Linguistics 101

What a mystery is language.  What a wonderment.  The myriad ways humankind has developed for communicating.  And, the confusion caused when various methods connect, or attempt to connect, and fail.

The best way I’ve found to comprehend many attempts at connection is to teach, no, to try to teach, a new language to children or teenagers.  It causes one to meet language face to face.

Some examples---

“I am an ecologist.”  An English expression which states a profession.  The Russian word sequence is “I ecologist.”  Russian does not uses the verb “to be” in the present tense.  The verb is understood if no other verb is stated.  The surprise comes, to me at least, when I react to having made that statement.  I find myself totally identified with my occupation, my calling.  It is a closeness that surprises me.  I become, by my own statement, an ecologist, 24-7, totally committed, all the way.  (Perhaps I’m more acutely aware of this phenomenon because I know that I am not really an ecologist; I just “play” one in Peace Corps.)  But, I have tried it with some nouns with which I really do identify, such as “I banker,” “I teacher.”  I internalize those statements differently than when I say “I am a banker,” or “I am a teacher.”

On a lighter note there are expressions, when translated directly from Russian, that are comical, even though understood, to an English speaker.  Several times I have been given instructions for traveling across the city by Ukrainians who speak English.  Those instructions have included such statements as:  “Walk to Lenina Street by your house, to the tramway stop.  Sit down on any car.”   I was glad I was speaking to my colleague on the phone, not in person, because when I heard the “sit down on any car” I had to suppress a giggle.  I had a mental picture of me perched atop a streetcar, up among the metal apparatus that connects with the electric line.  Of course, what was meant was simply, “Get on any tram,” or even “Sit down in any car.”  A simple change in verb or preposition gave me a humorous image.

A Russian, tidying up the bedroom, includes “spreading the bed.”  A fellow volunteer friend noted that that expression, when translated into English, is very confusing.  I opined that perhaps it was no more confusing than an English speaker saying to a Russian, in Russian, “We must make the bed.”  Think about it for a moment.  Perhaps the Russian friend would think she was being asked to go to the wood shop and construct the framework on which to place a mattress for sleeping.  Just a thought.

Perhaps my favorite example of different word usage is the one I encountered at the beginning of the school term in January.  I asked my students to write a paragraph describing how they celebrated the New Year holiday, probably the biggest holiday of the year here in Ukraine.  The majority of the students began their statements with, “I met the New Year…”  I asked for an explanation of that phrase and was told that people always say they “meet” the New Year.  It seems, and this is still difficult for me to state clearly, that the Russian/Ukrainian mind sees the New Year, not as a time or even an event, but as an entity.  Something to be encountered, to be greeted.

I like that.  I like that a lot.  I’ve found myself thinking about that concept, how it makes me feel about starting a new year.  Perhaps you’ll find that a concept you’d like to consider, too.

And, I’ve called this message “Linguistics 101.”  Let me state that, just as I’m not an ecologist, I’m also not a linguist, but I find myself fascinated with the study of how we communicate and I’ve chosen to label that, for now at least, as linguistics.

I’ll close with a quote from another volunteer, who said to me recently, “How can I be teaching when I’m learning so much?”  He said it better than I could.


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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.