Friday, January 19, 2007

Too late to blush.

Okay, here's the deal. I studied Arabic for three years. The language nearly destroyed my will to live and I am currently on hiatus for sanity purposes. However, people are constantly asking me how my studies are going and I am constantly having to explain my failure to master the language in spite of years of study (and good grades, I might add). By way of justifying this failure of mine, I routinely quote someone who was quoted to me by my first Arabic teacher. This quote was intended to comfort us neophytes as we simultaneously memorized long lists of non-standard plural nouns and beat back suicidal thoughts -- she told us the quote was from a recent BYU student who was fluent in 15 languages, including Arabic, and was under consideration by the Guinness Book for the title of "most languages spoken." As this useful quote goes, Language Guy was asked what was the most difficult language he had learned and he responded that it was a close race between Mandarin and Arabic, but if he were forced to choose, he'd go with Arabic.

You can see why this is one of my favorite quotes. Family and close friends have heard me parrot it more than once.

So, a couple weeks ago I was thinking of that oh-so-useful quote and decided that as a self respecting writer-slash-amateur-historian I really ought to track down the original quote and be sure I've been quoting it correctly all this time. I googled it, found it easily, AND.....

....up popped the picture of someone I knew. He had been in my church congregation until recently. He had eaten dinner at my house. "Whoa," I thought.

It was just kinda cool until I started replaying our dinner conversation in my head. It was a few months ago and the memory is very vague. But I do know that we were having one of those standard getting-to-know-you chats -- you know -- where do you work, what are you studying in school, blah blah. I remember him mentioning that he loved learning languages, but he didn't come out and say that he was this freakishly gifted linguist.

And I can't be sure, but I THINK I QUOTED HIM TO HIMSELF. It's just the sort of conversation where I would be likely to insert that quote. Oh man. That would be really ridiculous, you know, to essentially be saying, "you people can't possibly fathom how hard Arabic is, but I shall attempt to educate you anyway," and then proceed to illustrate my point by quoting one of the very people I'm trying to "educate." Excuse me while I remove my red plastic nose and sweep up the shards of my dignity.

If I did quote him to himself, he did a great job of not laughing. Or maybe not. If I was in the midst of a me-me aria, I might not have heard a stifled snicker.

Oh well. As the Arabs say, if you can't change it, blog it.

They also say

Better a handful of dry dates and contentment therewith than to own the Gate of Peacocks and be kicked in the eye by a broody camel.
Ha! Gotta love those transcendent observations on the human condition. But I digress.

Back to the twin topics of foreigners and blushing: it seemed to me that the characters in Anna Karenina did an inordinate amount of blushing. I can't tell if this is because they lived in a more innocent time and therefore more topics were blushworthy. Or maybe it's some genetic quirk in Russians specifically. Or maybe Tolstoy thought bashful blushiness was an admirable quality, and likely to help keep one from the throes of an adulterous affair. At any rate, if Konstantin Levin weren't a fictional character, he would be blushing enough for the both of us.

But for now, I blush alone.


Belladonna said...

Languages are such amazing codes.

To what degree do you agree or disagree with the Sapir Whorf hypothesis idea that the words we use shape the way we perceive and think?

Marie said...

I completely agree with it. I learned about it in my linguistics courses the same year I was studying deconstructionism in my lit crit courses, and it was quite exciting -- they both explained something that I'd felt but never been able to articulate. That this language that we live inside is all we have to access Reality, and so its imperfections mark the horizons of our reality -- even in our non-verbal moments (I think the language of the spirit can transcend this, but the minute you start trying to verbalize that spiritual language, the horizons crash down again).

You only have to start studying another language to see how true the concept is. That's why I feel that my studies, while not getting me where I thought they would, have been valuable. Any encounter with the language of another culture offers you the key to that culture's differing view of reality. You suddenly see gaping holes in your own reality where you saw none before. It's kind of scary, but I suppose that real education does feel scary. And exhilarating, too, when a new language gives you a word or idiom for an idea that was there all the time, but invisible to you until someone told you its name.

Belladonna said...

So what do you think of the animal communication project which attempts to teach chimpanzees and apes how to use American Sign Language or else to communicate through manipulation of plastic chips?

wynne said...

HA! Oh, thank you, Marie, that was the best laugh I've had all day!

wynne said...

And about those apes, belladonna--

Since I can't quote it, because I can't remember where I read it (and I'm pretty sure it very well could've come out of a novel) was that an ape who learned to communicate with people referred to other apes that did not know how to sign "stupid" and no longer wished to associate with them.

So language shapes the way a chimp/ape/primate thinks of the world as well. (That is, if you believe my very, very vague and, "source.")

Love that Whorf hypothesis.

Belladonna said...


I THINK you are referring to a line from the novel and movie "Congo" by Michael Crichton.

wynne said...

Ha! That's probably right! I remember that I did read that--it was assigned reading, if you can believe it.

Well, not a very scientific source, but it seems to make sense. After all--if new ideas can change a human being, why wouldn't they change an animal, too?

Marie said...

I don't know what I think about the ape scenario -- I don't know anything more about it than the little bits I've seen about Koko on PBS. Like Wynne, I have no problem believing that other creatures reshape their realities through the language they know or learn, just as we do, and as I believe in evolution, I have no problem with the apes taking a mental step toward us. I guess the question that's still going around is to what degree the apes have really "learned" the word? Or have they finally established that the word is being consciously used in an inventive way?