"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

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton was 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.

To speak many languages fluently 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.  Nabokov 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.

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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 seems 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); but Turkish is even more perplexing.  Significant grammatical emphasis is placed on certainty/uncertainty and the perspective of the speaker.  Verb endings are based on whether one is told about an event happening or whether witnessed first hand. Verbs expressing surprise (It's January but it's warm) take different endings than simple statements of fact. . Verbs expressing remote possibility take different endings than those expressing immediate possibility.

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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 did they ever feel the need to 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.

Even among fluent American speakers of foreign languages (a small cohort), adept as they may be at the fundamentals of the language and its pronunciation, humor is almost never expressed, or if it is, it is very American.  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.

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Given the primordial importance of language in human relationships, can a lack of native fluency in either partner inhibit love and intimacy?  If one has no insights into the subtleties and refinements of a lover’s mind as expressed in language, how love be complete? And did those bi-linguistic relationships survive because of the romantic nature of the liaisons and the passion of new love, adventure, and excitement and not real understanding of personality and character often best expressed through language?  In other words, did lovers never get 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.
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Amateur linguists (amateur compared to Nabokov, Conrad, or Cioran) share the same intellectual obsession as they.  They try to master the famous French tournure de phrase – the unique way the French use phraseology and nuance to express subtlety – the elusive 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. These amateurs try to pick up the grammatical twists of strange linguistic concepts found in complex languages like Turkish and Russian, for deciphering the grammar of a language means solving a cultural puzzle.

Linguists are challenged both by grammatical complexity and foreignness.  Many of those who have mastered a number of European languages are tempted by Bambara, Wolof, and Lingala  - languages far simpler in structure and grammar, but still reflective of a very foreign and unknown cultural world. African tribal life is so different from modern European life, that learning an African language would be a privileged entry into it.

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For those linguists who have learned many languages, who have forayed out from Europe to Turkey and the Middle East, the Slavic world, and the Far East, want one more achievement - to understand the nature of language and what all languages share; and how language originates and does learning follow the same pathways to fluency.

Foreign language acquisition is the key to culture and to the process of cognition itself.  While non-linguists often assume that a linguist's abilities are because of 'a good ear', it is nothing of the sort. Language acquisition requires logic, discipline, and structure.  Of course children can't be bothered with issues of cognition.  They just listen, copy, and speak; but for adults, language is a matter of understanding what it is and how it functions.  Then only do we stumble through conversations, dialogues, and love affairs.

Lastly, the debate goes on as to whether thought requires language; and even a philosophical level, metaphysics is based on language. A child must learn that a hole can be two-dimensional or three; deep or shallow; a pinprick or the opening of a tube. 'Hole' is a word and an idea.

Why learn a foreign language? What other intellectual pursuit can address so many complexities at once?

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