"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, August 5, 2013

Language, Love, And Culture

One of my all-time heroes is Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, a 19th century English geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat who spoke 25 languages fluently.  He spoke these languages so well and idiomatically that when he was about to undertake a journey to Mecca and enter the Muslim sanctum sanctorum, he couldn’t decide on country of origin or language to speak.  He assessed his height, coloring, and features and decided to be an Indian-born Afghan and to speak Hindi, Pashtu, and Arabic.  He knew that any misstep would mean instant death. "A blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth, and my bones would have whitened the desert sand," Burton later wrote. He was successful and Pilgrimage to al-Medinah and Meccah was his meticulous, scholarly, and insightful three-volume work on his trip.

I have always admired those who can speak many languages fluently, for I understand that to do so, especially when a second and subsequent tongues are learned in adulthood, requires an analytical ability, mental agility, a quick comprehension of the grammatical core and the idiomatic twists and turns of grammar and syntax; and an acute perception of tone, intonation, and accent.

There are a few great writers who have chosen to write in languages other than their native tongues.  Nabakov first wrote in Russian, and then in English and is acclaimed in both.  Joseph Conrad was a teenager from Poland when he went to England, learned English as a young adult and wrote exclusively in it.  Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, chose to write in French; and Emil Cioran, a Romanian-born philosopher who turned to French as a young adult and became a well-known writer in that language.

Costica Bradatan writing in the New York Times (8.5.13) suggests why some writers choose to abandon the familiar terrain of their own language and write in others:

Not long after adopting French, Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, complained of his native English: “Horrible language, which I still know too well.” The ontological promise of complete renewal that comes with the new language is nothing short of intoxicating.

Elsewhere Beckett claimed that he preferred French because it allowed him to write “without style.” Yet writing “without style” is one of the writing styles most difficult to accomplish; you really need to be well equipped to do it.

For Joseph Brodsky, writing in his new language, English, was a painful, transformative process, but one to which he became obsessed:

In an interview he gave in 1979, some seven years after he moved to the United States from his native Russia, Joseph Brodsky speaks of his ongoing “love affair with the English language.” Language is such an overwhelming presence for these people that it comes to structure their new biographies. “English is the only interesting thing that’s left in my life,” says Brodsky. The need to find le mot juste starts out as a concern, turns into an obsession, and ends up as a way of life.

Yet changing languages is not merely an intellectual exercise, but an often painful uprooting from a deep-seated, almost innate cultural past.

Simone Weil’s comparison to the religious conversion is indeed apt because, just like in the case of the convert, the writer who changes languages undergoes a death-and-rebirth experience. In an important way, that person dies and then comes back as another. “When I changed my language, I annihilated my past. I changed my entire life,” says Cioran.

For most of us, speaking another language is an entry into a foreign culture, a means of establishing quick rapport, and a path to understanding the collective mentality of a culture. The French, for example, use the word ‘logiciel’ for software and ‘ordinateur’ for computer – two terms that reflect a peculiarly Gallic concern for logic – while Americans prefer more practical and utilitarian terms.  Software is not hardware; and a computer computes.  Portuguese retains many of the old Latin tenses – the personal infinitive is like the Ablative Absolute – and has three subjunctive tenses (present, past, and future).  The English simplified the subjunctive, long ago jettisoned all the cumbersome endings of German and Latin, and now it requires only a slight modification of usage (“I wish that he were more polite”).

Russian is almost perverse in its linguistic complexities demanding to know how a person will travel (car, plane, or on foot) before assigning a tense; and case endings change with number (e.g. one beer, two beers, more than two beers).

It is one of the first questions a new learner asks when beginning a study of languages which are seemingly far more complex than English – why on earth did they add such complexity, and given the ease with which English manages to be fully expressive and subtle, why keep it?

Many of us learn languages well, but never with native fluency.  Mastering grammar and syntax is one thing, but to acquire a native speaker’s vocabulary is daunting.  What FSI 5 French speaker knows the word for ‘yew’ or ‘crab grass’? Speaking well is within reach, but to master the complexities of a foreign language and culture enough to write novels in other than one’s native tongue is genius.

I have been around many fluent American speakers of foreign languages (not a large cohort to be sure), and I have noticed that as adept as they are, humor is almost never expressed, or if it is, it is very American.  For me humor is perhaps the most essential element of language, for it expresses an intimate understanding of culture, social mores, peculiarities, and oddities.  It requires a special culture-specific agility, for to be funny one has to pick up on others’ language, intonation, and expressions; to twist and turn English into unique cultural puns and double-meanings. Humor is common to all languages, and understanding how to be funny in French, German, or Bambara is a key to acceptance and assimilation.

Given the primordial importance of language in human relationships, I used to wonder whether a lack of native fluency in either partner could inhibit love and intimacy. If I have no insights into the subtleties and refinements of my lover’s mind as expressed in language, how can my love be complete? Wrong assumption I was told. I was over-intellectualizing, and that real intimacy can be established in non-verbal ways.  I have known American friends who have had very close relationships with Danish-, German-, French- and Romanian-speaking women and never felt anything missing; but this could have been because of the romantic nature of the liaisons and the passion of new love, adventure, and excitement.  In other words, these men had not gotten to anything very subtle before the relationships ended.

In the long run, because of their (authors writing in a foreign language) compulsive preoccupation with linguistic precision and stylistic perfection, a colonization of sorts takes place: language penetrates all the details of that writer’s life, it informs and re-shapes it, it proclaims its dominion– it takes over. The writer’s self is now under the occupation of an invading power: her/his own writing in the new language.

I am an amateur linguist compared to Nabokov, Conrad, or Cioran; but I share the same intellectual obsession.  When my wife and I were first learning Spanish, I relied on her – a very good and acute listener – to translate what others were responding to me.  I was so focused on speaking  - using all subjunctive forms, perfecting estar and ser, interjecting appropriate idioms and telling vocabulary – that I missed half of what people were saying.

I never completely mastered the famous French tournure de phrase – the unique way the French use phraseology and nuance to express subtlety – but I knew it was the key to fluent French.  One could be perfect in grammar and syntax, but a French native speaker would always recognize a foreigner for his stilted and often clumsy language.

To paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger, I have only sniffed at the hems of linguists.  I have become competently fluent in five languages, but even at my best (French and Spanish) I am far from native fluency let alone an ability to write fiction.  I have never been frustrated or disappointed in my abilities.  Learning many languages even imperfectly always interested me more than mastering any one.  I have been able to communicate effectively, learn a lot about the nature of language, and have certain insights into foreign culture and personality, and that has been enough.  A few years ago I decided that I needed to learn an African language. When I heard Bambara, Wolof, or Lingala I understood absolutely nothing.  African tribal life was so different from my own that I felt that learning language would be the easiest path inside it. 

I have turned to other things, and doubt I will learn another language; but I miss the excitement and pure satisfaction when the words of a brand new language first come coherently out of my mouth.

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