I’ve been wondering of late about the nature of language and our constant desire to make it a static thing that doesn’t move or change or evolve. The longer I speak, the more I write, the more I immerse myself in language–the more I realize it is a slippery fish, perhaps not meant to be caught.
Most recently, I’ve become fascinated with my girlfriend’s changing method of speaking as she spends more and more time in China. Rather quickly (within two months’ time), her language has begun to flip-flop. She will place predicate before subject, etc.
“At the very least I hope you are impressed at how syntax is a Darwinian ‘organ of extreme perfection and complication.’ Syntax is complex, but the complexity is there for a reason. For our thoughts are surely even more complex, and we are limited by a mouth that can pronounce a single word at a time. Science has begun to crack the beautifully designed code that our brains use to convey complex thoughts as words and their orderings.” (p. 116, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker)
To continue the metaphor of the fish, her syntax goes back and forth through “the water” of a day depending on how she needs to communicate during that space and time. Much like the fins of a fish change and undulate depending on where the fish needs to go and how the water is behaving around it.
While this is humorous to me, without any context for its occurrence, it is beautiful evidence of her “swimming” with language. I am only observing the trails she’s leaving behind and smiling. A photograph would capture it as a blur.
This does not mean that she is devolving, or that she is losing her English. It means she is gaining a new form of grammar that she previously did not have. She is constantly immersed in Chinese, but also its hundreds of dialects and accents –not to mention the hundreds of misinterpreted and amalgamated forms of English we ourselves are privy to every day. (Twitter. #thenewgrammar.) For her and for those in her situation, these strangers in a strange land, I nod my head. She is fearless in her enthusiasm and insatiable curiosity.
However, within the framework of Chinese society, these strange versions of our language are not ‘incorrect’ though striking. Our language has changed in China, but that does not make it poor grammar, or even ‘incorrect,’ if such a thing is possible. While I am not sure I have ever attended a
“Dinner tasting the Pingyao”
or that the dinner only (or that you can ‘taste’ a city)
or what it must have felt like (or how a main course of granola bars looks)
“swim two hundred years ago, Wall Street”
or how that fish swam towards the (have you met my friend, Wall Street)
“– the Ming and Qing Dynasties ancient street.”
I am sure that a snack at dinner sounds a little too light, but if I was a hobbit?Needing 14 meals a day, I might enjoy both the main course and a snack at dinner. Never forget your audience, no matter their stature.
I am sure that I would love to travel back in time just to swim, but I suffer a unique and chronic water addiction.
I’m not sure I’d like to swim on Wall Street, but I am sure there used to be a Wall there and I’m pretty sure it used to keep the flood of English colonial rats away from the civilization of New Amsterdam several hundred years ago–a drop in the bucket as far as the Chinese are concerned. But I thought Wall Street was only New York City?
For certain, language is a changing, amoebic thing. We, as a specie would do well to remember this an asset. Instead of hanging on to old paradigms that call for order out of chaos (and yet still that pesky chaos rears its ugly head), we might want to observe and experience the world as is. Hanging prepositions and all.
The fish keep swimming all around us, despite our attempts at phylogeny. Will we keep trying to order them, or we will learn to swim?