did it all come about in the end? Questions such as what does it all add up to? or what’s the point of it all? have to do with the structure of the entire sequence of events considered as a completed story and call for a synopsis with other stories that might be found in the chronicle. White therefore uses a linguistic theory, the theory of tropes, to underpin his argument that history is a craft, not a science, having specific techniques but no technical terminology. Indeed, a quick survey of a dictionary of historical terms (Cook, 1998) reveals that there is no discrete lexis, syntax or grammar, as is the contrasting case with, say, Physics and Chemistry.

The historian makes the past familiar through abstract language, closely related to ordinary educated language, in which tropes are the figures of speech used to figure things out (White, 1978: 94). As in ordinary speech, for example, rhetorical questions are what the historian often starts an inquiry with, and they then dominate the ultimate narrative. In this sense, they prefigure the narrative. After all, past events cannot figure themselves out, so historians identify and describe subjects in the past, thus making them objects by their use of language. The figuring out is then done through various modes of explanation by argument, emplotment and ideology, referred to above, so that, in both senses of the word, figurative language works to relate past events to each other and to the present.

Configuring the past: some examples

Some brief contextual exemplification of these figures of speech is necessary here. The phrase ‘the saviours of humanity – the working class’ may convey the idea that the working class represents qualities of human dignity. However, the essence of humanity is not taken to be identical to the working class (synecdoche), nor is there any implicit negation of the explicit (irony). Therefore, it is a metaphorical, or representational statement. An example of metonymy would be the reduction of individual acts of resistance to colonialism as giving meaning to third world nationalism. Synecdoche is figuring out in the opposite direction, from whole to parts, e.g. ‘all history is the history of class struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). In this case, each and every act of class struggle is treated as particular expressions of the general and a whole-part relationship will always be found and imposed. In irony, the statement about the working class above could be delivered or written in a certain way in order to convey the opposite of its apparent representational meaning.

Through metaphorical language, therefore, historians intervene in the past and invent history, introducing their own fictional interpretation to the arrangement of the facts. Historical problems are ones which historians both create and solve. In identifying problems, they configure the past, constituting the concepts which are used to identify and explain the evidence, itself produced from the traces of the past. A commitment to a particular mode of discourse in this process is what accounts for different interpretations of the past. The process can therefore be summarised for students in the following ten-fold sequence, modified and simplified from White (1978):

  1. The field of inquiry is located with reference to the traces of the actual past (archives, sites) and choice of period;

  2. The evidence is extracted according to an ideological interpretation which defines a question or problem in relation to it;

  3. This interpretation interacts with figurative forms of discourse, e.g. metaphor;

  4. The plot is chosen, from literary styles e.g. comedy, tragedy (emplotment);

  5. The main theme, or argument, is developed from and through the plot (explanation);

  6. The traces are worked up into a chronicle, a ‘time-line’ of events;

  7. A story form emerges which is interpretative, answering the questions set at the beginning of the inquiry;

  8. The story is transformed into a narrative, based on the evidence but related, through imaginative configuration, to both current and historic cultural forms and myths (e.g. ‘Albion – the Island Nation’, ‘Hungary – under the heel’);

  9. The narrative becomes an intelligible, consumable artifact, a secondary source;

  10. The product is itself processed, the consumers being its readers.

This approach is useful to historians and their apprentices in two ways; it assists them to think critically about accounts of past events, and it shows them how the discourse works. The emphasis on figurative language as the core of the subject helps to identify key discourse markers for further research. Moreover, the assertion that written historical texts are closely related to ‘ordinary educated speech’ lends justification to an examination of oral discourse as well as written text. However, rather than prescribing forms of historical discourse for identification, there is much to be said for the investigator following an ethnographic approach, describing past peoples and societies as much as possible in, and on, their own terms.

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