Friday, September 03, 2010

My Own Private Speakeasy . . .

Too Much Lip!
(Image from New York Times)

Last Saturday, I took a bike ride along the Jungnang River, which doesn't surprise long-time readers, but a few might be mildly taken aback to hear that I biked through inclement weather, getting fairly well soaked by the time that I'd reached the 15-kilometer spot where beer on tap did not await to slake my thirst. The usual proprietors were nowhere to be seen under the bridge where the overhead subway runs an oxymoronic course. I therefore pedaled another hundred meters upstream to the enormous highway bridge, where I found vendors selling wretched Cass in a can. I satisfied myself with that and and sat down on a bench under the shelter of that great bridge to read my copy of the International Herald Tribune.

I came across an interesting article on linguistics by Guy Deutscher, "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" (August 26, 2010, online NYT version), which informs us that even though Benjamin Lee Whorf was wrong to emphasize the deterministic effect of one's mother tongue, language nevertheless strongly influences how we think, a fact perhaps indisputable but at times quite astonishing:
[A] remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply "natural." In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn't make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like "left" or "right," "in front of" or "behind," to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they'll say "move a bit to the east." To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they'll say, "I left it on the southern edge of the western table." Or they would warn you to "look out for that big ant just north of your foot." Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was "coming northward."
The astonishment increases to 'astoundment' in some of the further examples, but I'll leave the revelation of those to the article itself, for curious readers willing to dig deeper. I will note a 'gendered' point about language, though, for its interest to translators:
Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim. What, for instance, is particularly feminine about a Frenchman’s beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her? Mark Twain famously lamented such erratic genders as female turnips and neuter maidens in his rant "The Awful German Language." But whereas he claimed that there was something particularly perverse about the German gender system, it is in fact English that is unusual, at least among European languages, in not treating turnips and tea cups as masculine or feminine. Languages that treat an inanimate object as a he or a she force their speakers to talk about such an object as if it were a man or a woman. And as anyone whose mother tongue has a gender system will tell you, once the habit has taken hold, it is all but impossible to shake off. When I speak English, I may say about a bed that "it" is too soft, but as a native Hebrew speaker, I actually feel "she" is too soft. "She" stays feminine all the way from the lungs up to the glottis and is neutered only when she reaches the tip of the tongue.
With a bit of reflection, one can see how this would play havoc in translating from a strongly gendered language into English, or vice-versa. Suppose the meaning of a foreign-language text depended upon gendered wordplays. How would one translate that into English? Or take an English text that depended upon keeping some gender in abeyance until a moment of epiphany? How might one render that in a highly gendered language?

Well, those are my special problems. You need not worry about such things -- unless you're also a translator or a translator's partner. Just read, and enjoy, the article itself . . . and speak easy.

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At 5:07 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I tried linking to this very same Deutscher article in the comments of Malcolm's blog ("About Time"), but I think he's got some sort of anti-spam feature that interpreted my comment as spam, since the comment was just a link and nothing more. Alas. I found the article relevant to the ongoing discussion about language and reality.


At 5:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You could probably clear it with Malcolm.

I was interested to see that Whorf's views have been modified.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll try it from here Kevin. No words, just link. If it works, you do the fill-in.


At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Up & running. Since I'm trying to quit smoking - don't send me beer please.


At 11:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hmmm . . . glad to overhear that it's settled.

Jeffery Hodges

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