Learning Lingo

Languages are more than ways of communicating.  They are ways of thinking.  I figured that out with German, the first foreign language I studied.  It became even more evident with Greek and undeniable with Hebrew.  Beyond that, Ugaritic and other Semitic languages confirmed my suspicion.  To unlock a language is to open up a new way of thinking about things.  (This is one reason Trump’s isolationism was so dangerous.)  Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren, is an overview of twenty different ways of thinking.  The book picks a prominent feature of the twenty most-spoken languages in the world.  Apart from the list of what they are (in order of appearance: Vietnamese, Korean, Tamil, Turkish, Javanese, Persian, Punjabi, Japanese, Swahili, German, French, Malay, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin, and English) there are many other surprises.

Many of these languages—perhaps all—are reflections of history.  The histories often include intentional divisions between people.  “They are not like us” thinking.  Usually on the part of elites and rulers.  The common person is quick to pick up the language of neighbors but those, like Trump, who hate differences, tend to rise to the top.  Quite apart from that, the features of these various languages show us the many ways people have learned to convey their thoughts.  Some tongues are super, even hyper-polite.  Some are reserved for women.  Some represent an entire continent, but notice the sheer number of Asian languages on this list.  Dorren notes at one point that having a unifying Scripture, such as the Bible, often codifies a language.  Religion is part of the human way of thinking.

Nowhere is this more obvious in the case of those languages that are considered divine.  Arabic, as many people know, is considered the only appropriate language in which to read the Qur’an.  Since languages are ways of thinking, that makes perfect sense.  What really struck me the most, however, was the case of Tamil.  A language of south India (many of these languages are spoken in India), Tamil is considered not only a divine language, but some adherents make it into an actual deity.  In a polytheistic culture there’s no problem with adding another god.  The idea that a language can be an actual divinity, however, shows once again how important it is that we try to understand one another rather than asserting one people is superior to another.  The book is appropriately titled Babel, and to properly understand that it is probably necessary to learn Hebrew.

Two Thoughts

I recently read that efforts are underway, by some parties, to teach Arabic to Israelis. My limited experience of Israel led me to believe that most people were already bilingual, judging by the roadsigns. Like our progressive neighbor to the north, I supposed people were expected to know both languages passably well. Having forgotten more languages than I care to remember, I am a believer in language education. There’s no better way to get to know how people think than learning their language. In my hometown, which was small and not especially prosperous, there was only one language taught in schools. I suppose that was “practical” since we had no hispanic population and not even one ethnic restaurant.

Israel, in the modern sense, is a state formed where other people (Palestinians) had been living. I wonder if the conflict might’ve been somewhat ameliorated had the new neighbors spoken the same language as the residents. Thinking over the long and sad history of colonialism, I suspect that many of the world’s woes would have been less deleterious if those invading stopped to learn to speak to the locals. What would it have been like if, instead of taking their land and forcing them to assimilate, early American colonists learned to speak Indian languages? What if local schools were required to have been bilingual with the local nations? I can’t help but believe that things would’ve turned out much better for everyone involved. I can’t listen to the rhetoric of the right supremacists without seeking a safe place to throw up. Nobody is better than anybody else by virtue of their race. As they might say in Canada, “vive la différence!”

I’m not naive enough to believe that simply learning languages would solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor do I think it would’ve stopped European imperialists with too much gold on their minds from taking the land that belonged to Native Americans. I do think that if people took the time to learn what their neighbors were saying, in their own words, we be less inclined to suggest that our program is the only way. Or to build walls. Or shoot unarmed citizens. We’ve lost the interest in learning to talk to one another. Language is more than just a bunch of words. Let the linguists argue about syntax. The rest of us might benefit simply from learning to listen, and to understand.


Secret Life of Language

I recently met with a friend to catch up on several years of silence. Increasingly I’m discovering the wisdom of those I’m privileged to know—perhaps it is the shedding of a purely academic way of learning. We all share in this very human voyage of discovery. This particular friend presented me with an idea that I just can’t dismiss: what if language is a living entity, existing in its own world but intersecting with ours? In a symbiotic relationship, we use words and they help us to survive and advance. This friend is a writer, and like all of us who attempt the art, knows the joys and frustrations of dealing with words that can elude but also fall subtly into place forming a poem or story of sublime beauty. We haven’t fully tamed language, but it defines us. Even my feeble attempt to replicate his fascinating idea is fraught with difficulty, for language won’t be relegated to the page, whether of paper or of electrons.

Language evolves along with us, helping us to express concepts that defy explanation. I recently read of the disappearance of three of our alphabetic letters in English. Alphabets, beginning with the earliest complete exemplar in Ugaritic, contain roughly thirty members that may be combined to replicate, in facsimile, the sounds we make. Different cultures use differing sounds; letters that represent those sounds require symbolic representation. Not all alphabets are created equally. One of English’s missing letters is “ampersand.” I always wondered why when I learned the alphabet the song ended with “W, X, Y and Z”—why the “and”? “Ampersand” was part of the alphabet in the early 1800s. Students sang “X, Y, Z, and per se and.” “And per se (‘by itself’) and” eventually ran together into “ampersand.” Over time it fell out of our rank of letters. As the runic Anglo-Saxon that gave us English was absorbed into Latin characters, the Teutonic “thorn,” or th sound, went extinct in our alphabet as well. As any student of German knows, “th” has distinct pronunciations in Germanic languages. It has its own letter of the alphabet in both Arabic and Greek. Since the Latin “y” resembled “thorn” the letter was replaced by ye olde “y.” The archaic letter “wynn” looks like a flattened “p” but was pronounced as “w.” As Latin superseded runic forms “wynn” was written as a doubled “u,” literally “double-u,” which, in Latin was scripted with a “v” shape. This gives us the anomalous W written with what looks like two “v”s.

The alphabet, second to writing itself, is perhaps the most important invention that humans have devised. The alphabet made writing much easier to learn and with writing ideas could be preserved for centuries and could be sent vast distances without changing. Writing allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants. As the school year is beginning again and kids everywhere feel the strain of losing the freedom of summer, I think back to the purpose of education—teaching our young to read, write, and calculate. Language has been guiding us all along. It may evolve, shed a letter or two, frequently grow by taking on entire new words, but it still cradles us as we struggle to find the perfect expression. We should take a little time to get to know our own language better, for without it we are merely biological entities.

An Ugaritic abecedary