Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Press 1 for English

Not to worry: I’ll save my fury over being required to “Press 1" to hear my own language in my on country for another blog. This will be a kinder, gentler observation on my fascination with languages in general. I have always admired those who are multi-lingual. I have, at one time or another, studied Spanish (two years) and French (two years), with the result that I am fluent in neither but can begin a conversation in either. I know enough to get myself into a conversation, but not enough to get myself out, and I will happily begin speaking Spanish only to suddenly lapse into French. I generally realize this only when I see the look of utter confusion on the face of whomever I’m trying to talk to. Or, I will liberally sprinkle Spanish words into a conversation in French, or vice-versa. Worst…and most common of all, I will be talking along merrily and suddenly forget the next word. Its effect on the conversation is similar to driving a semi trailer into a concrete wall, and from that moment on, all is lost.

I began, after returning to college from the Navy, to audit a German course. I was fascinated by the instructor’s saying that German is the only language in which each word of a sentence can be written on block of wood, thrown on the floor in a jumble, and someone who’d not seen the original can pick up the blocks and put the sentence together perfectly. That certainly can’t be said for English. But I was too busy with other things like having a good time, and dropped out after about two weeks. I am, however, able to say, should a German tourist ask me a question:
Shadeh, aber ich spreche nicht Deutsch” (phonetic for “Sorry, but I don’t speak German.”)

While I was in the Navy I decided I wanted to learn Greek. I found, in the ship’s library, a book printed in English on the left-hand page, and Greek on the right . I worked at it diligently for some time trying to compare the two and make sense out of it, but didn’t get very far, and by the time the ship reached Athens, I had mastered two phrases…phonetics again…: “Poo-eenay gabinito?” (“Where is the bathroom?”) and “Efferisto” (“Please” I think…it’s been a while, after all.) Well, it was a start.

I did learn enough of both Spanish and French to realize that it is far easier to speak either one if you think in the language you’re trying to speak. That way you don’t have to fumble around doing mental translations before saying something.

I remember when I was a kid reading poetry which had been translated from another language, and being rather disgusted that it often didn’t rhyme. “It’s poetry,” I’d say with far more authority than I possessed. “It’s supposed to rhyme!” The fact that words which rhyme in one language do not rhyme in another escaped me for quite some time. But even with the translation of prose, there are inherent problems. The pacing and lilt of words selected to create an effect suffer seriously when dealing with another language in which a beautiful-sounding word in one sounds like someone coughing up phlegm in another (German has lots of phlegm words, I’ve noticed.) The poor translator has to struggle to find a way around the problem.

The difficulty of dealing with and making sense of languages is compounded when the alphabets of the two languages are totally different: Arabic, Cyrillic, English, Chinese, many others. And Armenia has an alphabet created by one monk, and therefore totally different from any other. I think I’ll study Armenian next.

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