Thursday, January 18, 2007

First Tamil class of the new semester last night and, naturally enough, after 5 weeks off it was as though everything I'd already learned had quietly erased itself. My mind was a perfect blank (good place to be - sans panic - for meditation, but not so good for class). In the end it all worked out.

I learned a few new linguistic oddities: there is no equivalent for "happy" pongal, instead one wishes "sweet" pongal. This reminds me of the fact that in Afrikaans there is no "happy birthday," instead one wishes "much luck on your birthday." I wonder when "happy" entered the English lexicon as a catch-all phrase for well-wishing?

When I last mused on linguistic turns of phrase, I mentioned that "sawubona" (hello) in Zulu, in fact literally means "I see you" and how I enjoyed the sense of community fostered in the language itself. My mother sent a wonderful reminder of the further complexities of greeting in Zulu which is worth quoting here:
Of course, as you know, the "sa" in sawubona is plural, implying not only the speaker her/himself but also his family including the ancestors - all of us see you. And it's ok to say sanibona (plural) even if you're speaking to one person because s/he brings with her/him the whole family. So the sense of community is embedded in the language.
Isn't that fascinating? Of course, at this point in my own studies my accent is so appalling that it is enough of a challenge just to get folks to decipher what I'm saying, never mind linguistic complexities! I keep saying "feet" and "material" instead of "lesson" - they are the same word, but different stresses/punctuation!


Blogger The Traveller said...

Pronounciation can be evil! Mandarin has four tones, so every syllable (word) has four or more different meanings depending on how you pronounce it. I have had some fun before trying to explain something to a Chinese speaker and they couldn't understand what I was on about...fortunately I am a bit better now! Good luck with the Tamil studies, it sounds fascinating!

9:24 pm  
Blogger equiano said...

Traveller - while I enjoy the challenge of new languages, Mandarin sounds incredibly complicated! You'd probably breeze through Tamil after that, should you ever decide to take it up!

9:41 am  
Blogger Pete said...

Hey, nice post on how culture is embedded in language (and equally visa versa). Good stuff.

WRT Mandarin, it's interesting how there is so much culture external to the spoken language. The common understandings about social hierarchy eliminate the equivalent of "please". Please is simply not necessary as speakers show respect and deference in other ways (although my Chinese knowledge is so limited that I don't know how to do that... except that traditionally, compliments to your person should be flatly rejected, not accepted).

Also on Mandarin, if you have an ear for subtle difference, once the 4 tones are internalised, Mandarin is not nearly as impossible as it looks from a distance. It's my opinion that people who grew up singing, particularly in foreign languages (regardless of comprehension), have a definite head start in languages, particularly tonal ones. So, if you can't get your kids learning languages, at least get them singing.

4:46 am  
Blogger equiano said...

Welcome Pete! What fascinating observations about Mandarin! Zulu also has no word for please, it is assumed in the dererence of the request and body language. I find languages so interesting, and I like what you have to say about singing. Since so much of speaking a language correctly is about rhythm and intonation, I can see there is something in that.

8:10 am  

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