Saturday, 6 February 2010

Language: much more than words

Step on to the great avenue that opens in front of you when you start to study another language and you’re likely to have the opportunity to pop down a lot of surprising side streets. They can lead to understanding your own language better, they can even lead to understanding yourself better.

For me, it’s been curious to discover how the experience can conjure up some of my favourite passages of writing, a comfort at particularly trying moments in my protracted struggle with Japanese.

I started off in a class in which I was really doing quite well, but the teacher thought I needed to move up a level. It must have been vanity that persuaded me to accept the suggestion – it felt a bit like a promotion – but since the move keeping up has been quite a strain.

‘Not waving but drowning’ springs to mind, from the sparkling little Stevie Smith poem by that name.

It’s taking a great deal more work than I expected just to keep in touch with my significantly more competent classmates; to try to close the gap I need to work twice as hard again. Allusion number 2 – Alice and the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the looking glass:

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

Difficult though it is to keep up, I have been learning a few things. For instance, that ‘desu’, the verb ‘to be’, isn’t a verb at all.

‘Surely you knew that?’ comments my son Nicky, ‘it’s a copular. Even in English.’

It’s a key point in your life when your kids can make you feel ignorant. I passed it some years ago. I should probably be satisfied that it didn’t happen even earlier.

What Nicky means is that in many contexts ‘to be’ merely couples other words, such as a noun with an adjective or adjectival expression – ‘John is tall’, where ‘is’ has no real meaning of its own but merely links the other two words, or ‘George Bush is no longer president of the United States’, which is a blessed relief as well as another example.

Of course, sometimes ‘to be’ really is a verb with a meaning akin to ‘exist’, as in ‘I think therefore I am’.

And here’s my final literary allusion, to that firework display of wit that Tom Stoppard provides in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

Rosencrantz: Do you think death could possibly be a boat?

Guildenstern: No, no, no... Death is... not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat.

Rosencrantz: I've frequently not been on boats.

Guildenstern: No, no, no – what you've been is not on boats.

It doesn’t make the brilliance any less enjoyable to understand at last the device that makes it work, the ambivalence of ‘to be’ as a copular or as a true verb.

Amazing the insights you can get from studying Japanese. And having a smart-arse son.


Awoogamuffin said...

Oh Nick and his copular-this, and copular-that, he's such a pervert. He sometimes even talks about religious ejaculations!

David Beeson said...

That's been a bit of a problem in the Catholic Church, hasn't it? For instance in Ireland