Language


ScrabbleI am not making a serious effort to learn Polish because my time here may be brief and once I leave I will never speak it again. On the other hand, I would like to pick up some words and phrases. It embarrasses me that people go to great lengths to make use of the smatterings of English that they learned in high school but I – the guest in their country – cannot return the favour.

Languages were never my favourite subjects at school. It might well have been because I was an idle student. On the other hand, it might have had something to do with learning French from English men and women. The show Spiral is a bleak and brutal series, full of murder, rape and drug abuse. As characters speak about this depravity, though, I am enchanted by the music of their tongue. At school, though, chanting “juh ma pell”, it had the melody of a post-punk riff.

Polish pronunciation is hard to get used to. There are, indeed, a lot of thick “d”s and “z”s and “r”s, and even soft, elegant “l”s obtain strokes, become “ł”s and sound more like “w”s. It becomes easier when you internalise some rules: learning to see a “dz”, for example, and think “j”. (Speaking Polish, one can sound as if one is imitating a bee.)

Polish grammar is a formidable prospect. Even natives speak in hushed tones about the seventeen forms of “two”. It is alleged that while English speakers become truly at the age of 12, Polish speakers achieve this status four years later. There is room for scepticism here, especially as so many English men and women don’t seem to have become fluent well into their thirties, but it still looks hard enough to make an episode of The Sopranos or chapter of Moby Dick seem more appealing.

I’d like to get somewhere, though, in order that I can be less of a burden on new friends and associates but also because speaking on the basis of a limited and unfamiliar vocabulary brings a new significance to one’s conversations. Greeting, giving thanks, offering toasts and bidding farewell to people can seem especially meaningful when such concentration is demanded by the deed. One appreciates the value of interacting.

Besides, I want to make sure nobody can talk behind my back. Heck, the first things that I learned were the swear words.

Another commentator on the Rochdale rapists is Julie Bindel, who says the “uncomfortable truth” is that organised sexual exploitation is ignored because we “choose instead to blame the victims”. This is not a point of world-juddering significance but I encounter lots of arguments surrounding heterodox ideas and I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read someone propose a claim as an “uncomfortable truth” when it didn’t neatly accord with their preconceptions. They tend, in other words, to sound as if this “truth” has been as discomfiting as a child finds their blanket. If it’s troublesome for reasons people might have failed to grasp they should, of course, explain them but if they merely assert that it’s uncomfortable, awkward or inconvenient – telling rather than, to steal a phrase of English teachers everywhere, showing – it evokes a questionable smugness: I’ve accepted the idea, it implies, but you might have some trouble with it. Perhaps I’ve done this too so henceforth let’s all agree to state the facts as we see them and allow readers to draw their own interpretations.

Will Self floccinaucinihilipilificates critics of his wordiness…

Both general readers and specialist critics often complain about my own use of English – not only in my books, but also in my newspaper articles and even in radio talks such as these. “I have to look them up in a dictionary”, they complain – as if this were some kind of torture.

…although the subject matter of my stories and novels – which includes such phenomena as sexual deviance, drug addiction and mental illness – has become quite unexceptionable, the supposedly difficult language they are couched in seems to have become more and more offensive to readers.

There are indeed anti-intellectual voices that react against displays of erudition as if someone else’s knowledge is a personal affront. In the interests of accessibility prose can be reduced to pools of terms so miserably shallow that the ideas and experiences they’re conveying can’t be accurately still less adequately expressed. This is not merely boring, it’s dangerous inasmuch as their implications can be elided under a carpet of facile phrases. (Think of people who fill tinkertoy verses with baffling terms like “progress”, “moderate” and “fairness”.)

On the other hand, there’s an opposite extreme…

English, being a mishmash of several different languages, ha[s] a large and exciting vocabulary, and…it seem[s] a shame not to use it – especially given that it [goes] on growing all the time, spawning argot and specialist terminology as freely as an oyster does its milt.

Specialised terms and obscure words can be employed to express the profound if enigmatic implications of formidable theories. On the other hand, they can also be used to present dull and disingenuous theories as more intriguing than they are: tarting up their claims with promiscuous polysyllables and gratuitous jargon that makes theses that might otherwise be thought trivial, absurd or ugly hard to answer. (The Sokal Affair has been referenced so many times that, like a classic Fawlty Towers scene, it can grow tiresome to revisit – yet that doesn’t mean its quality has been diminished.)

Oversimplification and overcomplication are agents of obscurantism inasmuch as they render the fathomable communication of one’s views far harder than it needs to be. And, of course, they fail to appreciate the textual and phonetic richness of the English tongue. Which is to say that they’re, like, totally boring.

Here’s an intriguing word: “splittism”. In one of his columns on language the late William Safire described it thus

Fen lie, with China’s official translation of “splittism,” has long been a hot-button word in Chinese Communist terminology, and not just directed against Tibetans objecting to the ravishing of their culture. Three years ago, China’s congress adopted an antisecession law threatening to use military force against Taiwan if it declared independence, using fen lie for secession, or splittism.

It’s always interesting to see how states demonise protest that threatens it. Google Ngram suggests (imperfectly, of course, as it tracks its rise through English sources) that the charge of “splittism” became more popular as the Chinese government was striving to deplete Tibetan culture…

It’s less popular today, then, but still effective. The Chinese government (always wary of Tibetan and Uighur separatists) has bonded with the Pakistani state (which fights to maintain its control over Balochs and Kashmiris) against “three evil forces…terrorism, extremism and splittism”. “Splittists”, we’ve learned today, face harsh penalties

Tashi Rabten, respected Tibetan writer and author of the banned literary work, “Written in Blood”…has been sentenced to a 4-year prison term by a Chinese court…According to reliable sources inside Tibet, the court found Tashi Rabten, editor of banned literary magazine “Shar Dungri” (Eastern Conchshell Mountain) guilty on charges of “inciting activities to split the nation”.

This is a fascinating case of that which is politically inexpedient being redefined as that which is immoral and threatening. I’m reading about this charge and I’ve got no idea why I should feel worse about someone because it describes them.

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