The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (3)

So much for the woes. The joys greatly outweigh them.

One pleasure is understanding the roots and sources of English words. First of all, English and German are closely related, particularly in structure and grammar. So often I see the implications of an English expression by knowing its German equivalent. The same is true with French which has influenced English far more than generally understood.

A second pleasure is insight into the incomparable richness of English. It is far and away the most variegated language I know. In structure and vocabulary it is endlessly nuanced. Compare the slight difference in implication between “Now I can go” and “I can go now.” Because I am a writer, I am deeply grateful for the luxuriance of English.

But the greatest joy in knowing multiple languages is the inherent understanding of human thinking they impart. When I studied French and Italian as a child, I was struck by the linguistic logic that underpinned them. When I got to German, I found a very different way of thinking.

The biggest surprise came with Asian languages. Vietnamese and Chinese lack the standard features of western languages. They have no conjugations or declensions. Any word can, in principle, act as any part of speech. Word order and context are paramount.

In Vietnamese, the grammatical first, second, and third persons don’t exist. In the place of pronouns, the Vietnamese use a variety of words that purvey the relationship between the speaker, those spoken to, and others. In formal language, tôi (slave) is used for the first person, “I,” and ông, , or (literally, grandfather, grandmother, and aunt) stand for the second person, “you,” depending on whether the person addressed is a man, a married woman, or an unmarried woman. At the less formal level, the variety is endless.

Both Chinese and Vietnamese depend on tones, that is, verbal inflection, to convey meaning. Vietnamese has six tones; various dialects of Chinese have four to seven tones. The best demonstration of a tone that I know of in English is to compare “Are you going home?” with “I’m going home.” “Home” in the first sentence has the equivalent of a rising tone. “Home” in the second sentence has a falling tone.

More tomorrow.

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