Monday, November 20, 2006

The Uses of Language

At various times in my life, I have achieved some fluency in more than foreign language (i.e. non-English language). I have been, one time or another, fluent in French and Indonesian/Malay, and have achieved some level of comprehension of Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German; I often understand them, but can't formulate a reply. I have smatterings of vocabulary in Japanese, Russian, Javanese and Sundanese. Technical words in a few others, a smattering of named concepts; you can't study comparative religion without picking up a bit of Latin and Sanskrit. I have studied Navajo, but wouldn't pretend to know a damn thing about it; I respect it too much to be anything more than humble. I don't feel fluent in any of these languages, at this point, mostly because fluency for me means the ability to carry on a conversation about more than the weather or traffic, and maybe be able to read and understand a poem in its original tongue. I make no claims to being a prodigy in language, but I do seem to have a knack for it.

My knack comes from music, though: I learn languages most readily by listening to the music of their speech, and learning how things are phrases, pitched, and the natural rhythms of speech. I was pretty good in spoken Indonesian, but when it came to an advanced class that was mostly reading short stories with a slew of new vocabulary, I failed. The words on the page mean something, but they mean more when they are alive to my ear.

In the past few years, I've been exposed to a great deal of pain, suffering, death, change, and difficulty. It often seems to me that our vocabulary is pathetically inadequate to the task of explaining complex, deep emotions. Sometimes, in the face of a personal crisis, or sitting with a sick friend or family member, it seems like silence is the only appropriate thing. Even silence has its nuances. Perhaps no language has enough power to say certain things—and that is one reason we have art and music.

Of course, the inadequacy of expression may be in the person, or the situation, not the speaker. Some things really are too hard for words. Others can be put into words, perhaps, but it might require more effort.

I have often felt, when studying other languages, that each language seems to have the ability to say some things that the others don't. Some specific way of phrasing a moment or emotion that is exiquisite in its precision and aptness. Perhaps every language has something to say that is unique to that language, and cannot really be translated. Yet we are all human, at core: we all share the same deep experiences of living, dying, joy, and suffering, all the rest. So, translation is possible and essential, since it is based on shared human experience. And of course it is also in how we say it, that the unspoken meaning gets through. The look in the eyes, the tone of voice, the body posture, the lines of the face.

Languages have many words for what is important to the people who speak them. It perhaps speaks poorly for we English-speakers that we only have the one word "love" when there are several words in Greek for different kinds of love (agape, storge, philokalia, eros, mania, etc.). The famous story from the history of languages is that languages spoken by those who dwell in the desert have a finely-discriminated set of words for "water" and "rain;" there is also the case of the Inuit language having many words for "snow." Sometimes we must borrow from another language, because it says it so much more accurately and evocatively than English. The phrase I feel sorry for you seems light compared to the weightiness of Je suis desolée. Indonesian and Javanese are languages that emphasize the relationships between people; thus, there are two words for "we," one that includes the person being spoken to, and one that does not.

So: Is it fair to say that other languages help us expand our understanding of the human condition? Might we include poetry in this, in its capacity as heightened speech, dense and compressed expression—particular and sometimes peculiar usages of language—in ourattempt to open up what seems to be a very limited—mad, sad, glad—vocabulary for discussing emotions, and states of being, in English?

Two thoughts in answer to these questions:

1. Yes, many languages do delineate things that in their worldview that are important, which might not be so carefully expressed elsewhere. I do believe, having studied multiple languages, even if never having achieved fluency in many of them, that there are some things that can best be said in Language X, and which are not really translatable. This is because languages do create worldviews, in that languages express cultural assumptions about the nature of reality. (Quantum physics views of spacetime are quite easily delinated and described in Hopi; much less so in English.) Many Sanskrit-derived languages describe spacetime very differently than does English, or the Latin-derived languages. (One wonders at times if this isn't at the root of some of the basic differences in worldview betseen East and West.)

The beauty here is that learning a new language gives a new way to perceive reality, which can only be good for an artist, to get outside the box, to think in new ways, to perceive the Universe with a surprise and an Aha!

2. But I also think of the arrogance of poets: namely, the belief that words can ever get at the truth, even remotely, or do anything but inadequately describe, or signify, the true nature of reality.

The Buddhist comment that the finger pointing at the moon is not itself the moon, comes into play here. The signifier is not what it signifies. The label (the noun) is the not the thing it names; they are linked only conceptually, by arbitrary social convention tied to the historical development of any given language. (Thus, translation is the art of conveying new labels onto existing objects, experiences, and archetypes.) As Alan Watts once said, The word "water" cannot get you wet. We use nouns to label and categorize, but they cannot take the place of the things they name.

The arrogance aforementioned is the assumption I see many poets make, without thinking about it too deeply, that their words have innate meaning, and innate signification. They do—but only within shared cultural contexts. Add to that the idea, also aforementioned, that some experiences are best conveyed in other languages, and you get a complicated mix of assumptions about what can be described, and what cannot. The problem of arrogance comes in primarily when we start making assumptions about meaning as being in some way fixed and universal—when cross-cultural experience shows us that that is a false assumption, and easily disproven.

Thus: wordlessness, silence. The Buddha's Flower Sermon, in which he silently held up a single flower, saying nothing, and noted which one of his disciples "got it," and thus began the thread of the dharma-transmission. The Zen emphasis on non-verbal transmission—because words can tie us deceptive logical knots, and we lose sight of the goal while sifting through the chaff of meanings attached to words. Abandoning all words. The emptiness of words. Mu.

At that place where poetry, music, and silence converge:



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On the plus side: I should certainly hope that poetry never loses its ambiguity or mysteriousness, and never becomes a mechanical system of controlled meaning(s), because in poetry's (and language's) very ambiguity lies its ability to leap in new directions, make new connections, and resonate with the reader's own life.

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