The languages we speak

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The late poet Derek Walcott wrote: “To change your language you must change your life”. I’ve thought about this statement many times over the years, and usually find that the inverse is also true – truer even: “To change your life you must change your language”. And we speak many different languages, literal and figurative, to fit our lives.

Literal language

There are the obvious ways in which this is true. For example, in the life of a migrant, you only become integrated to a limited extent without changing your language, but you can make inroads with the literal changing and adopting of another language. The more immersive it is, the more it shapes your life (so these statements work in conjunction with each other: language changes life, life changes language).

I spoke at some length with a friend about whether a language inherently contains a power structure. We were discussing that the US and UK have buckled under the weight of crumbling infrastructure and insufficient provision for managing natural disasters/bad weather. He shared that a friend in Massachusetts boasted about how her new generator switched on automatically five times that winter, leading him to ask (once again), “What is it about Americans that makes them twist the shortcomings of the place they live into things to brag about?” I always go back to the same answer: they don’t know any better. Many everyday things (for me or for him) sound futuristic to people in America (and to some extent, the UK). “Empires”, if we could call America one, crack and crumble from within. My friend wondered if the English language contains a built-in predilection for “shitty societies”. I did not agree with this statement but thought a bit about the built-in attitude of English. He posited that something in the language creates fear and anger in its speakers that is masked by arrogance.

I admit that although I have analyzed the language – and language in general – from many points of view, I had never taken it on from this angle. I have, though, thought about the imperialism and spread of language, which then gives native speakers a sense of entitlement. He posed the question: “How else to explain why both London and NYC are crappy in similar ways?” I figured it is not so much something within the language itself so much as in its ubiquity and power. (Both places driven and developed by the original British imperialist way of thinking, the dominance of English, even among large populations of immigrants who end up united by this one powerful lingua franca, contributes.) Within the language itself, though, is it a magnet for the best or most useful elements of other languages? Has it not only overtaken other languages but plundered them for its own needs? Does the dominance of English come from how and where its imperialism ended up (North America, India, other parts of Asia, Australia), in places where dominance also meant colonization and the “conquering” people staying put and taking power – as opposed to “resource grabs” like those in Africa, where French colonialism was alive and well? Could it be the result of English having such a vast and even superfluous vocabulary.. another way of dominating just by sheer volume of words? (And we can’t even say there is one “English” – its spread and ubiquity have created all kinds of variations.)

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the questions are fascinating.

The language of self-help and personal identity

Then there are increasingly less obvious languages. For example, the language of self-help: you are told to frame yourself and your issues in a new way. The frame changes perception and eventually the language used to describe that perception. That is, you are what you think. You are the language you use. This came to mind most recently when I was listening to a young colleague who is often cuttingly direct in the language she uses, and I wonder how she would respond to softer, more diplomatic language. I also note that she notices keenly when others are as direct as she is. Would she be as effective in her role if she were softer? No. But if I were as direct and abrupt as she is, it would not suit me or work for me. Each of us, thus, forms our own (kind of) language – by which we are identified and through which we craft our own identities.

The language of failure?

Similarly, in pop-self-help and some broader psychological discussion, “failure” isn’t used when something might just be a setback. Here I think of alcoholics… do we really want to say that because someone had 90 days of sobriety and then fell off the wagon that those 90 days are a loss, a waste or a step back to square one – and their attempts a “failure”? Does the language we apply imply judgment and set the groundwork or pace for the next “slip”? That is, for an alcoholic each day sober is a success, and even if they build toward longer periods of sobriety, is their success (or failure) measured cumulatively? Maybe AA or other people measure this way. But for the person dealing with it, the language needs to be more forgiving or less judgmental.

Language of experience

Maybe certain experiences we live through do not change the literal language – the words you use – but change the whole approach, so your set of sociolinguistic approaches and cues becomes different. Maybe experiences forge within you a different person, with different eyes, who can no longer speak the same language, with the same tone you once used before the experience. This is applicable in many cases, but I think in particular about consolation, grief and the expectation of it.

How little I understood when I recently read Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes how prescient two takeaway quotes would be:

“…perhaps the man’s fate, a life destroyed by tragedy and grief, provided me with a chance to reflect on my own worst fears. I’ve often caught myself feeling a certain guilty joy at the disasters of others, as if the fact that horrible things happened to other people meant that my own life would be exempt from such tragedies, as if I’d get a kind of safe-conduct based on some obtuse law of probability…” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

“I believed I understood that the reason we’re sometimes moved by another’s grief has to do with our atavistic fear that this grief may get transferred to us, too.” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

These thoughts stuck with me after reading the book, which I was reading as I consoled someone through and after the death of his mother. While being supportive and compassionate to him, I turned to someone else for my own kind of consolation, and discussed at length the particular kind of grief that punctuates the loss of one’s mother. He only realized then, as if becoming prepared for grief, how very devastating his own loss would eventually be when his mother passes away. It seems especially cruel and unusual that he didn’t have to wait long to be confronted by the potential for this grief: his mother suffered a fairly catastrophic setback only a couple of weeks later, which has not resulted in her death – but has opened the floodgates and made him see that his entire approach, logically, was flawed, that he could not control or know what the loss would mean or do to him. Sacheri’s points on how we are moved by another’s grief – because it is so close to what we ourselves may soon experience – was applicable.

And yet, language cannot contain this kind of grief, the fear (or confusion) it creates and the mirror it holds up to us and how we live and feel.

Language is equally inadequate for consolation. But in such cases, it’s less a spoken language and more a listening language: giving the time, patience and love to listen.

He “…went on to assure us there’s no Devil, no Satan, no Hell. There is—(maybe)—Heaven but it isn’t anywhere far away or anything special. And we demanded to know, why isn’t Heaven anything special? (You always hear of Heaven being so special.) And Daddy said, because Heaven is just two things: human love, and human patience. And all love is, is patience. Taking time. Focusing, and taking time. That’s love. This was disappointing to us! This was not anything we wanted to hear. We were too young to have a clue how special human love and human patience were, how rare and fleeting…” –A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

 

Grammarians

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“This was the kind of thing the grammarians liked to hear. Together they would see the paper into the grave with its syntax pure.” – Amsterdam, Ian McEwan

When I told the story (well, let’s face it – it wasn’t so much a story as it was the airing of a grievance) of a colleague challenging me (a self-proclaimed grammarian) on adjectival-phrase hyphenation, oddly, it was the first time he had heard the word “grammarian”.

“The grammar turned and attacked me.” – Adrienne Rich, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”

the operating system of the job interview

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I think we’ve all had job interviews during which red flags were raised and alarm bells went off in our heads, cautioning us to take a step back and consider whether we really want to work with these people. I certainly have. By the same token, I have also had interviews with people who were immediately engaging, whose intelligence and vision made me immediately want to join forces.

I was thinking today about the former kind, the “this isn’t good”-gut-feeling interview. That is, the interviewer is late, is rushed and stressed, fiddles with their phone or email for a few minutes once the interview has begun, apologizing but nevertheless continuing.

I’m thinking: This is a first impression, dude. And it’s not going so well.

Then the discussion begins. I’m thrown off my game a bit because they have already created this atmosphere. The tone is set. They use words that only certain kinds of people use, “Anyone who works for me will tell you this.”

I’m thinking: In this day and age, who really says ‘works for me’, especially when they’ve been touting the flat, almost-non-existent hierarchy and lack of pretense? Yes, maybe I would be part of your team… but say instead “anyone who works in my team or anyone who works with me”… . The use of “works for me” immediately conveys a kind of (possibly unconscious) structure from within that person’s mind, which strives (again, possibly unconsciously) to establish a power dynamic. And yes, maybe that person would be my manager, but I don’t want a manager who chooses that particular language. I am at a stage in my career and life where I choose with whom to work, not for whom to work.

Once the discussion ends, 45 minutes into the appointed time, right on schedule in fact, they adopt a sarcastic and accusatory tone: “This conversation has gone well over time.”

I’m thinking: Oh, I think not.

And… it was okay for you to disrespect my time at the beginning of the interview but then to get an attitude when you mistakenly believe I have overrun your time?

I don’t love being a nitpicking asshole. I don’t love being overly sensitive. In this case, I don’t like being something of an analyst about minute word choice. I have found, however, that when I dismissed these concerns in the past and convinced myself I was being overly sensitive, I have ended up in some of the worst professional situations I’ve ever been in.

And no, I don’t need that.

Smash the bejesus out of July

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How, oh how, is it JULY 1?

Already?

Rolling my eyes at people saying, “I just don’t have the bandwidth for that.”

Fucking right you don’t – you’re not a goddamn wifi network. Find some … original, non-corporate-cannibalizing language for being busy. I want to take giant earth-moving equipment, scoop up all the bastardized and meaningless corporate language and dump it in a landfill and start all over again with the basics.

But then lots of words and their uses, misuses, mispronunciations and all manner of language-related things get under my skin. Not always in a bad way. My dear Scots abuse language constantly. My inner grammarian cringed at first, but the linguist took over and fell so much in love with its unique flavor and quirks.

I have written before about how a person, particularly a writer, will get stuck on a word and repeat it (I am not alone in this inquiry) – at least enough times that I think they either have bad or no editing, or they themselves are deliberately reveling in and using this word. That is, perhaps it has a deeper meaning for them, and they want to hammer a point home with its repeated use. Or, as Anne Helen Petersen does in her recent book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, some version of “abject” or “abjection” recurs, quite deliberately as a key word. She goes so far as to define the word and pick apart its roots to show how it applies time and again to “unruly women” – the subject of her book. (I happen to like the word “abject”, and I was pleased not only to see it here but to notice it in a book I read after Petersen’s.) Perhaps the way my brain tracks individual words reduces the overall power of the theme or the work, but I hope I’m taking it all in regardless of my own obsession with diction.

The grit of language

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As someone in love with language, the perils and challenges of translation and the cultural concepts that are embedded in language, I was thrilled to read about the Positive Lexicography Project. The interactive project, spearheaded by Dr Tim Lomas, catalogs and categorizes words/concepts (in this case, positive traits, feelings, experiences and states) that have very specific meanings in a language but have no direct equivalent or translation in English.

It’s not a new project, but I just stumbled onto it now. I’m in love.

Image by Brenda Godinez on Unsplash

The translation lie

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In some other universe, when I was young and attended university, I thought a lot during long commutes about translation. This was during a time in my life when language was the be-all, end-all. How it fit together, where it came from, how it all formed the pieces of a puzzle. I loved nothing more than to learn new languages and delve into semi-obscure poetry (at least in the English-speaking world). My mind was opened by the broad field of linguistics. I never specialized, and never pursued a professional career relating to language or linguistics, but that low-level passion bubbles away under the surface.

I wrote a paper during my first year at university about lying and forms of lying. It was in response to a book by Sissela Bok: Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. I think I took the assignment in a different direction than the professor sought, but it nevertheless kept coming back to me as I drove the 50 miles to campus and back, contemplating how I could frame translation as its own form of lying, unintentional though it is.

I don’t have the paper any longer, nor any copies of the Bok book (haha – bok book!). But the basic concept: translation as lie, comes back to me frequently, particularly as I move through the world and experience everything as a foreigner, as a non-native speaker, and constantly observe the non-native use of English as the foremost business language. It endlessly fascinates me, and thus when I recently read a dazzling book, Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, I was all the while curious about the book in its original French. The translation seemed vibrant and vital (which I say without having the original to look at for comparison), but then I stumbled on an interview with Mujila in which he voices very similar sentiments to those I’ve been carrying around with me for 30 years:

The interviewer asks: “But how did you experience the process itself?”

Mujila: “The process? I think that translation is not like getting a photocopy, or a printout. The translation of a text involves a process of re-creation. The English version of Tram 83, is not the French version of Tram 83. They’re two different books, because the translator doesn’t translate… Perhaps even the word ‘translator’ is… It always irks me…”

“I might say ‘re-creator’. Because the word ‘translator’ is like someone who buys beer and then goes and sells it, while the translator does more than buy and sell beer: he buys the beer and then he adapts the beer to the taste of his customers. A person doesn’t translate a text, he re-creates a text. It becomes another text. The English translation will be another text, and the Italian or Swedish or Dutch translation will be yet another text, particularly since this novel is aimed at a wide range of cultures and imaginations; it’s aimed at readers who may or may not have a connection to the Congo. When I wrote my characters, I didn’t think that these characters would one day speak German or English. I think that translation is a precious profession – more than one might think. I myself constantly slalom between languages. I speak several languages, and I myself have had to translate my own poems and texts into German, before I began writing in German too. And so I think that translation is more a work of … perhaps re-writing, but I think that above all we need to find another term instead of translation, or translator, another term that can illuminate all of these energies, because one doesn’t translate sentences, one translates a culture, one translates imaginations, one translates countries, one translates characters, one translates impressions, one translates sounds, smells, the smell of Kinshasa, the smell of Lubumbashi, the atmosphere of the mines, everything that happens around the mines, noises, the sound of glasses… And so a translator is not just somebody who buys beer wholesale and sells it retail, it’s more than the work of a salesman. A translator is like a ferryman, but beyond being a ferryman, a translator is a creator in his own right.”

Chocolate tears and suck pipes

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A native speaker of a language, unless s/he is interested in such things, rarely thinks about the construction of words in his/her own language.

When I recently started reading Swedish-language books, I was delighted to see that the word for “straw” (that you would put into a drink) is sugrör. Despite never knowing or seeing this word before (I’ve never been in a situation where I needed to ask for or was offered a straw), I knew immediately from context and from its component parts that it means “straw”. But what do its component parts mean? Suck pipe.

I mentioned this to a few Swedes, and they were amused because they had “never thought about it”. But leave it to me to recognize a suck pipe when I see it.

I also come across these kinds of interpretations and misinterpretations when I see subtitles or closed captioning. I saw a video of the online news-opinion program, Young Turks, when Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency. They were trying to explain that Macron’s wife’s family is wealthy because of chocolate. Not, as they opined, from ‘dirty money’ but rather by being oh-so-innocuous chocolatiers. The subtitles, though, read “chocolate tears”.

Yes, I suppose if the Young Turks had been interested in presenting the true history of cocoa plantations, we might have some chocolate tears to talk about. But they made it sound like the money comes from fairy dust and Disneyland-like joy because of course chocolate is sweet. Sounds foolish, naive and not at all worldly to act like chocolate is somehow so clean. Cocoa plantations: wouldn’t this wealth be soaked in ill-gotten gains, labor of an exploited colonial workforce and child labor, as well as the whole dark side of land-resource management. It’s not as pretty and sweet as it all sounds (or tastes).