Confessions in September 2010

Updated September 26, 2010

September 26, 2010 - In memoriam Marlies Kronegger

The other day it popped into my head to look up an old professor of mine. One of the first things to come up was a notice for her estate sale. She had been in failing health when I last saw her some ten years ago, so the news of her passing was not a surprise. Still, it seems strange to realize I shall never hear her speak again, except in memories, and so I thought to capture a little of that.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Professor Kronegger is beauty. It was her passion. So much of the study of literature is taken up with texts of historical interest, or that are representative of a particular era or way of thinking, or that lend themselves to a certain critical analysis. In Professor Kronegger's classes, the purpose of reading a book, or watching an opera or looking at a painting was to transcend everyday life and to find something moving, something uplifting, something to show just how high the human spirit can soar. And the purpose of analysis was to understand where a work's power came from and the feelings it inspired. Having taken up the study of literature because I like to read beautiful books, it was always a delight to come into her courses.

While I was at graduate school to study French literature, the work that stands out most for me when I think back on Professor Kronegger's courses is a painting, Watteau's L'embarquement pour Cythere. It came up in several courses as the exemplary of the fêtes galantes and the ideal of a time consecrated to beauty, joy and love. Critics will argue about what the painting means, of course, but there on the canvas is a moment of splendor, from the soft blue sky and lush green foliage to reveling lovers and whirling cupids. Whatever came before, whatever comes after, this is the place to find your present. Professor Kronegger's courses were a constant reminder to find that moment of joy and beauty and to seize it.

In a world very taken with finance and politics and economics, it is easy to lose sight of our higher calling, to take joy in the lives we have been given and the wonders this world presents for our senses to take in, to luxuriate in even. With Marlies Kronegger's passing, we have lost a spirited advocate for the beautiful and the good. May we remember to celebrate them all the same. Requiescat in pace.

September 18, 2010 - Unread Books and Unspoken Languages

Though it came out some time ago, I only recently discovered Pierre Bayard's How to talk about books you haven't read. I wish I'd found it sooner. The premise is simple enough: There isn't enough time to read all the books people think you should have read, but you are exposed to shame if one of these books come up in conversation and you haven't read it. Therefore, we must eliminate the oppressive notion that one must have read a book in order to talk about it. It sounds absurd, but what starts as a postmodernish inquiry into what it means to have read something and whether skimming counts turns by slow degrees to a meditation on why we read and why we talk about what we read, and by the end you realize that he is right.

Central to Bayard's argument is the notion that there are three kinds of books - none of them comprising the physical objects or the words contained therein: There is the inner book - our memory of the book, from reading it or hearing about it, and the way it has shaped us; the screen book - what we tell others about the book; and the phantom book - the book as it comes to exist within a conversation. The point of conversation about books, Bayard shows, is not to faithfully reproduce the contents of books, but - like any other conversation - to allow people to communicate and find common ground. After citing a passage in which two people are discussing a book that neither of them is familiar with, Bayard notes:

What is important in the book is external to it, since it is only a pretext or vehicle for this moment of discussion: talking about a book is less about the book itself than about the moment of conversation devoted to it. The real relationship is not between the novel's two characters, but between its pair of "readers." But the latter couple will be better able to communicate if they are less constrained by the book and if it is allowed to retain its ambiguity. Such is the price paid for our inner books to have some chance... of joining together for even one brief moment.

When we talk about a book, we are sharing a part of ourselves, the part that comes to life when we situate ourselves, if only as observers, in other people's stories and allow ourselves to see the world from new perspectives. Says Bayard:

The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of books that a good reader engages in - a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of a part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there.

To lose yourself in a book, for a time, can be a good thing. But ultimately, you must come out. Especially when talking of a book, you must come out. Your interlocutor is not there to talk about the book, but to to get to know the part of you that was brought to life by the book, to share the part of himself or herself that was brought to life by it, and to search for a common space, a connection, a place where screen books are compared so that inner books can be harmonized into a shared phantom book and readers come to know one another better.

Books we've read, books we've heard about, even books we read long ago and forgot about, play an important role in our thinking and in our culture. They give us things to think about and ways to express our thinking, whether it be the imperfectly cited passage from a favorite book we've read a dozen times or the perfectly cited witticism from a play by Shakespeare, Wilde or Shaw that we've never read nor seen performed. The point of How to talk about books you haven't read isn't that books and reading are unimportant. On the contrary, they are so important, so central, that we can't let them become the exclusive province of those who seemingly have read everything and instinctively taken away the accepted meaning. We read books to find meaning and talk about them to share meaning. The unread book should therefore show the way to new ideas to share, extending conversation rather than foreclosing it.

The above may seem a strange digression for a language blog - not that strange digressions are in short supply here - but it really goes to the heart of a problem that comes up for language learners all the time: Language, whether in books or elsewhere, is first and foremost a vehicle for communication - it is a tool for self-expression, and for finding common ground. A good reader, says Bayard, "knows that every book is a bearer of a part of himself and can give him access to it." He or she does not engage the book for the book's sake, but for his or her own growth. Yet so often language learners will decide to take up a language without knowing what it is within that they are trying to unlock or open up. They learn the language for the language, and not for themselves, like the reader who reads for the sake of the book or the author. Just as a book should bring about an inner conversation with the author that leads to that inner book, a thing apart from the text that represents not the words but how they have shaped us, our language learning journeys should be focused not merely on the language for itself, but on the conversations it will allow us to have or, in reading, the inner books it will allow us to create.

September 11, 2010 - Toki Pona, Sapir-Whorf and Minimal Vocabulary

Last month,, I wrote about the way that language can affect our thinking, and about the limits of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which, oversimplified, suggested that our ability to think or understand things was constrained by what our languages could express. Roman Jakobson had the better part of the argument, noting that language can't keep us from thinking things, but it can organize the way we pay attention to things. This means that even if you find a remote tribe on some Pacific island that has no word for war or jealousy, this doesn't mean that all will be love and sharing. Which brings us to Toki Pona.

Toki Pona is a constructed language designed to simplify and clarify thought. It has only 123 words, and a limited number of grammatical structures. As a result, some of its sentences feel very zen, others could have come from the Yoda. Others, though, can be an overdone mess. That is, there is much the language can express, but some things can only be expressed tediously. If you're trying to use the language, then, there's going to be the urge to reduce the complexity of what you're expressing and to find potentially new or unusual ways to get around not having structures available in the language that are available to you in your native language. But does this situation lead to actual organization of thought in a different way, suggesting there might be something to Sapir-Whorf after all? Or does this just mean that Toki Pona stops with a range of expression similar to what you get as a poor speaker of a second language?

I've written about Toki Pona and getting by with minimal vocabulary before, way back in 2007. At the time, I was looking at why it's so hard to find that magical minimal vocabulary that a language learner needs to get by and whether Toki Pona might point the way. With its use of compounds, of course, it doesn't, any more than basic English, with its use of compounds, paraphrases and verbs paired with prepositions, truly eliminates the need for a learner to master a large number of lexical items, however few the "words" are that are used. But when I stumbled upon a reference to Toki Pona the other day, then thought of the article on where Sapir-Whorf falls apart, it seemed useful to mention that not only does language not constrain the range of our thought by chance; for all of Orwell's thinking on Newspeak (in 1984) or present worries about political correctness, you can't really make thought go away by limiting of language even if you try. Not in the long run.

While Toki Pona is not going to lead to a simpler, more beautiful world, it remains a neat little thought experiment. If you're looking for a little amusement, plus the ability to claim familiarity with a constructed language, this is a language whose basics really can be picked up in a short period of time. You can visit the official site here. You can find more traditional lessons here. And you can find a cute little illustrated guide to Toki Pona in 76 one-page lessons here.

September 4, 2010 - Assimilating Ancient Languages...
...and the value of knowing that we don't know

When you set out to learn a modern language, you probably have the idea that you'll connect with the culture in some way, if not its people then its literature, music or film. With ancient languages, there's the same feeling, of course. There's that effort to connect with, say, the audience for the first recitation of the Iliad, the authors of the Gospels or the first sages to sing the hymns in the Rig Veda. Of course, this is a harder task. No matter how much you save up, you can't get on a plane to talk with someone who listened to Cicero talk in the Roman Senate. But sometimes, there's a special value in learning ancient languages from another angle: an appreciation of the distance between us and those who came before.

There's a story, possibly apocryphal, about an English-only politician in Texas asserting that if English was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for him. Apparently he hadn't gotten word that the King James Bible was not the first recording of the story of Christ. Of course Jesus would have spoken in Aramaic, with maybe a bit of Hebrew and Greek. But what did he say? We don't really know, not exactly. It's pretty certain he didn't speak to the crowds in Greek, even if he did know Greek, yet the Greek New Testament is our best source for what he had to say. Scholars look for clues in the earliest Hebrew and Aramaic translations, as well as in the use of rhetorical figures and flourishes that feel more Hebrew than Greek, to get a sense of how he talked. But the biggest thing that knowing NT Greek has to teach us is that using the New Testament to figure out what God wants from us is an exercise in judgment - how to interpret the passages, which manuscripts to trust, how it was decided to whom different writings would be attributed, knowing that some things were added and others were thrown out... (see the introductory paragraph of this NT Greek lesson at UT's EIEOL site for more about manuscript attribution).

The other day, I skimmed through Dobson's Learn New Testament Greek. It's a nice book for beginners. It's friendly, takes things slow and lets you work up gradually to reading more extended New Testament passages. The nicest element, though, is its efforts in later lessons to expose potential problems with our understanding of the text and how Dobson, himself, reaches his own conclusions about the best reading, all the while acknowledging that it's not the only one. There's something useful here in the idea that the truly advanced student is not the one who understands everything, but the student who realizes there are things we probably won't ever understand for sure.

Looking at Dobson and the New Testament brought my mind back to Karen Thomson's Sanskrit course at the University of Texas website. The introduction, here, is a sort of manifesto against the way the Rig Veda is traditionally approached, arguing that reason and linguistics can teach us more than the traditional readings of Indologists. And the lessons follow in the spirit, allowing the student to see how Thomson arrived at her readings of the text, but leaving it clear that though the Rig Veda is a puzzle not yet fully solved this does not mean that we should mindlessly accept what tradition has to say about it - either its meaning, or its supposed inscrutability.

While Dobson and Thomson help us appreciate the distance between us and the ancients, Assimil does something a little different. Both the Latin and the Ancient Greek texts from Assimil give at least something of the feel that these languages are, or could still be, living, and that they can live in your brain like French or Italian, not as artifacts of a place and time now gone. The Latin does this moreso than the Greek (at least the old Latin course, which is what I have). There's something to be said for learning this way. Indeed, I wish a similar text existed for Sanskrit. To this end, I have created for myself a sort of Assimil Sanskrit, taking the University of Texas text and translation, four lines at a time, putting them side by side and putting the notes below. But there's a real difference - the Assimil courses give the impression that understanding will come easily, bit by bit. Thomson's notes show that it's more complicated.

Stepping back from the Assimil digression, what I would say is that with an ancient language, you have to start somewhere and whatever it takes to gain some level of comfort with the language is a good thing. However, unlike the traditional language learning venture, where the goal is fluency, with the learning of ancient languages, maybe the better goal is a knowing ignorance. Learning ancient languages, especially in the context of sacred texts, may not give you all the answers. But at least you'll know to take some care before declaiming that Jesus said X... it's right there in plain English!