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A moment in time - language and jargon

“I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense to me.”

Matt Groening

It's a while since I've done one of my 'moment in time' posts in which I take one of the photos I have used to illustrate the website pages, and extemporise on that. So here we go.

This photograph was taken in 2010 on the second trip we made to Italy. It's not that great a photo, - a mere snapshot taken by David - but I included it because it shows me emerging from a restaurant in Rome, looking very pleased with myself because I had just booked a table for the evening in Italian. Which is actually a bit pathetic, because by then I had been learning Italian for four years - admittedly only one lesson a week - but still. I don't think I had, at that stage ever really had a conversation - if you can call it that - by myself - in Italian with an actual Italian person. I'm afraid at the hotel I had lapsed into English because the hotel staff were so good at it. Booking a table is pretty easy too so I guess it says more about my timidity than my actual language skill, that I should be so pleased with the results. An insignificant photograph that nevertheless marks a significant, somewhat pathetically significant, moment in my life. Alas I don't remember the meal being especially wonderful but that's besides the point really. The photograph marks a milestone. By the time I got to my last visit to Italy in 2018 I was actually able to have simple but real conversations with patient Italians - particularly I remember Stefano - the man who managed our beautiful rental house in Abruzzo.

I learnt Italian because we were going, at last, to Italy, on holiday. My years of travelling France, and also in various South-east Asian countries had convinced me that if you really want to understand a country's culture and make contact with its people then you have to learn the language. I always felt a complete outsider in those South-east Asian countries because I understood not a word of their languages - well I tried to at least to learn the basic 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please', 'thank you' but that doesn't get you very far. I was also not very good at that either, because the words bore no relationship to any of the words of my own language and so were much harder to remember. I did not understand the language and therefore I did not understand the people, or how to behave. Which left me feeling uncomfortable, and an intruder in their culture.

"as any teacher or student of languages knows, to understand a foreign language is to understand those who speak it; and further, to understand the way they look at and understand your country. It loosens up the imagination." Julian Barnes - The Man in the Red Coat.

The English speaking peoples of the world are notoriously bad at this because theirs is the dominant international language - a consequence of the earlier dominance of the British Empire. The Romans must have felt the same about Latin, so eventually maybe Chinese or Spanish will become the dominant language. In the meantime though, because English is one's native language and because you can almost always find somebody who speaks English almost wherever you are in the world, English speakers are increasingly reluctant to learn a new language. I notice for example that in my granddaughter's high school, it is not compulsory to learn a language, and if you do want to they just supervise language courses that are offered online. Very, very sad. As Julian Barnes says:

"we are now understanding others less well, while they continue to understand us better."

Which is really not a good thing. I do think it is true that you understand a people as a nation more if you speak their language, and it's more likely that they respond more fully to you than if you don't.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela

One of my friends, who has holidayed with us in France, maintains that I become a different person when I speak French. Which is oddly flattering. I don't think I have reached that level with Italian. But learning Italian has undoubtedly been good for my brain. All old people should learn a new language.

The way a language is constructed and the words that it has in its vocabulary, all point to differences in culture and ways of defining the world you live in. There's the famous example of how many words there are for snow in the language spoken in Greenland, for example. Also the number of words in a language - although this is notoriously difficult to calculate. Just going on dictionary numbers English is well up there with one of the largest vocabularies 171,146 current words, although well behind Korean which has over 1 million, and, curiously, Italian which has 260,000. French has fewer - 130,000 and I confess I had thought it was even less. It goes with their intellectual precision I think. It's probably a little extreme to say:

“when a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it, a way of looking at the world. ” Steiner G

But then again maybe not.

Then there's that statement at the top of the page about not understanding one's own language. partly this is due to the evolution of language - always from the bottom up - and it is evolving at an increasing rate these days. Texting and messaging have radically altered the way that words are spelt, redefined, and actually invented. The French try to resist this with their Académie Française rule making body refusing to admit the existence of words such as 'le weekend'. All to no avail of course. The lower classes win out where language is concerned and always has done. This year's slang words for all sorts of things, such as meaning wonderful or great, are not next year's. Indeed I do not know what today's buzz word for 'great' is. I remember my sons using 'bulk' in this context, but I'm sure that has long gone.

“For last year's words belong to last year's language

And next year's words await another voice.”

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Old English is like an actual foreign language, and Middle English is very difficult to understand. We no longer write like the Victorians, or even the writers of the early twentieth century. If you read something from then, without even knowing who wrote the words you would understand that they were written long ago.

And then there's jargon. I remember in my early married days, going to parties populated by the people my husband - who worked in the computer industry - worked with, listening to jokes at which everybody laughed hilariously whilst I did not understand it at all. Most of the words I sort of knew, but lots of them I did not, and when put together the whole meant nothing. Every single sector of society has its own jargon, be it a work related thing, a social thing or a regional thing. I mean dialects are sometimes next to impossible to understand. I remember sitting in a bus in Newcastle in England, with my then small children, and them asking me what language they were all speaking.

Which finally brings me to cooking and food - well jargon does. At first glance food doesn't have much of a jargon. But indeed it does, from the very simple and basic - e.g. fold in the egg whites - what does that mean to a child? to the technicalities like the Maillard reaction and many others that I just do not know. I suppose some jargon is necessary to explain things that are specific to a particular field, or group, but some, perhaps unconsciously, are meant to exclude, to give credence, validation, and a superior feeling to who we are.

So actually managing to communicate with the other - like booking a table in a restaurant in Italian, can make you feel good about yourself and give you enormous satisfaction.

Sorry I meant to be cleverer. But instead I have, as usual rambled. Ambition always exceeds reality. And not really much to do with food either.

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary


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