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Love Notes to Language

A few awesome things that happen to one as you get into the “head” of a new language or author–as discussed over beer and Korean food with Justine and Rey:


*When Rey or I have a particularly impossible time with a passage of Lucretius, both of us will check out an English translation. Especially for the passages where it seems the difficulty is all vocabulary–the purple-wreathed hegemon exulting in Arabian myrrh, or whatever. The really awesome thing about consulting a translation is that its poverty compared to the original actually HELPS you understand the original. I’ve had numerous times when, reacting to a translation of a passage I wasn’t quite getting, I have an intuition “that isn’t quite what was being said,” even though I was unsure what was being said in the Latin, and then I’m able to reverse-engineer my understanding to get closer to the Latin through precisely where the English translation seems to fail. So I don’t only get to appreciate and remember why it’s so important to be able to read the original, but the liberties of the translation, which might frustrate me or be sad in some contexts, actually end up strengthening my relationship with the source language. (And yes, I do think of it as a relationship…language is my first and best mistress…)

*I can’t wait for the frustration and joy of starting an author we haven’t read in the Greek program, having the familiar “WTF DO I REALLY KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS LANGUAGE?” feeling–then gliding right past that shit and getting into the flow of that author. It’s so life-affirming, since the thought processes and stylistic taste of the new author gets in your head, fucks with you, and stays with you.

*Trying to puzzle out a few lines from a Greek “papyrus” in the paleography lecture made me proud of my progress in Greek. With no word divisions, I could still with my group get most of the 10 lines, and I was making judgements *based on knowing Greek morphology*, like “this is more likely a finite verb than a participle, so that’s probably an “ntai” ending and not “nta.” Sometimes I find, for example, paleography in Middle English tiresome. Because I know much of what I’d expect the Middle English to be, and I think it’s more a feeling of getting the manuscript to match something I already have in my head of what the possibilities are. With Greek (and I assume with other of my non-native languages), I feel closer to the text and language per se, since I bring fewer assumptions about what the forms “should” be. It also feels good to feel my understanding of Greek morphology increasing as I make hypotheses about what forms something could be–especially when you can still recognize the part of speech or ID the form a verb that isn’t in your lexicon. So Greek Paleography can increase my feeling of competence and it makes morphology come alive as something that really helps you, whereas English paleography doesn’t seem to change my understanding of English as much. Then again, I just haven’t done enough English paleography 🙂

*Sight translating has been going really well. I have wild conjectures, I make silly week 1 mistakes, but the Greek comes to make sense in a much shorter time than I would’ve imagined, even though I knew the same thing happened to me with Latin. I love the concrete and immediate sense of accomplishment of getting through a Greek passage at sight–and I love that in our Aristotle elective, the literal Greek is making enough sense to us quickly enough that we get to dive into the commentary and talk about concepts — it’s been too long! Funny, though, that I didn’t miss philosophical and conceptual debates about what a text means that much. Translation itself and sticking real close to the language really is my jam.

*Separately–I am a poet who loves language itself, for itself. Language could be one of the things “good according to itself” for me, per Aristotle. I love how my relationship with language is stronger than “I like the sounds of this” or “these lexical items are striking,” but it’s really based on grokking the syntax and structure, and how different languages allow speakers and writers to have different effects on their audience by playing with different expectations. For example, it’s definitely changed the way I think about style to read Ciceronian Latin and get viscerally the effect that an inflected language with flexible word order can have via periodic sentences. Like music–suspension and resolution, when you get participles giving background, cum inversum, relative clauses filling in more detail, then suddenly, blissfully, the finite verb…

As Rey said, the more you get into languages, and every time you start a new language, everything is strange, wonderful and frustrating…and the world just gets richer and richer and stranger as you learn more languages. If everyone needs something to hope for in order to live–and I think we really do–the promise of getting to deepen my relationship with language as a lifetime avocation is a hell of a saving hope.

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