Thursday, April 30, 2009

Losing Language, Losing Meaning

In my first outing post-surgery (after being told by my surgeon that I was well on the mend and good to go for driving, fewer than three weeks from the day he cracked my chest), my daughter and I celebrated at Starbucks and then headed for Half Price Books. I always look in the nature writers and science fiction sections first, and was rewarded on both counts. The best find was Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia, a story based on the last part of Vergil's Aeneid, and on a woman (Aeneas's "native" wife) barely mentioned in the poem. But no one is better at imagining worlds not her own than Ursula K. LeGuin, and I snatched the book up in a nonce. Well, maybe two nonces (you'd have to be a fan of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to get that one). Please note that the owl is only a coincidence.

LeGuin's opening remarks lament the loss of Latin, and the fact that it won't be long before nobody will be reading Vergil in the original. Already I have to explain to my students who Vergil was and why Dante would be following him around in the Divine Comedy. My own Latin is barely functional; I learnt what I know only because it was required of a Greek major at U.C. Riverside, but I can find my way through the geography of grammar and syntax with the help of a primer and a dictionary. But I know exactly what she means. These languages are on their way to the cultural dustbin and will soon become the sole purview of wizened scholars and other odd folk.

If only we knew what we were losing! If only today's students understood how much richer their own language and their lives would be were they supplemented by the words and wisdom of the ancient world (people who already made the mistakes we're in the process of making now). But even the basic etymologies of English words are becoming lost to them. They no longer care or are even vaguely interested in why our words are shaped the way they are. They not only don't know what "sanguine" means, but they're not even aware of its subtleties: it can mean both optimistic and bloody (as the character Zoe points out in an episode of Firefly; but that show was canceled, so there goes another ed-op).

Speaking of blood, which is actually where all this is headed, I'm now a member of a very large community of people dependent on the drug Coumadin (generic name Warfarin), an anticoagulant that will keep my blood flowing freely through my shiny new mechanical aortic valve. Unfortunately, these drugs also suffer from lost language and bad metaphor, because they are commonly known as "blood thinners." But they don't thin the blood at all; that's simply somebody's lame attempt at helping the dumb and dumberer understand what "anticoagulation" means, without simply pointing out the etymology of the term: "anti" = "against"; "coagulate" (from the Latin coagulare, to curdle) = clot; hence a usable definition as "prevention of clotting." It has nothing to do with the "thickness" of blood, but apparently people have less trouble with inappropriate metaphors (they can understand thick and thin better than clot-prevention for some reason) than they do with knowing that a word was derived from a more useful metaphor: the curdling process involved in cheese-making. (It occurs to me, as an afterthought, that most people know longer know much about how cheese is made, so perhaps that's the reason for the bad metaphor.)

So better metaphors are out there; after all, it would be quite simple to understand that you want the consistency of your blood to be like single curds flowing freely in whey than like mozzarella! Or, for that matter, to keep the consistency balanced so that it isn't entirely whey and certainly doesn't become even as dense as ricotta. The "whey" would represent the condition (not thickness) that might generate free bleeding (the absence of clotting), and the flow of curds through whey as having the potential to clot when necessary (so you don't bleed to death), but not clot so easily that the offending conglomerations would jam up and cause a stroke. "Thick" vs. "thin" is not only simple, it's simplistic; it doesn't even come close to describing the process.

In the world of tweets and twitters and twits, there's no room for the subtle--especially if it takes up more characters (anticoagulation =15; "blood thinning" = 13, not counting the space). Also, if you don't know anything about language, you have to look the word up in a good dictionary. How many folks even own one any more?

Where does this leave us? Not in a happy place, I think. Several years ago I began to notice that students were becoming less and less able to identify where artists were from by looking at their names. They can no longer tell that Leonardo or Michelangelo are Italian, that Chardin and Watteau are French, that van der Weyden is Dutch, and that Turner is English. They can't identify a Russian or a Greek name without being told where the artist is from. They're better at Spanish names, and Arabic, which makes sense, but they've lost everything else unless they've studied a language in high school (no longer a requirement for graduation, or if it is, they just take Spanish by default) or have parents or relatives from other parts of the world. Asian names seem to be recognizable in general, but not those from specific countries (they can't tell Korean from Japanese from Chinese). I attribute this vague familiarity to manga, anime, and video games, which tend to be only vaguely Asian and not ethnically specific.

While I was still in hospital, the fulcrum of multiculturalism in otherwise xenophobic America, I played a game, at which I ended up batting about .850: guessing staff-members' nationalities by their names. I missed one, because his surname (Tan) was a remnant of the Chinese in his ancestry, but all of his immediate family were Philippino. I guessed Chinese, of course--even though he didn't look it (the Philippines have a more varied ethnic background, including European and native islander, than most Chinese do, and it shows in their physiognomy). I also spent three of five years in Taiwan being educated by Philippina nuns, so I've had a lot of experience with both. At any rate, I caught the Thais, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, and even (sort of) the Danish Colombian gas-passer who ministered to me during surgery. I guessed Swedish, but he forgave me.

Video games and anime have done their part in spurring some students to learn some Japanese, and sometimes Chinese, but there's less of an interest in European languages, seemingly because "they all speak English." Meanwhile, the State Department, the armed forces, and the CIA are on constant vigil for speakers of Arabic, Farsi, African dialects, and even French, German, and Russian--but I'm pretty sure they end up having to train most of their promising candidates in specific languages.

The only spark of hope in the current situation is the increasing evidence on language and aging. Studies indicate that acquiring a second or third language engages one's brain and helps to sustain cognitive function. This doesn't make much sense to a twenty-year old, but if you're my age (and in danger of stroking out if you don't take your meds properly), any such news is good news.

Now, where did I shelve that Latin grammar?

Image credits: ├ćneas lands on the shores of Latium with his son Ascanius behind him; on the left, a sow tells him where to found his city. (Lavinia's father was the king of Latium.) British Museum. Roman marble relief, CE 140-150. Copyright Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.