Friday, November 14, 2003


The nice thing about the occasional interactive nature of blogging is its tempering influence on egos. In that vein, I received the following communication from Carlos Villela, as a comment in Cameron's blog. "To Nathalie: will I ever read something you write, be it a comment or blog entry, without a single word in French mixed in, kinda like thrown in there just to piss off some of those who don't understand it? It seems like you're just trying to sound smarter/cultured, and, sincerely, it's not working."

Note to self: Carlos Villela is not impressed by me. And who is Carlos Villela?
Note to Carlos, if he does in fact read my blog: I hate to break it to you, but you're not the first. In my life so far, I have failed to impress many people. However, most of them don't write me petulant little notes about it. That was kind of special.

Some boys don't like being tied up in words by bluestocking girls. Some boys slip easily out of those words and use them to tie you up. And bluestocking might not be the kind of word the former would use anyway, which is a shame because they might enjoy it.

Mathematics might be sort of universal, but spoken languages most certainly are not. To study literature and writing is to be confronted with the knowledge that communication is an ultimately doomed enterprise. At the base level of linguistics, the signified (the idea which we are trying to express) never equals the signifier (the word or words with which we choose to express this idea). I was confronted with this issue at the hairdresser's today. The hairdresser was explaining to his assistant the intricate color combinations needed to blend a special shade of red for another client. She and the assistant were looking through magazine pictures and the hairdresser was enumerating--"a little light here, a little neutral base here, a little blue here..." At the same time, he appeared to be a little hard on his assistant. I asked him what seemed to be the problem, to which he explained "Oh no, he's been doing this for three years. He knows how to blend color. The only problem is I don't know if he sees her shade of red." And that is the root of the problem, isn't it? "Seeing red" is not as simple as one would think. There are infinite combinations that yield different tones and shades that fall under the category "red." Are you ever going to see "her shade of red"? And even if she knew what it was, would she be able to explain it to you?

The Biblical story of "The Tower of Babel" tells of a time when the whole earth was of one language, and one speech.

The people decided "...let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the whole earth...

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Ba-bel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Genesis, Ch. 11, King James Bible)

Apparently "The Tower of Babel" is one of those things like the story of Noah and the flood: a myth that seems to recur in many unrelated cultures. The Hebrew name corresponds to "the gate to God," but the myth itself is a little ironic since, in Genesis, the tower did not receive its name until after the languages had been scrambled. United, they were finding their way "up to God," a curious anthropomorphism that eventually disappeared from the theology. When their speech was scrambled and they couldn't understand each other, the gate to God was closed. Who says the authors of the Bible didn't have a sense of humour? (these insights provided courtesy of Joe Ottinger)

To include bits of other languages in writing is about the failure of communication and a desire to piece together ideas, which cannot be expressed within the constraints of a single language or culture. And even within one language, there is the possibility of a degenerative/inventive quality that takes place at an individual or family level. A friend of mine told me how her family had a tendency to make up words, to the point that even today she says she is shy about using certain colorful words for fear of discovering that they're not really in the dictionary. In her case, her moment of mortification came during a Scrabble game with some aquaintances. I had a similar experience, but for a different reason. My story involved the fact that since I enjoy reading I occasionally start to assimilate words that I have never heard pronounced. If those words come from a language you don't speak, your odds of mis-pronouncing them are even higher. In my case, I can't remember the exact context, but it involved more learned people than myself and the intent to be witty and impress and some interjection of a reference to the muse Terpsichore. Only I pronounced it "Terp si-core." There was silence and then one of the gentlemen said "I think you mean "Terpsichore," prounounced "Terp-sickory" (as in rhymes with chicory). I turned very white and was subsequently silent.

In his introduction to the The Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson describes sound as too volatile and subtle for restraints. He equates "enchaining syllables" to "lashing the wind." dictionary of a living tongue can ever be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away; that a whole life can be spent on syntax and etymology, and that even a whole life would not be sufficient; that he whose design includes whatever language can express must often speak of what he does notunderstand...

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