Sunday, January 07, 2007

Believing in Tongues

In the burst of New Year enthusiasm, I signed up for Vietnamese classes last Friday. My classes start this week. I'm excited to start a structured course in Vietnamese, which I have been making half-hearted attempts to learn on my own and by pestering Mrs. Octopus for the past year and a half or so. For a time, I was able to say "Vietnamese is really hard," which was a good party trick.

Anyhow, I always find it fascinating to begin figuring out how a new language works, and to see how the new language puts different concepts together, how it categorizes things and ideas. (For example, I love how simple and blunt German is in assembling concepts like so many machine parts to create words: how to describe a glove? It's a "Handschuh". Suicide? "Selbstmord". And so on.) It's a well-worn theory that the unique structure of a particular language will inevitably affect or structure the minds of its speakers. I was reminded of this today as I said one word, and then remembered I had to call someone whose name rhymed with the word I had just spoken. Just as poetry cannot be properly translated, surely religious texts and words cannot be adequately or faithfully translated. The biblical command to "love your neighbor as yourself" or Buddha's final admonition that decay is inherent in all compound things will take on different meanings in the contexts of a different language. (This line of thought brings to mind the Islamic belief that the master copy of the Quran, sitting in heaven on a very nice stand for God's ease of reference, is written in stone in the one true language of its revelation, Arabic, and can only be truly understood in that language.)

(I've always wondered why "los dios" in Spanish is plural: it appears it may be a remnant from the Latin "deus", and, before that, the Greek "theos", which appears to have some connection to "Zeus"; I am not positive, but it appears that "dios" is used as plural because it retains the "s' from "theos" and "deus". Someone correct me if I'm off here. As a further sidenote, it appears that some Jewish Spaniards used the term "El Dio" to refer to God because they thought that the implication of multiple gods in "los dios" was blasphemous.)

In any event, it'll take some time before I learn enough Vietnamese to have any idea how that language may reprogram my brain.


toddy said...

I have been speaking many languistic sounds to my son in an effort to have him hear multiple types of sounds so that he has proper pronunciation in as many languages as possible.
My pidgin FrancoSpangloAnglish is therefore often interrupted by gibberish Manderin (of which I am a fine practitioner, even by accounts of my Chinese friends) and more stylized pan-Eastern European mutterings which have often in the past accompanied my orchestrating group photos.
I hope, in some small way, to affect some sort of musical seedling in the young brain to make his learning of multiple languages easier.

hh said...

wow, that's great that you signed up for vietnamese class! i wish i was as motivated and "fascinated" to learn languages.