anghara (anghara) wrote,

July blogathon #6: A writerly take on the chicken and the egg conundrum

So, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did developing culture create language, or did concepts - couched in language - dictate the development of culture?...

There are things that are unsayable in certain languages, certainly untranslatable. I've just been following a discussion elsewhere on the Internets about how in languages like Japanese an entire social system is predicated on how you couch the simplest of phrases. Asking another person to solve a problem could be put in terms of a command (as in "solve this problem for me" or "solve this problem as my servant") as addressed from a social superior to a being of a lesser social caste; it could be addressed as a request to an equal ("help me solve this problem", "let us solve this problem together"), or it can be a petition to a higher authority ("solve this problem because I submit it to your superior judgment"). Doing this the wrong way, using the wrong language, is in this instance not SIMPLY wrong. It's socially disastrous, not to say potentially dangerous if you-as-inferior make the error of not being sufiiciently servile to a perceived superior if the culture involved is one that reaches lightly for the sword of chastisement. English, with its relatively straightforward sentence structure and egalitarian form of address between any two given individuals, seems positively breezy in comparison.

There are languages that have complex tense structures, revealing a culture which takes a great deal of interest in its past and in its future - because it differentiates between them, a past can be a deep-past-long-gone-practically-mythological past or a this-happened-a-fraction-of-a-second-ago past; a future can change, with a change in formulation and vocabulary and the use of a different tense, from something immutable and cast in stone to something far more fluid and far more readily influenced by the action that you might take in the next year, or the next day, or the next hour. But what came first - the culture that treasured these concepts, or the language that evolved to shape them?

In the beginning, it seems, there is neither more or less than the IDEA. And the culture shapes language around it, and language moulds culture to fit, and it's like that Escher drawing where one hand is drawing another and you don't know which is "real" and which is "art", if such a distinction can be made at all.

English is atonal, or as atonal as can be expected - for instance we all automatically assume, speaking English, that ending a sentence on a rising note implies a question of sorts - "Are we go-ING?" with the emphasis and the lift on the final syllable, for example. In French, where the language rhythm is different, every phrase and sentence ends on that rising lilt which to an English ear might imply that the French are a deeply questioning nation when in fact they are only commenting on yesterday's weather or the price of eggs in the market that morning. A certain tone of voice in English implies aggression, the intent to start a quarrel - but English-speakers often "hear" those notes in the voices of Japanese who might be discussing nothing more quarrelworthy than the merits of a medieval poet or Germans who are in fact exulting over a World Cup match win. And English speakers are completely at sea when it comes to a truly tonal language like Chinese which depends on the inflection given a word to change its meaning completely.

In fact my own cradle tongue sometimes has the same tonal conundrums (nothing like Cantonese, please, but still...) For instance, a sentence we like to confound foreigners with reads like this:

Tamo gore gore gore.

Those last three words, pronounced with subtle differences, mean THREE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THINGS.

"Tamo gore" literally translates to "there up", or in more colloquial English "up there" - the word "gore" here means up, above. The second and third words are actually interchangeable and depending on what order they are used in they change the emphasis of the sentence but not its basic meaning. One "gore" is the plural of "gora", which means "mountain"; the other is a verb which means "are burning". So what you are saying is "Up there, the mountains are burning" - but depending on which of the second two "gore" words you are using in which position your emphasis changes from the fact that the MOUNTAINS are burning to the fact that the mountains are BURNING, and that rather defines the context of what you are trying to say.

It actually gets worse, and I mean that literally. There is another "gore" in the language - and it actually means "worse". So your sentence might be expanded to say something like this:

Jos gore - tamo gore, gore gore!

("Even worse - up there the mountains are burning!")

Having fun yet? [grin]

Every language is rich in its own way, depending on the context in which it was born. For instance, the thing I took to with great glee when I glommed onto English is the art of punnery - in my own mother tongue there's word-play, to be sure, but there's very little direct sleight-of-hand punnery as exists in English, partly because the language is written so completely phonetically so you don't get the chance to play with different spellings or with weird phonemes in quite the same way that English lends itself to. So you wind up THINKING differently in different languages, simply because the syntax steers thoughts into certain corrals without your ever having to think consciously about it. This is why it was so strange to see my work - written and "thought" in English - translated back into Serbian because although the latter is the language I spoke first, the language I learned first, the language I grew up in, it is no longer the language I routinely think in or dream in except in situations where I'm in that gestalt mode and speaking it with other native speakers like friends and family from the old country with whom it would be ridiculous or impossible to speak in English. But although I am fully bilingual in both languages there are definitely things that are easier to think and say - to FEEL - in one language than in the other. I no longer write longer prose works in my own mother tongue, for instance, because my way of thinking and my syntax are English when it comes to that. But I have been known to write poetry in it that I could not possibly have written in English. Subject matter and format, you may or may not be surprised to hear, MATTER. Deeply. Even for completely bilingual or multilingual people there are some thoughts that are thinkable in only one language and it is ENTIRELY possible to come to a grinding halt in a conversation where you can find the PERFECT word to describe a thing or an idea... except that it's in the wrong damned language and it's untranslatable.

So what came first, the language or the culture? Or are the both the red-haired stepchildren of the IDEA, the IDEAL, the motivation and the things that drive a particular human being or a group of them to the point that they need to find a way of expressing it or implode? How come that the music of a language can play such a huge part in communicating that idea? How come that there are minutiae of any given culture that are expressible only in terms of that culture and nothing else will do?

I'll think some more on it. There seems to be more to say on the matter. But for now... there you go. Something to think about, on another day of July...
Tags: july blogathon
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