30 July 2009

The instinct of Language and its future

Language, like sex, is an instinct. Not a diverted and tamed instinct like what is seen in modern sport but something that is a more fundamental part of our makeup - as fundamental and innate as the upright posture and the opposable thumb. Like the bats having evolved to use sonar, we are a species of primates who have evolved an ability to communicate with the sounds we make while we exhale.

That language is not just a cultural convention but a part of human instinct has been a controversial and hotly contested idea, sometimes an even reviled one due to the implications of it were it to be true. It was to be expected as it is in itself an inversion and questioning of a lot of the fundamental mythos of the humanities and the social sciences as they are taught and discussed today. A big part of modern intellectual and academic life accepts as an uncontestable dogma that there is no such thing as a universal human nature across cultures and times. The existence of a language instinct challenges that dogma at it roots and forces an uncomfortable re-examination of those premises.

It was cognitive scientist Steven Pinker who spoke about 'The Language Instinct' in those words in his very eloquent book of the same name intended for the general public, but the roots of it lies in the works of Noam Chomsky, especially in his concept of the presence of a Universal Grammar for languages. By and large, scientific consensus seems to be converging to this point of view that language is a uniquely human trait, an innate capacity serviced by perhaps a neuron concentration on the left sides of the brain (try to repeat what someone else is talking and simultaneously try to tap a finger on the left hand, then repeat with the right hand - controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain and find out how much tougher it is). Of course culture affects the specificities of this instinct, as in a child brought up in a Tamil speaking family will speak Tamil, but none of us start with a blank slate which is then painted on by a social sharing mechanism which was an accepted view earlier.

There is a startling commonality among all the worlds languages, across geographies, cultures and times, from Sanskrit and Pali to the 'hinglish', 'manglish', 'bambaiyya', the non-verbal languages of the deaf and even the sms-speak which is bound to become a full fledged creative language in some time however much the oldies hate it. This is a comparatively new discovery primarily due to the assumed, arrogant and ultimately untrue superiority assumptions of the other-language-studiers about their own languages and cultures.

One of the reasons that linguistics does not run into the normal problems of any historical science is that we can see, watch and learn how people create complex languages from scratch. The most interesting example that Pinker gives though, is regarding the people around us who use language but can't use their vocal chords.
"Contrary to popular misconceptions, sign languages are not pantomimes and gestures, or ciphers of the spoken language of the surrounding community. They are found whenever there is a community of deaf people, and each one is a distinct full language, using the same kind of grammatical machinery found worldwide in spoken languages. For eg, the American Sign Language does not resemble English or British sign languages, but relies on agreement and gender systems in a way that is reminiscent of Navajo and Bantu.

Until recently there were no sign languages at all in Nicaragua, because its deaf people remained isolated from one another. When the Sandinista government took over in 1979 and reformed the educational system, the first schools for the deaf were created. The schools focused on drilling the children in lip reading and speech, and as in every case where that is tried, the results were dismal. But it did not matter. On the playgrounds and school buses the children were inventing their own sign system, pooling the makeshift gestures that they used with their families at home. Before long the system congealed into what is now called the Lenguaje de Signos Nicaraguense."
It was a recent attempt to learn an alien language and a coming across of the concerns and fears among some of the Malayali writers and critics that made me search for the present understanding and debate regarding cognition and linguistics.

The attempt to learn made me realize how goddamn tough it is to learn a language once you are an adult. How it is a different ball game, something so very, very different from learning, say a new subject in a language known to you. The rules, the learning curves are all so different as to make you struggle in a way which is perhaps unknown to you in adult life. It was made more interesting by the fact that we were learning as a group which was remarkable for its diversity, from kids just stepping into teenages to senior citizens. The trends of the group too - the women bettering the men, the young picking up at a scorching pace compared to the old were all very interesting to watch. Of course, anecdotal generalizations are the biggest shortcuts to bad science but what I found a remarkable reference point for what what I understood from watching my and other's struggle to learn and in Pinker's work.

But what was more intersting was to read the concerns, the fears and the insecurities of some of the Malayali writers as to what will happen to Malayalam in the near and far future. Some of the fears are genuine, like the roots of feelings of cultural rootlessnes which in turn makes some of the non-resident Indians, politically, one of the most retrogressive and reactionary groups anywhere. A generation growing up without knowing the smells, tastes and ways of their lands, let alone being rooted but being critical enough of it to change it for the better is indeed a problem too, something which has supposedly already happened in places like Japan, where a handed-down bastardized version of disney land americana has become a mainstream culture of the young, something which they perhaps consider 'superior' to their own roots. M.Mukundan almost tearfully records a hilarious instance which he says he was unlucky enough to experience - a woman saying 'Thank You, Thank You' to Lord Ayyappan in a temple at R.K.Puram New Delhi as if the lord had forgotten Malayalam after going to a New Delhi convent.

But the screams of Brahmanic pollution of a non-existant purity a la the French seems to be perhaps a reaction which would be much much, worse than the problem, especially considering the history of Malayalam. C.P. Rajasekharan rightly calls out the "all is lost, it was all great in the past" dishonest screams. Malayalam with its roots in Sangha Tamil, has been pollinated by Sanskrit, Arabic, Portugese, Kannada among other tongues. A purity attempt would be even more unsuccessful and even more retrogressive than what has happened to French. But having said that, it is also true that especially the expatriate children should be given the opportunity during the short time when our brains pick up languages in a flash, to learn their mother's tongue. But, it need not be at the cost of other languages which they may need for being productive for the rest of their lives. What they or what anyone does with it later should be left to the wisdom of them and of their generation as in the end language is primarily about reaching others who live at the same times.

While almost all modern languages fear ‘pollution' by English, it is also important to note that the relative openness of English was not always so. Most of the English intelligentsia once thought it was urgent that ‘their' language be protected and its borders be defined. In fact, a ‘liberal' like Jonathan Swift was supposedly made so angry by words like ‘bamboozle' that he called for their outright banning.

A strkn' parlel 2 dis s d h8 of d iL infrmd lngwj gurdians evrywhr 2 d sms lngwj Usd by d yung. D h8Rd s so iMnse, it s :) 2 wtch it n actn. It s du 2 a lck of undRstNdN of how lngwijz r, evlve n r adptd.

One thing can be said for sure, the great-great grandchildren of the readers of this blog will find the language of here quaint, odd and sometimes even incomprehensible. The Malayalam speakers of the time, and another question whether they will exist in large numbers, will also find the Malayalam of our times to be quaint, odd and incomprehensible. And that is natural, bound to happen and most importantly - completely okay.

Let's end with a prayer to the man who supposedly gave the gift of the 'word'. :-)
Old English(C. 1000): Faeder ure thu the eart on heofonum, si thin nama gehalgod. Tobecume thin rice. Gewurthe in willa on eorthan swa on heofonum.

Middle English(C. 1400): Oure fadir that art in heuenes halowid be thi name, thi kyngdom come to, be thi wille don in erthe es in heuene,...

Early Modern English(C. 1600): Our father which are in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

Contemporary English: Our Father, who is in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your kingdom come into being. May your will be followed on earth, just as it is in heaven.

03 May 2009

Literary Question of the Month - May

After taking a brief hiatus from Literary Questions of the Month, Rob comes back with this extremely fun but daunting question:

"you're a film producer, and wery hot property right now since your last film made a billion-zillion dollars and broke all sorts of box-office records, and won 20 Oscars...as a reward, you're told that you can make a film from any book your heart desires, be it your favorite, or one you can strongly visualize, or one you'd like to see remade in your own vision...you have a blank check, you can cast whatever actors you like, hire whatever director you wish...so, my multiple question is: what would that book be? who would you cast? and who would you pick to direct? (grins) you can even name your cinematographer if you're feeling frisky.."

(I had to quote, as a simple paraphrase wouldn't capture Rob's evil and sly, yet hilarious, persona.)

Is anybody up to the (fun) task of answering this question? Drop on by the BBD and weigh in on this if you think you have the perfect arthaus hit!

BBD World Lit for May: Russia (the Motherland!)

Okay, "the Motherland" is a joke that nobody but I and.. well, I will get. But crack open the vodka because we're going to Russia this month! Rob welcomes her fellow comrades to Russia with a great post about 20th century Russian writers. The real buzz this month, though, is the Pevear translation of War and Peace, which is what we're tackling for this month's read.

I, personally, got off to a late start with the book because someone in my household was already reading my shiny new copy. Other BBDers have already started to brave the doorstop tome and are finding it brilliant, if unwieldy. Rob posted up some lovely starter info in the discussion thread over at BBD; if you're joining us late for the read, have no fear--some of us read at a snail's pace, so we will be chiming into the discussions for months, I bet!

Next month is China! See you then!

21 April 2009

BBD World Lit for March and April: Italy/Sicily and Japan

In March, the BBD took a trip to Italy for the Italian language. Rob posted a great overview of 20th Century Italian literature, and our group read for the month was The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, suggested by Tinky. Alicia gave the book rave reviews; many of us are still straggling through it, since it's such a long one!

I hosted Japan this month, and I wrote an essay about 20th century Japanese literature, deviating a bit from Rob's usual format. We chose Snow Country by Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari as our group read. The discussion is just getting started as of his posting, so feel free to pop in! It's a short read and promises to be compelling.

17 February 2009

Updates: BBD World Lit for February and the Group Read

This month, the BBD has been focused on French, Belgian, and Algerian literature as our lit destination. Rob kicked it off with a great post about surrealism, and mentioned a few writers to check out: Raymond Queneau, Georges Simenon, Jean Genet, Jules Valles, Guy de Maupassant, and others. Check out the post to get more information about February's world lit!

Also, we've been in the midst of Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola, our group read for the month of February, suggested by Beth C. The discussion is being led by none other than our lovely Alicia; although yours truly has not gotten her hands on a copy just yet, the discussion has already evoked strong responses from our members. Alicia says, "Thérèse Raquin tells the story of a young woman, unhappily married to her first cousin by a well-intentioned and overbearing aunt. Her cousin, Camille, is sickly and selfish, and when the opportunity arises, Thérèse enters into a tragic affair with one of Camille's friends, Laurent.

In his preface, Zola explains that his goal in this novel was to "study temperaments and not characters" and he compares the novel to a scientific study. Because of this detached and scientific approach, Thérèse Raquin is considered an example of Naturalism."

The naturalistic writing approach has stirred up a bit of controversy among our group members--some appreciate it, some despise it! Check out the thread to read more about our group pick this month, and chime in if you've read it!

18 January 2009

Bond is back.

Forgive me for stepping off briefly into the cinematic world; but since Ian Fleming provided the basis for the James Bond films through novels and short stories, I think I will allow myself to digress just this tiny bit.

Two nights ago, my boyfriend and I braved the snow (the streets were mostly clear, so it wasn't really that brave) to go to the dollar theater to see the newer Bond flick, Quantum of Solace. I hadn't seen a Bond movie since Pierce Brosnan portrayed Bond; in truth, I thought Brosnan's Bond flicks were a bit on the overproduced side. I wasn't expecting to see Daniel Craig portray Bond, either; but, boredom and cabin fever had set in and we decided that we could blow four bucks seeing Quantum of Solace.

Although QoS is only nominally a tip to Fleming's existing work (it's not based on the story with which it shares its title), I was pleased and surprised. Different from the schoomzingly suave Bond portrayed in recent years, Craig's Bond is wryly funny, extremely physical, and manages to do well with the ladies without resorting to ridiculous one-liners or catch phrases. In fact, the entire film seemed to deviate from the old Bond schtick; not once did Craig utter "Bond--James Bond" or ask for a martini, "shaken, not stirred."
James Bond seems to be undergoing a metamorphosis as a character, and I think it is about time. He has become more of a real man who happens to have an utterly kick-ass job and less of a knowing wink at the camera.

QoS picks up the plotline that left off from Casino Royale in 2006. The plot from Casino Royale was largely taken from Fleming's novel of the same name, although there were obviously some changes to modernize the events; even though QoS doesn't share a plot with an existing Fleming work, it does thoughtfully explore a plot that Fleming had already put into place, which I appreciate. The difference between the two latest films and the ones preceding it for 10 years is significant.

Much like life, the plotlines for Casino and QoS do not unfold predictably. Even after having watched both films, it's still possible to have questions (at least for me) about what in the hell just happened. Although this sometimes makes for a bad movie, the two more recent Bond films give you plenty of satisfaction, nagging questions aside. Most of the action scenes are well-directed (only two or three in both films were hinting at over-produced), the sex scenes aren't smarmy, and the unbelievable cheek of Daniel Craig as Bond makes you smile. The bad guys die, and Bond lives to fight another day.

All in all, I'd say if you enjoy Fleming's work but haven't enjoyed the recent Bond adaptations, check out Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace before putting Bond to rest permanently. You might be surprised.

17 January 2009

It's not April yet, but . . .

Even though April is the month set for our modern Japanese lit overview, I found a link over at Condemned to Obscurity,a blog that largely appears to be about heavy metal but occasionally dips into other subjects, as well. Sam has written a great overview on a few modern Japanese authors, including Haruki Murakami, Oe, Mishima, and Kowabata. If you're interested in getting your feet wet with some Japanese writing, as many of us have been with Murakami, pop over and check it out! (Also, if you like heavy metal, you might want to check it out, too!)

15 January 2009

Literary Question of the Month - January

A new month brings a new topic to ponder over at the BBD. This month's question asks our members which authors they feel like they should like but don't like; I also asked what authors our members have enjoyed that they thought they wouldn't.

Charles Dickens is resoundingly on the lists; we have people in our group who love Dickens, and people who can't read him at all. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground when it comes to ol' Chuck. Also on the list is Toni Morrison, a woman that has had great fame and success as a writer, but whom many of us can't trudge through. Among other authors some of us just didn't click with were Maugham, Tolkien, and Henry James.

Books we were surprised to like? Being the critics that many readers tend to be, we produced a much shorter list (so far!) on this side. Among our picks were Barbara Kingsolver, John Irving, George Eliot (specifically Middlemarch), and .. well, that was about it, so far. Follow the entirety of the discussion here.

It's only halfway through January, so there's still plenty of time to weigh in! In fact, there's no time limit on any of these, so weigh in whenever!

14 January 2009

Spanish/Latin America month, plus our group read: Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar

This year, the BBD has decided to go all 'round the world to inundate ourselves with literature from other cultures. Picking up well-publicized foreign authors does indeed happen more often than it used to happen, no doubt about that; still, American readers (myself included) can all-too-easily find themselves in an American reading rut from time to time. This year, the BBD is branching out in search of fine literature that even Oprah may not have read. (We are sticking to 20th century works to give this massive undertaking some sort of scope!)

In our Latin American and Spanish discussion, Rob (my BBD partner in crime from the beginning) gave us a brief overview of 20th century literary trends and a few authors we might like to check out other than the famous Gabriel García-Márquez. Among them are Roberto Bolano (Amulet, By Night in Chile, The Savage Detectives), Alvaro Mutis (The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll), and Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose Asleep in the Sun I'm going to give another go in the spirit of Latin American Lit Month. (If I can find it in my boxes.) Note: The book wasn't bad, I think I just picked it up when I was busy, put it down, and never got back to it.

This month, to kick off All Around the World and the new year, our group read is Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. Rob describes his style as being an amalgamation of modernist, surrealist, and nouveau roman. The book is unusual in that it is two books in one book; one can either read it straight through, from chapters 1 - 56, for a linear story; or, one can read it starting from chapter 73 and "hop" around the book as Cortázar instructs at the end of each chapter. I'm reading it the traditional way, but many BBDers are taking great pleasure in playing the game. I find Cortázar to be a bit of an Argentinian Kerouac, employing jazz-inspired stream-of-consciousness riffs; we find the main character bumming around Paris, unemployed, with a female companion called La Maga. The scenes in which he is spending time waxing philosophical with the Serpent Club have been described by one of our members as a weird college party where the honors students and the philosophy majors have gotten drunk and are arguing in front of the bathroom, blocking the hallway. I haven't yet finished it, but all in all it promises to be an interesting read. See the discussion thread here.

Set for February is French Literature--if you have any ideas about 20th century French Lit for the thread, pass them along to Rob!

08 January 2009

What I talk about when I talk about running - by Haruki Murakami

I am not a Murakami fan; in fact, I have hardly read any of his novels to completion before. I started reading "Kafka on the Shore", but promptly gave it up as I realized that the genre was not really up my alley. So why did I decide to purchase a copy of "What I talk about when I talk about running", a memoir by Haruki Murakami?

Because I love to run. No other physical activity that I have tried gives me the kind of joy that I experience right after a long, hard, sweaty, pulse-quickening run. Nothing is simpler to do, more meditative, more solitary, than running. Nothing gives me the sense of achievement as setting a goal for myself - a 5K or a 10K or a 15K run - and actually training for it and completing the distance. I love to run, and that is exactly why I picked up the book "What I talk about when I talk about running".

I finished the book, however, with mixed feelings. As a runner, I appreciated it. I imagine I'll even re-read the book over and over again. I enjoyed the sections where he describes his running lifestyle, his thoughts and the feelings he experiences when he runs. Some of my other favourite sections in the book include his evocative description of Charles river and his runs along its bank. I could see that he was in love with that river. His musings about the surface of the river, how it changes with the seasons, how clouds are reflected on it, how various birds float and people row their boats on it, were thoroughly enjoyable. I have been to Cambridge, MA once and I could see myself running along the river as I read his words.

But this doesn't mean that his writing is stellar. On the contrary, I was very disappointed with it.

Unless an author's writing stuns me utterly, I've always been turned off when he or she waxes poetic about inanimate objects, anthropomorphising them. Murakami is almost obsessed with anthropomorphising clouds and wind and rain and other non-living things. For instance, in page 5, he talks about how a thick cloud moved in during one of his runs, but quickly whisked itself away "as if it had remembered, 'Oh, I've got to do some errands'". A cloud remembering its errands! That was a little too forced and sentimental for my taste.

The book is an undeniable easy read. In fact, it reads like a blog, one not very coherent or thought through. The chronological order is not linear and it is hard to follow his journey as a runner without flipping back a few pages and re-reading some paragraphs every now and then. The narrative, the style and the diction all seem to be pedestrian. There are too many repeated phrases and too many filler words ("sort of", "kind of", "after a fashion" etc.).

Many unoriginal observations presume to be philosophical musings. For instance, in page 121, you'll encounter this sentence that feels wrong on so many levels: "And one of the privileges given to those who've avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old." It seems like a tautology to me, essentially saying that if you don't die young, you grow old. Isn't that obvious? (My husband pointed to me, when I discussed this with him, that indeed both of us are not right: one can avoid dying AND growing old by dying in middle age.)

Not only that, note in the same sentence: "one of the privileges...is the right". Isn't there a difference between privilege and right - the former being conditionally granted and the latter being something one is born with? How can you put those two words together like that and expect the sentence to flow well? Perhaps the author is just trying to be funny, but the sentence makes one do a double-take, at the very least, before one can move past it.

There are other similar sentences that seem to hiccup on the pages: "No matter how much I write, I never reach a conclusion. No matter how much I rewrite, I never reach the destination". I don't see why those sentences are put together like that and to what logical end their pairing tends.

Overall, the book is prosaic, but as a runner, I am sure I'll cherish it and give it a second and a third chance. If you're a non-runner or someone not into endurance activities, however, I'd not recommend this book to you.