I Meant …

I’ve been holding on to these bits of information for two years. Time to put them together and let them go.

Language has this fascinating ability to confound us as much as it can clarify. Daniel Krieger wrote an end paper (no longer the name) in the NYTimes in 2008 about Japanese friends (female) who asked him if he had gained weight. He denied it and kept denying it, then he polled his all-female class. They all said yes. He finally asked a male friend who assured him that the women attributed his weight gain to a new girlfriend. No negative mid-life bulge for the Japanese, apparently.

This misunderstanding got me thinking about how we can be totally proficient in another language and still not comprehend the culture.

Time, modern transportation, and modern communications keep eroding differences, yet we still seem to have times when we might as well be from different planets. I remember going into an elegant French restaurant somewhere in the eastern part of the country, Nantua, I think. There was a woman seated at a table and her dining companion, seated in the chair opposite, was a fluffy little dog. I wanted to leave but my dining companion assured me that this arrangement was perfectly acceptable in these environs. I gagged and managed to choke down something or other. When in Rome …

That episode didn’t involve language, but Will Self made me aware of the linguistic layer in an otherwise funny NYTimes op-ed about a trip through southern France. “If I’d journeyed from where I was staying, Lacoste, the ancestral seat of the Marquis de Sade, to Mont Ventoux 230 years earlier, I would’ve passed not only through pays with distinct administrative systems, but also their own dialects. In 80 kilometers I would’ve gone from places where Comtadin — one local dialect of Provençal — was spoken, to those where Aptois could be absorbed; and on the flanks of Ventoux itself I would’ve heard pre-Alpine Gavot dialects chattering through the woods; suitable, really, given that the mountain is an outlier of the mighty range.”

The rest of the piece has to do with the appalling state of hiking clothing as contrasted with the beautiful surroundings (until he got to Mount Ventoux itself).

But I guess we really are still divided by language and custom.


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