Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mind-Numbing Linguistics!

For almost three weeks, I've spoken more Spanish than English. I'm learning bad words and slang, but I'm also adding words like "poetic voice" and "Nerudian" to my vocabulary. Every language filters and shapes the world in a different way, and I'm beginning to realize how differences in grammar and syntax affect the way I think about certain things, depending on what language I'm thinking in. The awareness always happens right around the moment of the "switch" in my brain. Like when I'm reading poetry in Spanish, and I've totally just read three lines without my dictionary and I'm feeling pretty cool until I hit a speedbump word like "amargura...;" my thoughts switch over into English while I look it up in googletranslate ("amargura" means "bitterness" or "sorrow," and I suppose it's a good sign that I'm not walking around Valpo talking about sorrow so often that I know the word in Spanish. Thank you, depressed 19-year-old Pablo Neruda, for that addition to my vocabulary).

Those are the moments when I realize how Spanish arranges thoughts in a different way than English. I've always been grammatically aware that nouns come before adjectives in Spanish. Instead of "the green house" it's "the house green." I think this really simple grammatical fact gives Spanish the quality of unfolding, or blossoming, especially in poetry. The stanza with the word "amargura" actually shows this perfectly: "Y si por la amargura más bruta del destino, / animal viejo y ciego, no sabes el camino, / ya que tengo dos ojos te lo puedo enseñar." Which, reeeeally roughly, means, "And if, by the coarsest bitterness of fate, old and blind animal, you don't know the way, I have two eyes and can teach you." Okay. I'm dorking out major here and boring everyone but, I think this is really cool. The way it kind of burgeons and blooms in Spanish is totally beautiful. When I read "bitterness most coarse" and "animal old and blind," I realize that my expectations shift, so I'm waiting for the noun to lead the sentence rather than the adjectives. I apologize to you all. I promise to write about something really fun next time, like balloons. 

But come on! Language is completely fascinating! It's central in my idea of what it means to be a human, and I will totally argue that point. Maybe that's why people start asking me super easy questions (like "So, do you have brothers and sisters?" when I know that everyone at the table is talking about the education strike), or speak really slowly after I make a stupid grammatical mistake (like "when I was a little girl I will live in California"). If you can't convey your intelligence through language, people don't know you're intelligent.

Soooo I heard the next post is going to be about balloons.

1 comment:

  1. Ahhh…the old “When do I reveal what information?” question. I’ve always liked that Spanish (and other languages) put the nouns first and then the adjectives. “The house green” just sounds cool. And it’s a more effective way to implant an image in the reader’s mind – give them the thing first and then describe it. Otherwise, they just have this giant blob of green in their heads and then….wait…what?…I have to build a house too? SO MUCH WORK!!!!

    Anyway, there are ways around this in English. The only problem is the diction elevates if you write “The house of green” or the line gets too wordy if you write “The house that is green.” Blech. I suppose some would argue that we read so fast, “green” and “house” are thought of so almost-simultaneous that we don’t even notice that we think of green before house. But much of poetry happens on a subconscious level. The reader may not consciously realize they thought of green before house, but it happened, and it caused a different reaction than “house green” or “house of green” or “house that is green.”

    Anyway, I guess my point is that you’re right…mostly. English can unfold just as well as Spanish or any other noun/adjective language:

    And if, by fate’s bitterness most coarse,
    animal old, animal blind, you don’t know the way,
    I have two eyes and can teach you.

    Yeah, it’s not as “pretty” as the original, especially since you lose the end rhyme of the first two lines, but it does unfold in a similar way. (I repeated “animal” because I used my poetic license. Came in the mail last week.) Though that can be remedied with a change to the translation:

    And if, by fate’s bitterness most coarse,
    animal old, animal blind, you don’t know the course,
    I have two eyes and can teach you.

    I think my license just got revoked for being overly-cute. When it comes to this (Spanish, translation, etc.), I am certainly the old, blind animal and you are the teacher with eyes of two. (See what I did there? HA!)

    I do like the way English can be twisted around grammatically and syntactically, yet still retain the same meaning (though the experience does change). I do wonder whether or not it’s possible to finagle the adjective before the noun in Spanish, just like there are ways in English to put the adjective after the noun? How pliable is Spanish?

    I’m sorry my comment is longer than your post. I’ll get back to insulting one-liners next time. Unless you really do write about balloons. Then I’ll have to delve into the inveterate effects a popped balloon has on a five-year-old’s fear response.