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de linguae [Apr. 21st, 2003|01:05 am]
[Current Mood |discontentdiscontent]

I've observed something interesting about language these past few weeks.

When I was in the Montreal area a couple of years ago, a coworker and I went to a mexican restaurant and were drinking Bass ales. (the contradictions abound.) With each beer, you received a game card which entitled you to win a Bass pint glass. Printed under the silver part was one of two possibilites: Desole (sorry) or Vous Gagnez (you win). This is a simple binary outcome which drives most elegant games, and enough beers were drunk between us until my coworker could walk away with a six pack of glasses.

Now, I was in McDonalds here in Chicago, and the Waukegan area where I'm staying is home to a large naval base and there is a large number of Latinos living in the vicinity. Tailored likely to the vicinity (since I haven't seen the equivalent in predominantly white New Jersey, where I live), a similar game is played with peel off stickers on the drink cups. In peeling off, I saw the following statement: Lo siento, esta vez no ganaste. (Sorry, this time you didn't win, is also printed within.)

I was immediately struck with a realization that something was going on here that I didn't understand fully. The crafter of this game followed the same rules of etiquette I would expect (saying "sorry" is a polite way of saying "you're a loser") but also felt compelled to include, in english as well as spanish, the clause "this time". There's the hidden assumption that there will be a next time. There's the subliminal drive to suggest that some other time, if I keep playing, I'll be a winner.

There is outstanding litigation here in the USA claiming that there's something addictive about fast food. It's strange to see with one hand a company argue that it does not compel people to eat poorly, and with another send a reinforced message luring the customer back again and again: if you eat a Big Mac, you will one day be a winner. I don't buy into the very superficial conspiritization of marketing messages that is so easily done like this. I'm fascinated, though, by the reasoning that drives such a decision.

Mostly, I'm struck why the creator of the game felt compelled to use both english and spanish. I'd think that most people in the USA know that "lo siento" is the opposite of "vous gagnez", despite the fact that I didn't know that "desole" was its synonym two years ago. Even still, I would suspect that anyone who would be purchasing a soft drink in McDonalds in Chicago would likely know the difference between "sorry" and "you win". It plays into my wonder, of why there are a multitude of languages, or why things are printed multilingually.

I think, to some extent, I betrayed my principles by letting myself imagine that English would be so commonly speakable in Amsterdam that I spent little to no time preparing to speak any Dutch two weeks ago. When I go back, I think I'll be a lot more likely to make an attempt to have some working knowledge of the language, at least to read signs. Even just to remember, for instance, to learn how to pronounce "Tot ziens" flawlessly, or other pleasantries.

At some level, I've become very suspicious of bilingual or multilingual signs. They're a crutch, a concession, a form of hypnotism that lulls you into believing that you can let your guard down because you're safe. It's the same feeling of slipping, of becoming less capable, that I used to experience when falling back on using the transliterated Hebrew vocalizations at shul. I should be able to read these things, I should be capable of surviving and performing despite.

I'm also thinking a lot about language, spelling, and grammar police. I'm thinking about what a fuss people make over that girl who allegedly turned in an essay in SMS, and how so many people think it's just so "wrong". I'm thinking about words like "de" and "deze" in Dutch, and how if I were to spell out an english word "deze" you'd immediately get a certain impression of me, that somehow I'm not as intelligent an English speaker. I'm thinking about how I read entries in my friendslist, and how I subconsciously question the grammar, particularly among people I know to be more intelligent than me. (I? I always mess that up, so my grammar snobbery is an obvious affectation.)

I think the language we speak today is not the same verbalization we speak ten years hence. It is the nature of time that our spoken word, as people and as unique human beings, is transformed not only by a development of grammar bot a discovery that we each have our own internal grammar. it's molded and shaped by the company we keep. It's molded by media, yo. But most importantly, fighting complacency dictates that the language we speak tomorrow must somehow be different than the one we speak today. I think it would be a good thing to look back in time and to discover that not only have I aged, but that the words I speak today should be unrecognizable to the me of the past.

The problem with the mutability of language is the same Babelian problem I've been running into in my travels. Part of me finds the existence of a language such as Dutch to be such a fierce arrogance- a distinct language for a country no bigger than Delaware, for example. Should Delaware deserve it's own language? and yet, in my arrogance believing that english is english, I trivialize the differences between soda and pop, for instance. I spend a lot of time trying to be considerate to issues of localization, whether to ask a server for a "check" or a "bill", whether or not to ask for a "doggie bag" or a "box" or "container". So, then explain how with one hand I can be arguing for more personalization of language, and with another calling it a supreme arrogance? What insight can you give me, to bring quiet to this dissonance?

I'd like to think this is some brave new world, that has such languages in it, but in reality, this is just a highly personal delusion. We are not entering an age of unlimited, boundless travel. We are, perhaps, on the verge of a social collapse, a stark reversal of the globalization and barrierless travel. Disease, war, contention, hatred are all strong forces causing this. But under this, the more insidious barriers of language, of grammar, of class. Minions of racism, poverty, and xenophobia. Diversity and similarity are each their own curse in turn, though.

Is it better to speak of these things, or to never speak at all?

No se requiere compra. Ver reglas.

(Deleted comment)