Friday, 23 September 2011

I Haven't Quite Finished

Sorry to bang on, but I'm still thinking about how much I love learning languages and I think I forgot to mention these things earlier:

a) how the study of another tongue makes you realise that all human communication is a feat of interpretation - trying to discover what the tone is, the intention of a statement, the mood and convictions and character of the being behind any set of words. Even communication that doesn't use language - a stop sign, for instance - has to be translated, so that one understands that it means, 'Stop the car, but don't turn it off', rather than, 'Stop talking or driving or even breathing', Stop, turn round, go home and do something else instead'.

b) how, as Elberry points out, limited knowledge sometimes makes thinking, if not easier, certainly different - and therefore you could argue that learning a language is as good for mind-altering as drugs, but not illegal (yet - knowing my prescriptive local government, it will probably soon be banned [before long living in Canberra will be like a perpetual Sunday with the Wee Frees]).

c) how there is an unexpected pleasure in finding words that seem much better fitted than your own to their meanings. Sometimes the words of another language seem to possess a kind of onomatopoeia of meaning (although not literal onomatopoeia, since a lot of the words in question refer to abstract concepts). Here are a few I am particularly fond of:

i: exigeant - for some reason this strikes me as much more 'demanding' than demanding does;

ii: Tocka,  which Nabokov claimed was untranslatable, although I think he was very inclined to make such remarks about Russian's superiority of expression. For me, it means longing and it is a better embodiment of that emotion than 'longing'. For those who like that kind of thing, here is Nabokov on the subject of its real meaning:  "At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” The problem for me is that I think our word 'longing' also expresses all these gradations. As I've said,though, I do think - as he obviously does - that the sounds and letters and everything about tocka expresses longing better than 'longing' does.

iii. körülbelül - this is the Hungarian for 'approximately' and I think it sounds all muddled and approximate itself.

iv. beborult az ég - this means, I think, 'it's overcast' in Hungarian, and I like it because there is something almost cheering, like a fizzy drink, about the phrase which goes some way towards removing the gloominess of the thing it is describing. 

v. gyönyörű - this, again, is Hungarian, and it means marvellous; to my ear there is something much more generous about the word than there is about any of our adjectives covering the same ground.

vi. разочарование and Enttäuschung - both these words somehow speak to me of disappointment in a way that our word doesn't. If I had to pick one, I think the German option would win the day, disappointingly, (ha ha), for the Russian.

Possibly I have already described the other enormous joy of language study - when you go to university, you have to do a translation every week in any language you study. When you've done the translation, and the teacher has marked it, you gather together with your classmates for an hour and you go through the text you've translated, picking out phrases, turning over possible tenses you could have used,  being shown little idiomatic expressions that fit perfectly but that you would never otherwise have heard of. Frank Morehouse once wrote a story that I've never been able to find since I heard it read out on the radio in 1979 called The Girl who Loved Tutorials. I sympathised with that girl, but my passion wasn't tutorials. It was prose classes. Forget book clubs (ugh) - if I could go to a prose class or two each week I would be just as happy as a bean.