Looking for the God of Language
Original text by Christina Kotchemidova
Within the Pantheon of gods on Olympia, one god is missing; I have always wondered why the ancient Greeks didn’t have a god of language. Did they feel that language-unlike love, nature, and the arts-is a human invention, nothing more than a tool to work with?
Knowing a foreign language is bit like having an extra instrument or one more piece of software to use. I can produce intellectual products for a second market, and I benefit from exploring that market terms of the ideas it offers. I am privileged. I have two accesses to human mental achievement while most of my confrères have only one. I feel knowledgeable, a person of greater opportunities. In a way, I am superior, and everybody is ready to recognize it. My expertise in a foreign language has subtly won me status.
A foreign language is a mind-opener. It breaks up my habitual horizon to introduce me into a world of different culture and sensibility. Coming to now this world, I am appropriating it- so here I am, a conqueror of new mental territories.
Learning a language, of course, is a lot of hard work. But most of us realize that to get satisfaction, one must first invest an effort, and the greater the effort, more fun later. So we undertake the hardships of learning a language with expectations of being rewarded. In this respect, a foreign language is very much like a hobby – something situated between work and pleasure –an occupation you are willing to spend time on because it makes you happy.
Like learning a sport, language takes you through all the stages between walking on crutches and graceful dancing. Trying to come up with the right phrase is like running hurdles. Every hurdle overcome makes me proud of myself. I become a heroine in my own eyes. Speaking a non-native language; I am taking risks at every moment: Will I measure up to the standards, or will I make a fool of myself?
A tickling sense of insecurity keeps me on the alert all the time. Oscillating between prospects of success and failure, I’ve had my tonic for the day- without it, life would be too monotonous.
Studying grammar makes me think about patterns. I realize I am filling existing structures with elements, and it starts dawning on me that the whole world might be about structure. I don’t have to go into the science of linguistics to find out that structuralism makes sense. I can I can feel the relevance of structure as I play with words, morphemes, parts of the sentence. Thrown in at random, they don’t mean a thing. But used by the rules of grammar, they make up constructions as fascinating as a Lego game. I am building castles, cosy little huts, or giant skyscrapers. I am a mason.
Trying to phrase my thoughts in a non-native language, I am focusing on form, or at least, I am constantly aware of the relationship between form and content, since the substance is well- known to me but I am experimenting just by giving it a new form. No matter how trivial the conversation, I am as formalistic as I can only be if I am working in the arts. Pronouncing the exact sounds, weaving the right phrase provides me with a sense of perfection. I experience the aesthetic pleasure of being in tune with many others, thus forming an orchestra.
Learning a language makes me a child again.
I blunder all the time and the others seem to excuse it.
There is so much to discover. Translated, the world around me looks unfamiliar. Just describing it for my homework makes me open my eyes for it a new. As rigid as my ideas about reality might be, the very process of projecting them into a different formal system is changing them. I may very well have known all my life that I am “my mother’s daughter”, but learning that I am “la fille de ma mere” is amusing. Repeating basic truths makes me giggle secretly. Didn’t’ Eugene Ionesco get his idea for the theater of the absurd from a language textbook where he learned that his father was his mother´s husband while his mother was his father’s wife?
Switching into a foreign language, I feel playful. I am a kid who has suddenly been given a new set of toys to replace the old one she was bored with. Every object around me has been renamed. I develop a fresh interest in it. Is it really the same? What kind of game is this?
I once tutored a mentally ill Bulgarian man who wanted to learn English just because he was fascinated by the fact that the same thing could be said in two totally different was. “Which is true?” He kept asking until my whole idea of reality was shattered. I actually found out that a foreign language makes you think in a different way, since it carries a specific perception of reality inherent in it. For example, in English we say, “What is your name?, the presumption being that you have a name , you are in possession of a name that is your own, and therefore you are very much in control of your own identity. In Russian the expression is, “Kak tebia zavout?” (how do people call you?), implying that you are a passive object that has been given a name by others .In French, “Comment t’appelles-tu? Has always struck me as rather narcissistic, as if I´m constantly calling myself and am therefore constantly preoccupied with myself.
So, just like my mentally ill student, I ask myself: Which is true? Which one expresses the actual relationship between myself and my name? And, subsequently, what is that relationship, anyway?
I have the urge to undertake scholarly research on the subject, and before I know it, I’ve turned into a philosopher! Soon I start realizing that language has nothing to do with reality. It is not a reflection/ mirror projection of reality in any way. It is rather a meta-reality where objects and ideas are very inaccurately reproduced, just roughly molded into concepts and images, making up a world of abstraction. Language, then, become a spiritual experience I am initiated into. Especially when translating, I become constantly aware of this ideal realm I have to go through every time, I’m looking for an equivalent. I move among absolutes, reveling in their purity, then try to nail them down into imperfect earthly shapes. I am a priest bringing down heavenly truths to a congregation of sheep
Like religion –from Latin religare, to link-language unites you with other people. You become part of the big family speaking a certain language. Having more family, in turn, makes you feel less solitary and vulnerable on earth. Thus, knowing foreign languages reduces one’s metaphysical fears. That’s one reason why it is revitalizing
Speaking a foreign language is very much like being in love.
I am striving for communication, which, in its essence, is a kind of unification with another person. Once achieved, it fills me with joy. At every brisk moment of understanding I hear bells ringing. Gradually, I come to know my partner’s mind – and isn’t that, fundamentally, and act of love?
The world looks as new and interesting in a foreign language as it does to happy youngsters in love
I am implicitly asking my interlocutor for more than the standard dose of attention (just to be properly understood) and eventually I get it, very much as in love relationship.
I am constantly testing ground with my partner. I am stepping back and forth between what is banally accepted and what is courageously invented on the spot. I am flirting –inviting my partner to venture into understanding me just as I am venturing into his/her home territory.
Finally, speaking a foreign language is erotic in terms of my own persona. Tuning into another language, I undergo a transformation as if I am performing. Saying “hello” in Japanese requires a bow, and here I am, humble and obedient as I would never be in English. Speaking Russian, I tend to use diminutives because they are typical of the culture and somehow expected in the language. I suppose this makes me look more emotional and sentimental than I normally am. Am I misrepresenting myself? Surprisingly enough, I do feel somewhat emotional and sentimental when I´m speaking Russian. The very language I am using has changed me.
Language is so pregnant with culture –habits, moral values, attitudes- than I find myself acquiring a different cultural identity in every language that I speak. Just asking about the train to the capital –in England I have to talk about the nonstop train, a strong understatement for a train the beats all others, here being characterized by the minor fact that it does not stop at intermediate points. In French I find myself talking about the train direct, drawing a straight line in my mind, while in Italian I am asking about the express –implicitly admiring this unsurpassable and very special train indeed.
The point is, just using the appropriate words, I look reserved in English, rational in French, affected in Italian, as the respective cultures require. I am putting on different faces.
And I seem to be doing this in order to be accepted, to be liked. As in a desperate love relationship, I am trying to please the partner I am with to the point of not being myself.
In Bulgarian the protocol of communication is very much like a ritual.
Being to the point and businesslike would seem, on most occasions, rude or ill-mannered. Among Americans, conversely, baroque phrases of introduction seem completely silly. Am I the same person doing both?
Changing one´s cultural identity is quite stimulating. One can easily be overwhelmed with one´s self. This is especially energizing if you´re bored with yourself to death. I sometimes become narcissistic to the point of mistaking any nod of understanding on the part of my interlocutor for and approval of my own persona.
So, speaking a foreign language, I am a mechanic with a special instrument, a person of status, a conqueror, a master, a person with a hobby, a sportsperson, a structuralist, a mason, an artist, a philosopher, a hedonist, a scholar, a priest, an actor. I am in love and I am young. I am a multiple personality. I am a goddess! Language is the one thing that can place humans anywhere near the gods. It makes all of us constantly produce something as bizarre and imperfect and fascinating in its imperfection as creation itself. Like creation, language is the product of a genius mind, only that of a collective genius –so isn´t it all the more admirable since so many individuals have worked together on the same gigantic project?
No wonder the ancient Greeks didn´t need a god of language. The place is taken by the human race.