Saturday, March 14, 2009

The great linguist

The great linguist carries himself as a young man, wears a dapper sweater, jeans, and casual black shoes. He sits back, crosses his legs, speaks discursively, as he himself says. "Please ask questions," he says, when someone asks him a question. What is the difference between a Pidgin and a Creole? He talks to us of parents and children, words and syntax. The great linguist professes disinterest in the memoir as genre, but he is here (at Hamilton Library, of a Thursday noon, for the Biography brownbag series) to tell us about his own, its relation to his work, his travels, those things that are not, strictly speaking, "him." The title of his book, Bastard Tongues, annoys my neighbor, also a linguist; the great linguist's comment about the emergence of creoles out of conditions of "impoverished input" sets others to seething. When asked about his use of this word "impoverished," whether it does not set people against the language, the linguist denies the power of that word. People hate creoles, because their speakers are uneducated people of color, he says. Next? When asked about the title of his book, he tells his audience that he once saw a gay man wear a teeshirt with the word "faggot" on it. Says the n-word. Point of power to appropriate.

The great linguist believes in experiments. Once he proposed putting six couples with small children on a desert island. Each couple would speak a different language. His graduate students would speak to them in single words only of a seventh language. No sentences would be allowed, only one word blurts. His grant denied at the highest stage. When asked how he might do such an experiment now, he refers to "benighted orphans in a south American jungle." They might be isolated and fed single words; they might come up with a pidgin, if the experiment were done right. Any graduate student who spoke more than one word at a time would be whisked away. No harm done; there would still be time for them to learn a language. The great linguist acknowledges qualms, smiles. So why not a day care center in a large city where people speak in many languages? That might work, were it not for the contagion of English. When asked about the state of Hawaiian "pidgin" (HCE), the great linguist refers to it as "highly degraded." More a marker of local identity than a language. Too much English. Especially on Oahu.

The great linguist is the agent of our anger against him and his work. In a chemistry experiment, he is both the agent of transformation and the burned beaker at the end. The great linguist seems, in his archness, to realize this. He enjoys the frisson when his "impoverishment" meets our "political correctness." He likes telling us how he bought his degrees, got his job offers, spent his years in the linguistic wilds. He is a charming man, but we resist his charms. His book sits in its cradle, asking to be bought.


Anonymous said...

Although the International Year of Languages is now at an end, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008.

The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September. or

Anonymous said...

omg. i.a.n.b.t.m.s.b. h.i.s.f.r. h.i.a.t.s.j. b.i.g.h.i.k.o.s. w. i.l.m.g.w.a.t.t.t.p.o.t.

Anonymous said...

A gut wrenching, poetic post about language and linguists;
transitions, resisting and our own qualms.

Your writing continues to amaze me; your ability to blend
any topic into poetic and political realities.

And I love the title, 'Bastard Tongues.

susan said...

Jill? Anonymous?

Anonymous said...

Not me, I *don't* like the title "Bastard Tongues."

You know this post reminds me of your portraits and parables chap.

susan said...

me too, Jill. But what's with all the letters with periods after them? I'm curious!

Anonymous said...

Taking the English out of my pidgin.