Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Loving words

Arguing about the finer points of meaning and interpretation with a random stranger in a chat room, I suddenly take off on a whole tangent about what things I find most fascinating about language – in learning a language, within languages, and across languages. The original argument, if one can call it that, was about how language limits. Or rather, he claimed that definitions were limiting, and hence unnecessary, and even unwanted, to which I countered that language itself is limiting in many ways, and maybe he should dispense with it. This retort, made in the spirit of fun, obviously didn’t penetrate, and he went on to patronizing descriptions of neotic sciences, pseudo-scientific theories, and so on – at which point the conversation disintegrated into nothingness and I quickly disengaged from it.

However, it did refresh in my mind all the reasons for my enduring fascination with this weird verbal communication medium we call language. Think about it. Growing up, there is no other means of communication open to a child, except crying in different pitches, to signal what it needs or wants. That it succeeds, and survives, is primarily because of how simple a baby’s needs are at this stage – food, warmth, a dry bottom, a cuddle. As one grows, needs become progressively more complicated, and language learning becomes essential to articulate those needs. Clearly, and this is something one sees around one all the time, the more of a language you acquire, the more articulate you become, the more precisely you can express yourself.

Yet, language does limit expression in many ways. This becomes so much more apparent when dealing with various “isms” and ideologies, as one has to do in order to engage in any kind of discourse or activism. It becomes essential then to learn the correct terminology, the right “language”, to be able to not only communicate, but even to understand the concepts and ideas. So, obviously you need language to even think about certain things, not just to talk about them. Subtle nuances, fine shades of meaning, little differences in expressing, these are things that cannot be expressed very well without the possession of adequate language.

The same thing, in another way, presents itself every time I sit down to translate something.  Every new language I learn adds finer shades to my ability to express things, things I think and feel and perceive and imagine, as long as I do so in a multilingual mish-mash my daughter calls my “khichuri” language. This patois, of sorts, is getting more and more complicated as I find more and more that certain concepts, certain shades, certain words, phrases, meanings, just DON’T translate well across tongues. Whether the handicap is attributable to cultural differences, or geographical ones, or what, is a matter for a whole thesis in itself.

What it means, is that I often end up speaking in a cobbled together jumble of three or four languages in an attempt to more precisely convey the ABSOLUTELY EXACT sense of what I am trying to say. After all, how do I translate some thing like sharm or haya for example? It’s a complicated emotion, and certainly not even close to explained with a word like shame. Even in the original Hindi and Urdu, the words mean different things in different contexts and in different combinations. “Mujhe sharm/haya ati hai” is so totally different from “tumhe sharm ani chahiye”, is so totally not the same as “bade besharm ho”. And that’s probably the smallest example. There are so many other words, phrases, expressions that cannot be translated – at least not without writing a 40 page explanation of cultural differences, social mores, and verbose explanations of the nuances.

And that’s precisely what drives me to learn more languages, and to acquire as much fluency as I can in each, simply because I find that as I do that, as I get more and into more and more languages, I begin to be able to have more thoughts, express or think of subtler nuances, and talk about so many more kinds of ideas. 

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