Creative Nonfiction

Away with Words

6 October 2016

“So, what are you studying?”

This is always a rather existential question, especially for an Arts student. Indeed, what am I studying?

“Linguistics, French and Creative Writing?” is the answer that now rolls off the tongue as quickly as “Alvin, Simon and Theodore,” and always in that exact order. “French, Linguistics and Creative Writing” can be mistaken for “French Linguistics and Creative Writing” if I forget to elongate that little one-syllable word, ‘French’, and give it its very own big-kid intonation accent. Eventually, French became fed up with people asking her if Creative Writing or Linguistics was her mum just because was she was so short and asked me to always make it clear that she was her own independent noun phrase.

Since then, I’ve always led with Linguistics – the one people always have questions about.

“What languages are you studying?” is the classic one.

“All of them!” I really want to say, since it’s technically true, but I prefer to be honest and say “none of them”. I don’t study languages as such: I study ‘language’.

Linguistics is the search for the nature of language itself and everything that it is capable of doing. Such knowledge enables a person to do many things. Picking up languages more easily and translating from one language to another are only two of them but they tend to be the only two that society is interested in.

Certainly, among the familiar figures on the silver screen I often see the handy interpreter sidekick or the flattering form of a genius who knows at least one tongue, sign language or writing system from each of the seven continents. Yet movies and TV shows tend to treat translating and language learning the same way they treat computer hacking: it just happens whenever (and if ever) it’s needed, without it ever being fully explored. It’s always assumed that linguistics is a purely technical occupation, devoid of human interest. Given that high school grammar classes leave memories of frustration and the sense of an impenetrable wall of jargon standing in front of what you already knew intuitively, the lack of popular enthusiasm for linguistics is understandable.

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw the trailer for Arrival, an alien invasion film about linguists! Amy Adams’ character in the film, Dr Louise Banks, is a linguist-cum-hero called up by the US government because the military wants to communicate with the extra-terrestrials to find out what they want and what they know. What they’re not counting on are the huge physical, spiritual, cultural, and therefore linguistic differences between the aliens and human beings, making this whole communication business a very tall order.

In fact, even fellow Earthling languages rarely line up as neatly as you would expect. I would love to see a scene in a Cold War espionage thriller where an American character wants to relay to a Russian counterpart an emphatic statement, “I’m going”. A comical anti-climax would ensue, as his interpreter would have to ask what mode of transport he will be taking and whether his trip will be one-way or return, information that is always revealed when using this verb in Russian.

The interpreter would have a similar problem even with something as simple as talking about a blue T-shirt. In Russian, there is a word for dark blue and a word for light blue, but no name for just blue. Meanwhile, English (unlike Mandarin and Japanese) has no word that covers both blue and green. Depending on the language you speak, you could well see no marked difference between red and pink or orange and brown.

That said, you can of course still conceive of something that your language doesn’t have a specific name for. In Tim Chiang’s Story of Your Life, the short story that Arrival is based on, the aliens’ language has no words for left, right, forwards or backwards because the way their heads rotate makes these distinctions irrelevant. There are also real life languages, such as Sambali, that almost never talk about directions this way. Instead, they use compass points. That said, the Sambali word for east (baitan) literally means “going to the mountains” and libaba (west) literally means “going to the sea”, making them very specific to the geography of the Zambales province, unlike the English equivalents which are based more globally on the setting and rising of the sun.

This is often the point in the conversation where I have people hooked. Lots of people love hearing about etymology, about where words come from. (Some people don’t care about the history of the words they say, but personally, if I’m going to put something in my mouth I like to know where it’s been.) It’s always ironic when someone is fascinated by all the meanings that have been attached to ‘nice’ (foolish, clumsy, weak, poor, ignorant, dainty, precise, delightful, thoughtful) or ‘awful’ (everything from ‘worthy of respect or fear’ to ‘exceedingly’) but then they complain about how ‘literally’ has acquired the meaning of ‘figuratively’. Much stranger things have happened in the world of semantics and any interpreter of living languages has to keep track of all of these plot twists.

Fortunately, Dr Banks doesn’t have to worry about this with the aliens but their language does present other, very exotic difficulties. She has to navigate a writing system that has almost nothing to do with the spoken form (very much like English, as she quips in the short story). The spoken form is practically impossible for her to work with, simply because it has been developed for an utterly non-human set of articulators and auditory receptors. People forget that, since speech (and signing of course) is a physical task, there are points where linguistics intersects with biology, anatomy and even physics (when you’re talking about acoustics).

So, what am I studying? Quite a lot it would seem, even if I don’t speak ten languages.

 


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