Language is a spoken art

10 03 2013

Today I spent a half hour or so flipping backwards through the pages of a high school friend’s blog, and I noticed the same pattern with her blog as I do with mine. As you go into the past the writing gets more robust, the posts less structured yet somehow more wont to get somewhere. There’s so much to do and think about in high school. Your eyes are so big, you think so much about the world and about yourself, and as you get older… what happens?

Okay, from the high school perspective, I’ll tell you what happens – you find happiness. You reach college and you have friends and parties and sports and so many other things to occupy your time. Great art, it seems, often comes from great unhappiness.

There’s also this snowball effect of art envy that makes you want to create. Who hasn’t read the Lord of the Rings and thought, “God, I wish this came out of my imagination” ? You read a great book, and suddenly you have this burning desire to write a great book. But it’s a very treacherous sort of inspiration. Even if you open a Microsoft Word file and try to write, or start scribbling on a piece of binder paper, you almost always end up just staring into space, basking in the perfection of the piece of art you just consumed. Because art never truly comes from art. Consumption gets you so, so achingly close to creation… but to truly create anything, you need to distance yourself from anything that’s ever inspired you. And then you need to dig, a whole lot deeper than you think.

We have become quite the society of consumers. Our penchant towards little sound bites and pieces of literature no longer than a rage-face cartoon is annoying, but deliciously addicting. As I’ve grown up, and grown to accept this modern culture, I’ve felt myself become entwined into its melting, sugary strands until I am wrapped up in media like sweet amber around a fly. Today, I read a lot less books in a year than I did in fourth grade. Is that because times have changed, or I have changed? Me of fourth grade was very proud of sticking out; while me of today very strongly believes that going with the flow, accepting your surroundings and your world with an open heart, is the key to happiness.

I study linguistics, and one of the first things you learn as a linguistics student is that writing is not part of natural language. After all, you learn to speak naturally by growing up in a household full of words – but you don’t learn to read and write naturally by growing up in a household of literate people. For that reason, I’ve felt a lack of interest in reading or writing in the foreign languages I’m learning here in Switzerland. And that sort of translates into a lack of interest in reading or writing at all. Because from the viewpoint of linguistics, you realize that the written word is only a way of capturing something on the page that happens in the world.

The world is what fascinates me lately, but I am lost in it. I’ve spent my life expecting to find fulfillment and make a living in the pages of books. Then with college – with the new idea of opening myself to my surroundings – came an endless amount of stimulation and activity. I realized that maybe I liked living more than I liked creating art about living. But living is so much harder to put in a box than writing, and it’s also a whole lot harder to make money off of.

This distinction becomes more polarized in a country of diglossia like Switzerland, where Swiss German is used as the spoken word and High German as the written. They call it a Mundart, a mouth-way, but the word “art” plays with the multi-lingual word association nerves tangled in my mind. To me it’s a mouth-art, a spoken art. I’ve essentially made my choice to focus on Swiss German. But that effort requires writing too – writing exercises and tables in Swiss German so that I can memorize things, truly replacing what would be High German in a real Swiss mind with the dialect I’m trying to learn. Written Swiss German, to Swiss people, is almost like a “fake” language. So effectively, by launching myself into the world of the real and the spoken, I am also isolating myself from the world of the written. To the point that in the end, in the German-speaking world I will be practically illiterate.

I still surround myself with art, but I am paralyzed by how many different types there are. I want to create them all at once. They all have a different style, a different lens through which they see, process and enjoy reality. Blogging, stories, poetry, covering songs, writing songs, the flash and glow of photography, the long labor of drawing.

Now here I am centering my life on the simplest of them, the art of speaking. And I am realizing how empowering and terrifying it is to see the world through no lens at all. When you take a photo, it can be nothing more than a person’s face; when you draw a picture, it can be the most mundane bowl of pears. But speaking – the phenomenon whose science I study, and the slipperiest art of all – is no use unless you have something interesting to say.


Reason #147 why the art of conversation is dying

8 08 2011

This is one of 2 blogs I have. The other one is a Tumblr, and as such, anytime I use the website I get to (have to…?) scroll through a long news feed of what other people have been posting. And it drives me crazy how whenever people reblog things, they add reaction comments that are maddeningly non-specific.

I just saw a reblogged post containing four pictures of a small dog with a lemon. The original person had included a caption about how their mom took those pictures on the blogger’s laptop or something and left them as a surprise. Ha ha. Cute story. Okay. So the next person to reblog it added: “omfg”. no punctuation, no nothing. OMFG what? Oh my fucking God, that’s such an adorable dog? Oh my fucking God that’s hilarious? Oh my fucking God, what kind of mother would do that to her child? I mean, I suppose I could make an educated guess, but the education of the guess (as it were) isn’t given to me by context. It’s just given to me by a basic idea of how anyone would be expected to react to a cute picture of a dog with a lemon. How people are expected to react to that picture, because the reaction is expected. It’s Internet hive mind.

In my Sem I class, nestled among a lot of boring semantics equations involving whether or not Noam Chomsky has a mustache, we had some fascinating discussions about the different ways that people use words to create meaning. Most of the art of conversation, it turns out, comes from implicature. There’s implicature by omission, where Person A says “Did you guys get sunburned?” and Person B says “Andy was the only one who brought sunscreen…”. There’s implicature by changing the object, where Person A says “What happened to Simon’s birthday cake?” and Person B says, “Simon looks like he’s not feeling too well.” And so on. Thinking about things like that comes in useful for translations because in some languages you can’t phrase out all the same little tricks of implicature, and you have to translate the second part of an exchange like that into “No, I believe Simon ate the entire cake, which was a bad idea because it made him sick” and find some other way to make it funny.

So the point is, witty use of language is naturally averse to stating the obvious. But I feel like on the Internet, English is devolving into some sort of shorthand meme hipster language built for people who are so determined to outwit stating the obvious, they don’t actually end up stating anything. Every time someone reblogs a post all they say is “THIS” or “I CAN’T!”. this what? Like, maybe “this” would be sort of witty if you spelled it the way you would say “This guuyyyy…!” with the douchey finger point and the ellipsis implied in the way you said it. But people are too hipster to use punctuation, so it just isn’t witty. And don’t even get me started on “I can’t.” You can’t what? Breathe from laughing? Believe that this is happening to the guy in the GIF? Go on living anymore? Put together coherent sentences? Because I inferred the last one, but that’s about all I inferred.

I want to make my point perfectly clear so I don’t sound like a grumpy old man: I’m not trying to be a grammar snob. I’m not saying that people are too lazy to use grammar, or too dumb. What I’m saying is that they’re too hipster. In other words, I don’t care how badly you’re misusing English; I don’t care if you’re running around speaking in third person like Golgi or whatever-his-name-is from “The Black Cauldron” — I only care if you’re doing it on purpose. Hell, I don’t use correct grammar in all of my posts. just like the rest of the wit-hipster Internet generation, I believe that grammar is meant to be misused. but for the love of god people, misuse it WELL. Otherwise we’ll have a world of people going around and pointing at anything mildly interesting and exclaiming “THIS!!!!” because they’re too cool to say something dorkily plain and obvious, like “This is remarkable!” or “This made me cry” or “This is hilarious”, or even “This rocks!”.

I’m not saying “I CAN’T” is never funny. But usually things that are completely contextless are only funny because they’re not expected to be completely contextless. And when you use them all the time, they’re just… not funny anymore. And I know I didn’t write this whole thing to beg the cyber-universe to save a few implicature-fueled jokes from overuse, but it just drives me crazy that when I scroll down Tumblr I feel like people are really beating this horse until it’s dead, and at this moment in the history of our language I don’t know where the living horses are.

The search to escape tired old synonyms is as old as storytelling itself. Intelligent people have spent the last few thousand years pursuing it. Usually people find new words, invent new slang, slip a term cleverly in sideways to mean something much more colorful than its old meaning. I’m not sure where it’s going, but only in the Internet generation have people started using this drastic new method: instead of finding new synonyms for tired old words, we just stop using them altogether.


10 06 2010

I visited with one of my good friends the other day. She was my 8th grade English teacher, and I’ve kept in touch with her since, through the cancer that almost killed her and forced her to quit teaching and become a private tutor out of her home. Being ushered into the plant-filled dimness of the house in which she now spends her time was like visiting a high priestess. Jovial yet soft-spoken, and terribly wise, her bright blond hair has grown back as thick silver-gray curls after the chemo.

We got to talking, and the subject that dominated our conversation was time. After her chemo she spent the summer in the mountains, soaking in life, before going back to teach again. When she did reenter the world, her biggest trouble was getting reaccustomed to the way time runs in our society. She said that in chemo, the way the drugs and the disease work in your body make time run differently – sometimes faster, sometimes slower – and after all that it was just strange to have to deal with time again in the way we deal with it in American society.

Her theory, what she wants to write her doctoral thesis on, is that many psychological disorders can be defined as failures to synchronize with the way everyone else deals with time. They are created by our American society. Here in our society, time is everything: people get mad at you if you don’t go fast enough, and people also get mad at you if you go too fast. Everything has to happen on time, and everyone has to move with the flow.

As a (future) linguistics major, this whole thing interested me too. It’s a pretty well-known convention that in English, we talk about time as if it were money. We spend time and save time; we can buy time, and we can waste time. Doesn’t that say something about us? Furthermore, an already-standing psychological theory says that psychology is directly affected by the economy – and since in America we act as if there’s an economy of time, that seems to play right into my friend’s theory.

There’s a culture in Indonesia called the Moken, or sea gypsies, who live on boats and lead nomadic lifestyles floating between islands in the Andaman Sea. Their language has no word for “time”. In their language, there is no yesterday or tomorrow, sooner, later, hours, minutes or seconds. Their culture is so relaxed that they do not need any words to describe time.

I was reading an article the other day about two linguists named Evans and Levinson, who are challenging Noam Chomsky’s theory of “universal grammar”, that there are rules of language that are inherent in the human brain and thus can be found in every language spoken by man. Evans and Levinson think that languages are different, and the brain instead forms around the language a person hears as a baby. That means that the brains of people who speak different languages actually work differently. A Frenchman’s synapses will always tell him the noun before the adjective, even if he’s perfectly fluent in English and he can reverse them when he opens his mouth. If that’s true, than imagine how hard it would be for one of the Moken to move to a Westernized culture and join modern life. People who grow up with the sea gypsies, living their culture and speaking their language, have no concept of time. It’s not just a word: because they’re unable to think the word, they’re unable to think the thought. They don’t understand Time. It’s easy, then, to imagine that someone who spends time in such a culture would develop a psychological disorder if they tried to join the rat race of human society.

When I’m traveling this summer she told me to notice the way other cultures deal with time. In this globalized world it’s so easy to travel and not notice the differences where you are. Business travelers, for example, can live in a globalized bubble of meetings, first-class transportation and hotel room shampoo and never learn anything from their travels. I’ve always insisted that if I were able to travel for free like that, I would manage to enjoy it. But my friends whose parents travel say that it’s impossible. It’s all about time. On a business trip you’re trapped in the Western frame of mind even more so than normal: you’re busy; you have to get to your meetings and answer your emails on time. It’s a mindset that’s very American. It’s funny, then, because I suppose in a way Time is like a different version of place. You can take a vacation an hour away from your house and be in a different time frame. But when you travel for business, you can go halfway around the world and mentally never leave your own time zone.

Time is funny in other ways too. It always moves faster or slower than you want it to. I’m going to graduate from high school today. And I just don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. Where did the time go? I don’t feel sad, but I feel like I should be sad, because this only happens once. I don’t know. I just want to freeze time and go into seclusion and think about it a few days. I feel like it’s not a big deal right now; like I’m not as awestruck as I was when my friends graduated. And I almost want to pretend it’s not a big deal, because I don’t want it to be. I want it to happen, but I don’t want it to be a big deal. I don’t want it to be the end of one chapter of my life and start of another. But it is.

One of my friends from school just texted me: “The sensation of waking up knowing you are about to graduate, I imagine, is what a person feels waking up on his wedding day.” I don’t know. I woke up and felt nothing. But there’s this ridiculous, carnival atmosphere building. Teenagers sending weirdly philosophical texts whizzing through the air across Sunnyvale. Michael’s craft store sold out of blue and gold felt at 9 p.m. last night. Underclassmen sitting in their classes taking finals, but secretly making Graduation Bingo cards under their desks. An army of janitors festooning the field at De Anza College with green and white. All seemingly unrelated events that will be linked in just a few short hours. It’s sort of absurdist, like a novel written by Camus or something. I hate Camus, but I think now I see his point.

Anyway, I’ve written enough, and I need to go start getting ready for this weekend.

It’s time.


25 03 2010

My sword needs a name.

Explanation: I’m in Pirates of Penzance, and this week the guys started sword-fighting lessons. Being the extremely cool child that I was, I once took both fencing and sword-fighting classes, so I actually took to stage combat pretty quickly. The closeted athlete in me loves perfecting my combat stance and doing drills with the various moves – attack 1, parry 4, advance, attack 5, parry 5a, glissade, etc. I really should take up a martial art in college; I think I’m predispositioned for it. At least, more than I am for other sports.

But I digress. For the next five weeks I am the proud owner of a heavy bronze-hilted steel rapier. It has a big handguard instead of a crosspiece, which makes it look very piratical indeed. The balance is absolutely awful, but I hold no grudges. My sword needs love. My sword needs a name.

I am torn by what language this name should be. One of my friends named his sword in English, a two-word name like Steel Flash or Blood Money or something, which inspired me to do something similar. I don’t remember that name, but I do remember that he called someone else’s sword Celtic Mischief, which sounds like a bad Flogging Molly cover band if you ask me.

I really want to name my sword something in Greek, but the problems are these: a) Greek is impossible to pronounce, and b) Greek is really not culturally appropriate for a rapier carried by a pirate of Penzance. It’s so pretty though. The name I was toying with was Eχθοράδα, or “echthoratha.” Pretend the “ch” is like the way they say “ich” in Berlin, and the second “th” (not the first) is like the sound in “the.” Now try to say it again. “Echthoratha.” Beautiful, but unpronounceable. It means “enemy’s blood”, or actually, more literally, “slush made out of enemies.” You’d think that was very Tarantino of me, until you found out that I created the word using a suffix found at the end of the words for several slushy drinks. “Limonatha” is lemon slush. I’m on the chapter about ordering at a restaurant right now, so my sword-naming vocabulary is limited. Enemy slush? Om nom nom nom.

Colleges are pretty much done looking at this blog by now, so I may allow it to deteriorate into mindless, journally mush in the near future, rather than the utterly classy mix of writing pieces and various media it’s consisted of in the past. I suppose I may as well let myself write what I feel like; having a blog is an organic thing anyway, and it was a mystery from the start what mine would be like.

Speaking of college, the plot is beginning to unfold. I’ve been admitted to UC Santa Cruz, Lake Forest College and Macalester College. Of those, Macalester is pretty much out because they didn’t give me enough financial aid. I’ve also been waitlisted at Brandeis and rejected from UCLA and UC Berkeley. That last smarted a bit, although when I think about it, I know perfectly well that my UC application wasn’t all that strong. I wrote it to serve one purpose – to get me into my backup school, Santa Cruz – and it’s done that. But I still would have liked to think I was a Berkeley-level student.

I have also been accepted to NYU, the school of my dreams, but I don’t know yet whether or not they’re giving me money. Which is going to make all the difference. I assumed that the information about money would come in the admissions packet (which they’re mailing out tomorrow), but now I’m not so sure. Does their failure to mention financial aid thus far mean I didn’t get any? Will I have to wait until after the admissions packet to know for sure? What’s going on? The moment of reckoning is upon me, and without April 1 as a concrete deadline, the suspense is worse than ever.

My life is now a time bomb that could explode at any moment, with any medium of provocation – a polite email from the admissions office, a letter in the mail, a rumor heard at school. Tell me already, NYU! Let me know if my dreams are to be realized or crushed! Tell me… I’ll slay you with my all-powerful sword, Echthoratha.

…my sword needs a new name.

Tonight’s entertainment courtesy of Google Translator

24 12 2009

I was looking back at a post I made a week or two ago, a story that I translated from French into English, when I noticed something funny. At the top of the browser window a little message had popped up that announced, “This page is in French!” (Helpful observation, that.) “Translate using Google Toolbar?”

I have to admit, at first I felt a certain arrogant satisfaction. Of course I didn’t need the page translated; after all, I had written it. It was pretty ironic, really. Still, it would be cool if the translator worked….

You can probably guess where this is going. I couldn’t resist: I clicked “Translate.” And I settled down to read my masterpiece. It began like this:

Large windows open to the garden shed the light of Interior and the sound of striking a rock band, which drowned the sound of cicadas and overwhelmed the weak light of the full moon. Even at half distance after aisle long, she was leaning on the old Lexus for his mother, Adrienne could feel the rhythm of bass murmuring in his bones. Samantha’s music, friends Samantha, Samantha Day. We had the bowl, there were no neighbors to complain to.

By the time I had finished the first paragraph I could tell I was in for a treat. I skimmed the rest of the story, which contained the following gems:

Rebellions, it still came out a cigarette and lit it. Twice she left her almost falling before succeeding.

In the lone gap in the wall, just before Adrienne, two roses Scandent is cord around a white mesh and met over in a tangle of branches touched.

The smile of the woman went Adrienne uncomfortable. She turned back to pink. The flowers attracted. Above, the moon shone clear and strong, providing as much light for low color discrimination flowers. Adrienne raised his hand to touch one of the roses on the bow, a large white flower next shook his head.

This is all probably funnier to me, since I wrote the story and I could see exactly how and where they went wrong. But still, some of these are priceless no matter what language you speak. The mistakes ranged from the amusingly lost-in-translation:

She cast a glance at the worm ashes glowed at the end of his cigarette and creaked. My only vice, and it does not even like me.

His footsteps echoed in the marble courtyard while she crawled to the Courtroom. 5.

To the sheer WTF factor:

Adrienne, ill at ease, boondoggle.

The battery exploded again.

And so it goes. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I love learning languages.

Learning Arabic

17 12 2009

So I got my book on Arabic today. And it’s hard.

Like really, really hard. Even with the CD. I have decided that Arabic is the Italian to Hebrew’s Spanish. It’s like the same, only… more complicated.

It’s really a new experience, learning such a difficult language, because I’ve never before been so lost that I had to cling to the lesson plan like a life vest. Language classes, you see, tend to start with phrases – you learn what they mean, but you have no idea why, so you can’t deconstruct the parts and make your own sentence. You just have to hope that you’ll run into that situation exactly in context. Thus we have those infamous useless phrases, like “Le singe est sur la branche”, from the Eddie Izzard sketch about learning French. Well, I always thought that was stupid, and back in French 1 I had great determination never to learn blindly. When we learned phrases like “Comment t’appelles-tu?” within the first few weeks, I was frantically guessing at how reflexive verbs worked just because I couldn’t stand the suspense. Not so in Arabic. Alas, I’ve now been reduced to memorizing gems like “It was delicious, thank you” and “Yes, that’s my daughter!” without the faintest clue which parts mean what. If I want to say it’s his daughter, then I guess I’m screwed because hell if I know what I’m actually saying. I’m just keeping the faith that eventually it’ll all be explained without my mind having to fill in the gaps.

The pronunciation, though, is the hardest part. There are so many different sounds. An “h” that sounds like ours coexists with the “ch” of Hebrew as well as the “ch” of northern Germany, and you have to be able to distinguish between all of them. Ditto for the “r” of Spanish and the “r” of French. It’s like trying to do every single accent at the same time.

One sound, my personal favorite, is described simply as “a voiced fricative pronounced in the pharynx.” Would you like some fries with that? Anyway, according to the CD, it’s silent – or so I thought. According to the book, it is an Arabic sound, speakers can distinguish it from a silent letter, and you do have to say it right to be understood. So I listened to the CD again to try to hear the difference between this sound and a glottal stop. And… nothing. I listened to that part of the CD several times, and it’s like they were talking on a frequency I couldn’t hear. I swear, it sounds like a silent letter. It doesn’t exist! It’s a phantom consonant!

Learning such an alien language is trippy. Is there a sound that I’ve honestly never heard before in my life? Will it come to me naturally in time? Maybe in Egypt, when I actually hear people speak? Will it be a flash of lightning, like a blindfold being lifted, or will I just one day notice that I’ve been saying it correctly? I feel like I’m colorblind, and I’ve never seen blue, and nobody can describe it to me. It’s bizarre.

But still, Arabic is hard in a good way. It’s a challenge – a challenge in the area I’m best at; a challenge that I have motivation to accept. There’s a certain rush that comes with accepting such a challenge, and when your forte is languages you rarely get that rush. So here goes nothing. I will defeat Arabic, or die trying! Allahu akbar, bitches!

A linguistic mindfuck

17 11 2009

Pardon my coarse language. (I would say “pardon my French”, but I’m actually about to speak French.) I just can’t let go of my love for the word “mindfuck”. It seems that no synonym could ever have quite the same idiomatic bite. For those who don’t know, it’s essentially a modern-day noun form of “trippy” (which in fact is a drug reference, so there).

Anyway, here are several recent epiphanies about the French and English languages, most of which were born while I was sitting eating junk food and idly listening to lectures in the French 2 class I aide for. I swear, the early levels of a language class are far and away the most interesting.

1. Okay, this applies to all the Romance languages. You know how there’s sort of a passive tense which is actually made by using the reflexive form of a verb? So when you see signs that say “Se habla español”, they literally say “Spanish speaks itself here” even though a better translation is “Spanish is spoken here?” I bet you thought that was a weird quirk for which there’s no English translation. Well, you were wrong!

This construction does exist in English, as I noticed the other day, to my great excitement, while opening a can of soup. The motto of the soup label (I forget what kind of soup it was) was “Soup that eats like a meal”. In a lightning bolt of inspiration I realized that here, in English, I had found a usage of a reflexive verb to create the passive voice. The only difference is that in English, without a pronoun like “se” to denote a reflexive verb, it’s way less obvious.

The French translation of the above phrase is “une soupe qui se mange comme un répas,” for which a more literal translation would be “soup that eats itself like a meal”. The French (and Spanish) pronoun “se” means that the subject of the sentence is doing the verb to itself – in other words, the verb is reflexive. But in English, in this case, you actually don’t need to use the word “itself” to make the verb reflexive. You just don’t use an object, and ta-da! “Soup that eats like a meal.” What it really means is “soup that is eaten like a meal”; this is just a spicier way of saying it.

However, if like me you get a lingering image of a killer blob of soup engulfing the city à la Godzilla and eating everyone, you could look at an even more mainstream example. For example: “This novel reads like a diary.” Really the novel is being read, but we don’t know by whom, so we use the reflexive form of the verb, just like in French one would say “ce roman se lit comme un journal.” Here’s an even more obvious one: “That painting looks like a masterpiece.” Who is doing the looking? Not the painting! I always thought that “look” was just an English word with a funky double meaning, and now I find that I was actually using some weird form of the passive tense the whole time? That’s a mindfuck.

2. This next one is slightly less thrilling, but it’s still odd. In French (and I imagine in a lot of languages) there’s a subjunctive tense, which bedevils foreign learners to no end. You use it after certain modifiers and the word “that”. So, “It’s nice that he…” and “I suppose that he…” in French are not followed by a verb in the present tense, but in this weird verb mood that looks like the present tense most of the time but sometimes doesn’t and basically has no point. I’m not bitter.

Anyway, I thought we were above such linguistic madness in English (ha), but once again I was wrong. The only difference is that in English we rarely use the subjunctive. Phrases like “I want you to go” used to be rendered as “I want that you go”, with the verb “to go” in the subjunctive. Today we generally sidestep this construction. Except I found one clause which, in English, still has to be followed by the subjunctive: “I suggest that”. You can’t say “I suggest you to go to the supermarket,” it has to be “I suggest that you go to the supermarket.” It gets weirder when you try the third person. “I suggest that he go to the supermarket” is a perfectly rational English phrase that doesn’t sound weird or archaic to my ears at all. But think about the verb “to go” : “he goes“. You said “I suggest that he go” automatically, didn’t you? It’s actually a different conjugation! Lo and behold, we in English can still conjugate verbs in the subjunctive. We just don’t know that we’re doing it.

3. In French, an accent circonflexe (“ê”) replaces an S in other romance languages and often English. Look at these cognates:

forêt – forest

Être – Span. estar

hôtel – hostel

maître – master

fenêtre – defenestrate

goût – gusto

Île – isle

hâte – haste

fête – feast

bête – beast

hôpital – hospital

vêtements – vestments

If you don’t speak French this probably doesn’t interest you at all, but it tripped me out.