Saturday, June 10, 2006

Language: Take 1

Rhetoric and Grammar were two of the cornerstones of Classical Primary Education. The third in the trivium was Logic. Evidently the Greeks had realised pretty early that before a child can be taught anything else, the child must first be taught how to think; how to convert her thoughts into words; and how to put her words in a manner that would persuade another person.

It is true, of course, that your language is limited by the thoughts you have. You do not have words to express thoughts you have never had. (We shall, for the present, not stress too much about the inability of people to find words for the thoughts they DO have. It is highly probable that one's knowledge of a language is finite enough to prevent a coherent and elegant elucidation of every thought one has. On the other hand it is impossible for one's language to have words to express a thought one does not have). There is, of course, the technical argument (and a valid one) that a language of a community might have words that express thoughts that a specified member of the comunity does not have. While this might be true, it does not change the fact that a community's language is the means of explaining the sum total of its collective consciousness, and while it may not be exhaustive, it certainly is inclusive. If a group of people hasn't seen snow, it is impossible for the language they speak to have a word that translates into snow. As a corollary, the more important a certain entitty in your environment, the more ways you will find to refer to it. "Death" is pretty much one word for most us. "She died", is a complete idea explained and expressed in two words. But, to a lawyer the sentence hides much more than it conveys. The lawyer knows many different words for death. And for him the sentence smacks of incompleteness.

What is not so well known or well understood is that this works the other way round. The language you speak actually limits the thoughts you have. Learning a new language can give you new thoughts. There are concepts in some languages that don't exist in others. These can give you new ways to think, and change your perspective on things. I first realised this when I was taking spanish lessons. I must admit I started learning Spanish only because it sounded terrific (the language... not the idea). One of the most frequently used words in Spanish is "tengo"... means "have".
And why is this important? Simple. In spanish, you feel cold, you feel tired, and you feel afraid... as opposed to "I am cold", "I am tired" and "I am afraid". In English, fear is an identifier. It is an intrinsic property of the system. Inseperable. In Spanish, "Fear" has suddenly become a detachable; something that can be jettisoned once its outlived its utility. now you see it, now you don't.

Try this for an exercise: Capture the meaning of the German word "zeitgeist" in one English sentence. (unlimited commas, semicolons, colons, em-dashes and parentheses allowed.)

I'll come back and expand this later...
Think about this: "losovona" in Tamizh, literally means blackening her face, loss of honor or taking away honor.
"Manabhangam" in Sanskritised Telugu, means pretty much the same thing.
And these are the two words that replace the word "rape" when something gets translated into these languages. What a pity... There is no mention of force by the doer... No mention of trauma of the vitim... No mention of sin on the part of the doer. Not even the remotest indication of violation of a person's identity. Just shame.

The rape victim has done nothing to be ashamed about. Yet, the only indian words we have as equivalents all imply a high degree of shame on the victim... and almost no mention of the perpetrator of the crime. No wonder, we as a community are so forgiving of this form of evil.

The Humanist: It tolls for me

John Donne's immortal lines have to be quoted first.

... No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the
continent, a part of the main.
...any man's death diminishes me, because I
am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee...

The words were written in the seventeenth century, and I'm willing to let John Donne get away for the very obvious gender bias. But the words ring true.

I'm a humanist. Every time the bell tolls to mark the death of one member of humanity, I know it tolls for me. Every child that gets beaten or bullied, every woman that is harassed; every man who is trod upon. The bells tolls incessantly. And it tolls for me.

I'm not a messiah. I do not claim to be. I do not wish to be. I'm a humanist who cares what happens to the world and its inhabitants. And I'm going to fight for the right of humanity to survive... for the right of every member of humanity to survive... (are these goals inherently inconsistent? The next post should answer that)

Friday, June 09, 2006

With a little bit of luck...

The Lord above made liquor for temptation,
to see if man could turn away from sin.
The lord above made liquor for temptation,
with a little bit o' luck...
with a little bit o' luck...
with a little bit o' luck...
when temptation comes, you'll give right in!