re: reflections on language
Tue, 28 May 1996 23:01:09 +0000

hi all!

Gary Blanchard and I had an exchange about his most interesting thread
"reflections on language", and he asked me:

>As I give all this futher thought, I wonder: how would you feel if we had
>this discussion on the maillist instead of privately? I think I am
>asking questions, and you are giving responses, which could be fruitful
>indeed for others as well as me.

I'd felt a bit self-indulgent about writing about my own near-bilingual
experience, and so had mailed just to Gary; but now I notice that Ana
Catina and Alessandra Iantaffi are sharing their own experience on this
mailing list, so here goes with a copy of my last mailing to him.


>Dear Gary,
>Thanks for yours of today.
>>In particular, I wonder if you are equally facile in both of your
>>tongues; if you dream in them; if you have to 'work' at performing in
>>one, but not the other; and so forth.
>a) Equally facile? No. But that's largely a function of the amount of time I
>spend >in either country. After 3 weeks or so in either I begin to "pick up
>on" >thinking in that language and, interestingly, in catching up on the
>changes in >idiom. You wouldn't believe how quickly idiom changes: seems to be
>a cycle of >around 12 months or so; e.g. our English adjective "cool". I first
>noticed it in >the 1960s, in a related but now outdated sense. Then friends on
>the Net in the >USA started using it in the contemporary shade of meaning 18
>months or so >ago; and now, just 8 months ago, I notice its come into English
>(UK) teenage >vocabulary cos my younger daughter started to use it then.
>b) Dream? No, very very rarely if ever. Having said that, it's very rarely
>that >I remember my dreams (once a year or so, unless something in the
>>personal-growth line is happening to me at the time (e.g. attending a group,
>>say)) and so my sampling period, as it were, isn't enough to catch any
>>"Polish" dreams, as I'm rarely in Poland these days for longer than a
>c) "Work" at performance? Um. I believe that if one cares about language, one
>>works in either or any language one knows to get things exactly right. But
>yes, >the work (e.g. in finding exactly the word I want to use to express some
>>subtlety of meaning) is easier for me in English, since I use English more
>>frequently. There again, ask any foreign-language user and s/he'll tell you
>>that there are words in the "other" language which are so much better than
>>words in one's own language for the expression of certain meanings, and of
>>course vice versa.
>So sometimes the "work" lies in finding a word in one's own language which
>>best conveys the meaning present in the "better" word of the other language,
>>when one's trying to say something exactly right in one's own, to a user of
>>one's own language who doesn't know the other one!
>Let's see, an example. Okay, there's a somewhat old-fashioned word (1950s >or
>thereabouts, but quite understandable by contemporary Poles), >"gnieciuch".
>It's the perfect word, a noun, to describe a cake which is >disappointingly
>dry, tasteless, mass-produced and boring. Now, the >corresponding word in
>English would be "stale", but, when I think of the >Polish associations of
>"gnieciuch" ("gniesc", to squeeze; "jesc", to eat, and >"-ciuch", not a word
>but a dipthong which conveys associations of "objectness, >something that's
>acted upon, passivity" and is moreover a sound with a rather >old-fashioned
>and even rural ring to it) I'm reminded irresistibly of a >peasant babushka
>(old lady) who's taken out her dentures and is chumbling >away at a piece of
>dry bread.
>Aha! And that's how I "work" to arrive at an un-obvious word in (UK) English:
>>"chumbling", which has the same connotations in UK English of eating with
>>effort, and is an old-fashioned word to boot, which conveys the "staleness"
>>shade-of-meaning of the English idea.... But, d'you see, the correspondence
>>isn't perfect: "chumbling" is a verb*, and we're looking for a noun, to match
>>our original, "gnieciuch".
>* actually, it's a gerund, and thereby fairly easily usable as a description
>of >an action-state, e.g "the chumbling". (You know gerunds: verb-nouns, like
>>the verb "burn" turned into "burning", which can then be used as a noun as in
>>the title of the film, "The Burning"). But it's still not the
>noun-substantive >I'm looking for that would correspond with the
>noun-substantive, "gnieciuch".

>Ho hum! As you say, one works at it.


By the way, Ana: you say:

>I will never learn to cry in another language, I guess.

That's interesting. Could you say more?

I know I can cry in both English and Polish; but your comment makes me
wonder whether my Polish crying, as it were, isn't simply being
sentimental. Er... what does that mean? Well, do you know the English idiom
"crocodile tears", i.e., that I'm being, somehow, a bit insincere when I
cry in the less frequently used language? Dunno.

Kind regards,

Devi Jankowicz