The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (4)

The profound differences in human thinking between western languages on the one hand and Vietnamese and Chinese on the other taught me to expand my own ability to think. More important, they enhanced my ability to write. As shades of meaning and nuance became clearer, I learned how to express them in English.

I wrote earlier in this blog about one of my favorite illustrations of how I learned: “One example of Asian language reasoning came to me when I was studying classical Chinese. In the text I was trying to translate were three characters, those for ‘he,’ ‘mountain,’ and ‘treasure.’ I couldn’t figure out what was meant. My teacher reminded me that in Chinese a word can function as any part of speech, and I was approaching that passage as if the second two characters were both nouns. The second of the three, ‘mountain,’ here was used as an action word. What the text meant was “He mountained the treasure,” that is, he piled it up so high it made a mountain.”

The underlying logic of western languages tends toward the mathematical. Various aspects of the past and future are clearly delineated. The distinction between what is true and not true is sharp.

In Asian languages I have studied, stress is less on facticity and more on relationships which define people and things. The difference between past and future is deemphasized and often not expressed. The discrepancy between what is and what is not is less clear. Much of the emphasis, particularly in the classical forms, is on beauty and the poetry inherent in expression.

More tomorrow

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.

The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (2)

Being multilingual isn’t all joy. I am consistently annoyed that we Americans make no effort to learn to pronounce correctly words and names from other languages. Other Americans express wonder at my linguistic ability, universally declaiming that they have no talent for languages. But in most other nations of the world, learning different languages is necessary and considered ordinary. In Switzerland, for example, everyone speaks French, German, and Italian. And in most other countries I’ve visited, knowledge of American English is commonplace. I often get the impression that we Americans consider our language superior, other languages inferior, and fully expect other nationalities to learn English.

Equally annoying, as I age, I tend to confuse the languages I know. Vietnamese and Chinese are somewhat similar in underlying logic and share vocabulary. Too often I reach for a term in one language and come up with the word in the other. Spanish and Italian are closely related languages. With irritating frequency, I mix them up.

And every once in a while, I can’t remember the English word for something, but the equivalent in another language presents itself. And since I’ve trained myself to think in other languages, I occasionally substitute a foreign term for English in conversation. It’s more than annoying. It’s embarrassing.

Finally, as my hearing gets worse, I can’t hear what other speakers are saying. During the fall of Saigon, I suffered ear damage due to the shelling of my office. I’ve worn hearing aids ever since. But now, even with the aids in, I sometimes can’t hear what people are saying. Years ago, I taught myself to read lips. I was chagrined to discover I could do that in English but not in any other language. So these days, I more and more avoid speaking other languages.

More tomorrow.

The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist

I have been a writer since I was six years old. At the same age, I developed a fascination for opera. I discovered that the works that most interested me were not in English. So I set out to learn French and Italian.

At the time it didn’t seem at all odd to me for a child be teaching himself another language. My mother was an alcoholic, my father in prison. I was forced to take care of myself. I quickly learned to become self-reliant. Learning other languages seemed like an ordinary thing to do.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I have a distinct flare for languages. I learn them quickly, and I thoroughly enjoy the process. In high school I had four years of Latin. In college, I studied German, among other things. After I graduated, I enlisted in the army to study Chinese at the Army Language School. The army assigned me to study Vietnamese instead. When I graduated, I was sent to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. I enrolled at Georgetown University in the District of Columbia to study Chinese. By the time my army enlistment was complete, I was comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. NSA hired me and sent to Vietnam for the first time in 1962.

In other words, I became a linguist. I use the term not to mean one who studies the nature of language and how it works, but as one who speaks multiple languages.

After I retired from NSA, it occurred to me that I didn’t know the most commonly spoken foreign language in the U.S., namely Spanish. So I enrolled at the Howard County Community College for Spanish.

These days, as I’m getting older and the brain doesn’t function with the alacrity it once did, and my opportunities to speak the languages I know are fewer, my competence is declining. Vietnamese remains my strongest language. I spoke it constantly for thirteen years. The others are fading.

More tomorrow.

What I Did After Vietnam (2)

Through all my adventures post-Vietnam, I found time to write. I had, after all, been writing stories since I was six years old, and I’d long known my vocation was writing. But I had a wife and four children. Writing doesn’t pay but spying does.

Then, in the early 1990s, I retired as early as I could to write full time. Nearly everything I wrote was about Vietnam. My experience there had changed me permanently. My later exploits were exciting, but my life was never consistently in danger as it had been in Vietnam. Nor was I ever responsible for the survival of others as I was during the fall of Saigon when my it was my job to arrange for the escape of my 43 subordinates and their families. Those experiences left me with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) but also pride knowing I’d willingly put my life on the line for my country and for the well-being of others.

For decades, Vietnam was an unacceptable subject. It was a shameful war. The less said about it, the better. Despite that, I was able to get most of my short stories published, but my novels were consistently rejected. In 2012, I self-published my novel-in-stories, Friendly Casualties, inspired by events during the Vietnam war.

To my surprise, even though it has sold few copies, Friendly Casualties is a critical success. Seven readers gave it a five-star review on Amazon.com. They accurately divined my intent, to portray all participants in the Vietnam war, men and women, Vietnamese and Americans, as casualties.

Apprentice House of Baltimore brought out my novel No-Accounts in 2014. It is the only one of my published books not about Vietnam. The same company published The Trion Syndrome, the story of a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSI, in 2015. The Vietnam freeze was thawing. Then, in 2017, the Naval Institute Press published Last of the Annamese, set during the fall of Saigon. A new generation of readers, unaffected by bias against the “shameful” war in Vietnam, wanted to know what happened during that war.

I sense that I have finally completed the healing process of writing about my darkest days. I now turn my attention to other times in my life. Adelaide Books of New York will bring out my latest novel, Secretocracy, in early 2020. It tells of an intelligence budgeteer under attack by the Trump administration because he refuses to fund an illegal operation. And I’m now hawking a short story collection not about Vietnam called Coming to Terms.

Maybe my long preoccupation with a war that ended more then forty years ago is finally resolved.

What I Did After Vietnam

Readers of this blog periodically ask me why I never write about my career after 1975. The answer is: it’s still classified.

During all my years in Vietnam, I was under cover, but I used my own name. Until 1973, my cover was as an enlisted soldier or Marine. I wore the uniform of the unit I was serving with. The point was to prevent the enemy from knowing they had a spy in their midst.

After 1973, when U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, my cover identity was as a State Department employee. At one point, I even masqueraded as a covert CIA agent. As far as I know, the enemy never discovered that I was an NSA operative.

After 1975, the venue changed. As in Vietnam, I often had assignments under cover, but now it was different. Now I assumed a new identity. I learned what it was like to take on a completely different personality, name, and background. I taught myself to respond to nicknames I’d never had. I carried pictures of a wife and children that weren’t mine. Most often, I had to conceal my education and knowledge of foreign languages. I was supposed to be a blue-collar guy who would be of no interest to the target of my signals intelligence effort.

I can tell one story of an adventure without revealing classified information. I was stationed in a foreign city that I found exotic and beautiful. One day when I was off duty, I decided to go sight-seeing. After strolling for an hour or two, I realized that I didn’t know how to get back to my apartment. I was lost. I wandered for another hour or so trying to find my way but to no avail. The fact that I spoke the language of the country was classified. But no one on the streets spoke English. I finally had to speak the local tongue to ask for directions. It’s easy for foreigners to spot Americans. And there was no question of my nationality. People were genuinely surprised to hear me speaking their language and were more than anxious to help me. They told me where I had to go to find my way home.

The next day, back at the office, I confessed that I had violated security by speaking the language of the country publicly. My boss was more amused than angry. He told me he’d let it go this time, but I should be sure it never happened again.

It never did.

Vietnam Veterans Celebrations

Two celebrations for Vietnam veterans are coming up at the end of the month, both sponsored by the Hospice of the Chesapeake.

The first, at 5:00 p.m. on 29 March, is at the Hilton Baltimore BWI Airport Hotel, 1736 W. Nursery Road, Linthicum, Maryland. The doors will open at 4:00. To register, contact Elyzabeth Marcussen at 443-837-1559 or emarcussen@hospicechesapeake.org

The second is 9:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., 30 March, at Martin’s West. Address: 6817 Dogwood Road, Baltimore, Maryland 21244. Contact WeHonorVeterans@gilchristcares.org or call 443-849-8348

​I’ll be attending both. Hope to see you there.​