Friday, August 3, 2012

Language Problems

I wonder if Shakespeare is so feted in the English-speaking world because he might be the first to think about English in particular (and language in general, by extension) in philosophical ways, as per your Caliban and Miranda. The way that semantic understanding of language co-opts and precludes all other understandings is so interesting isn't it? That language, for each of us, takes on differently voice, and character, and most especially, meaning. That it is both the medium of thought and the enabler of thinking. I doubt that there can be devised a scale in which the degrees of truth of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be measured, but impact of this truth seems to me like it must always be felt. 

It strikes me, for example, that I am incapable of thinking these thoughts in my mother tongue, a language left behind at a much younger age, and so my command of it remains forever arrested in development. I imagine the same thing happens for any speaker of a second language, when that language has not lived and breathed next to you, when you have not co-existed and evolved with it. As time passes, it leaves you behind, and you cannot develop the faculties to manipulate it and to extract from it its humor, its little ironies and subtleties and furtive meanings even as you pronounce its syllables. 

A German linguist name Schleicher observed three "typological classifications" for languages: isolating language, like Chinese, in which words exist independently of each other, and are strung together in almost infinite possible permutations to form new words with new meanings; agglutinating language, like Turkish, in which this is done with a fixed root varied by identifiable affixations; and inflecting languages, of the Indo-European kind, in which roots are modified by conjugation.

It strikes me, too, then, that we speakers of a second language are rather bounded by the rules of category—to inflect when the language commands us to inflect, to affix when it is correct to affix. But the mastery of language is the mastery of rule breaking. Take English and make it isolating—that is wordsmithing, and how you get Shakespeare and "Spitzenfreude" and "creovation" and cryptic crossword clues (our British cousins, it seems, have quite a knack for it). Take Chinese and make it non-inflecting, and that adds to it irony.

I am no good at either, in either language. I wonder if that makes me not entirely in command of my own thoughts.

Posted by Boer

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