Thursday, April 2, 2009

On Language

I woke up sometime in the 4:00 hour, ideas flying, in rhyme, in my head. Yesterday's conversations and inspirations assured me somehow that I am right, that I have something worthy to write. Homophones such as these are often metaphors, I think, defining meaning in a more magical, delicious way. The sea allows you to really see. You can't just be if you're a busy bee. Language is pretty clever.

Still, though, I often think that words don't matter, that melodies and gestures are more meaningful to impart true emotion and feeling. I looked out the window of the cafe this morning and saw a conversation in sign language. It was beautiful. Whatever they were saying, it came from the heart. I saw someone sneeze on the subway once and her friend waited patiently for her to finish, then reached out to touch her, gazed in her eyes and mouthed and moved his fingers right in front of her face to sign in earnest, "!" It was a magical moment. For most of us hearing people, the post-sneeze sentiment is a throwaway, a breezy "gableshew" in passing if anything at all.

But the words that we do use say so much of our cultures. A friend has said he's sad in communicating with me sometimes that I cannot speak French. I can see, from the few phrases I know that it is more direct, more forceful. Voila! I wrote in my notebook this morning the idea that concepts in French can be offered up in one word instead of in many, less obfuscated than English. But no sooner did I put down my pen and unplug to tune in to the world, most specifically to gaining the attention of a precious 8-month-old girl and her wondrous wave, that I was proven wrong by an expert.

As on most days lately, when I write or think about something, I come upon just the right person to talk to, the person who has focused on the topic so much as to make it their job. The mother of the beautiful baby turned out to be a Frenchwoman and, as fate would have it, a translator.

When I floated my language theory to her, about the directness of French, she agreed that the French are definitely more direct, but offered that their language is actually less not more precise, at least in the number of words they use. "English is more specific in terms of naming objects," she said. An example was hard to conjure, for these days she is focused mostly on translating baby talk. At some point soon she will focus again on her work, on translating English into French for humanitarian NGOs.

Our serendipitous meeting did not escape me. When I told her of meeting an architect when my attentions were centered on perspective and buildings, a sex consultant when my thoughts turned to carnal pleasures, and, now, meeting her, a translator, when language was on my mind, her faith, like mine, was restored: "Ah, so there is a God..." she said. It was definitely a gold star moment.

We spoke of linguistics, an impractical, academic art. What does one do with a linguistics degree, I wondered. She thought about it and then offered up with a shrug that, "Maybe it's just one of those passions that doesn't really take you anywhere...Maybe they write books?!"

What she does know, from her one linguistics course in college, is that English is a mix of different origins whereas other European languages, like Spanish and Italian, come more directly from Latin and Greek. I laughed, thinking about this.

"In language, as in so many things, the English and the Americans manage to create something totally new and forcefeed it on the rest of the world," I said. In our hubris, we have made most people speak our language even on their own soil and, most certainly, on ours. Amazing.

A bit later, another woman piped up during a conversation I was having with the trusty, always "Awesome!" barrista and it turned out she was a preparer of test questions for would-be college- or graduate school-entrants for whom English is a second language. Being the preparer of questions is less complicated than giving the tests, she said. As it would be. "Some accents you can understand better than others," she said. "It's hard to be objective, and I was conflicted."

Still, though, the tests are developed and administered, leaving the subjective judgment up to the test giver. For the record, I always chose papers. At least there was honesty in knowing there was no exact right answer. Nothing is quite for sure, no matter how much we like to be assured. I scoff when people say we are open to all kinds in America. Of course we are. Opportunities abound, definitely more than in most countries. But let's be fair: others have to speak our language. We do not always care to look closely enough to hear in anything other than our own words.

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