Much of my life has been spent in studying and working in languages. I was born with a natural flare for foreign tongues, and before I was through, I had worked my way through seven of them. As a child, I taught myself French and Italian. As I have noted before in this blog, I was neglected as a child and had to depend on myself for basic needs. So I saw nothing unusual in my teaching myself languages just as I taught myself how to read music and how to play the piano. I had four years of Latin in high school, studied German (among other things) in college, learned Vietnamese at the Army Language School while I was in the army, and later took Chinese and Spanish at Georgetown and Howard County Community College, respectively.
As an adult, I traveled widely all around the globe. I’ve written at length here about my thirteen years in Vietnam, but after the fall of Saigon in 1975, I journeyed elsewhere. Where I went and what I did is still classified. Maybe someday I’ll be able to tell you about it.
What I discovered in my studies and travels, among other things, was that the characteristics of a language reflect the attributes of the people who use it.
When, after learning French, Italian, Latin, and German, I delved into Asian languages, namely Vietnamese and Chinese, I discovered an entirely different way of thinking, as alien to western reasoning as the Chinese writing system is to English lettering. All the words in Vietnamese and Chinese are monosyllabic, but you can form compounds of more than one word to express complex ideas. Both languages use tones on their monosyllables—six in Vietnamese, four in Chinese Mandarin (the dialect I learned), and six in Cantonese. The same syllable with a different tone has a completely different meaning. For example, the sound ma in Vietnamese can mean ghost, cheek, but, grave, plumage, or rice seedling depending on which tone is applied to it.
But that’s not all. If a word in Vietnamese is derived from Chinese, it is “restricted,” that is, only used in compounds with other words that originate in Chinese. And its meaning has no relationship at all to the meaning of an identical word of purely Vietnamese origin.
More next time.