The Unknown Language

The Unknown Language

“The dream: to know a foreign (alien) language and yet not to understand it: to perceive the difference in it without that difference ever being recuperated by the superficial sociality of discourse, communication or vulgarity; to know, positively refracted in a new language, the impossibilities of our own; to learn the systematics of the inconceivable; to undo our own “reality” under the effect of other formulations, other syntaxes; to discover certain unsuspected positions of the subject in utterance, to displace the subject’s topology; in a word, to descend into the untranslatable, to experience its shock without ever muffling it, until everything Occidental in us totters and the rights of the “father tongue” vacillate – the tongue which comes to us from our fathers and which makes us, in our turn, fathers and proprietors of a culture which, precisely, history transforms into “nature”.”

Roland Barthes, Empire of the signs, pg 6.

I came across a copy of Barthes’ Empire of the Signs lying about in the house which George had picked up from the nearby charity shop; the portion above was what convinced me to read the rest of it. Although mainly described as an colourful account of Barthes’ attempts to read “Japan” or what “being japanese” entails whilst not knowing how to speak Japanese, what Barthes describes seems applicable to so many other encounters with foreign languages. I find that this passage accurately articulates my motivations for (so far abortively) learning new languages (including that of Chinese). Although Chinese is technically my “mother tongue” and it was compulsory to study it for 12 years of our education, due to an apparent lack of use over the years, today I do not know Chinese grammatical rules except by the vaguest of internal intuition and I rely on a dictionary to furnish me with the names of even the most basic of household items. However with whatever vestigial characters I can recall or pick up along the way, I do delight in the occasional epiphany of the combined significance of Chinese radicals/characters and what I take away from that in understanding the same word in English. I think that most recently, in a rather similar way, George has been trying to learn Chinese characters by decomposing them into radicals and trying to make sense of what these combinations mean.

Which reminds me of a show I really like, the Japanese anime “Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei” (さよなら絶望先生 / So Long Mr Despair). I rarely watch anime but the premise of the first episode was compelling enough – it plays on the notion of kanji characters being easily decomposed into their radical parts or recomposed into characters which have different sounds and meanings. The titular Zetsubou Sensei or Mr Despair (絶望先生) has a family name 糸色 which when written horizontally (instead of vertically as chinese/japanese/korean script is commonly written) looks a lot like the word 絶 – which is the same as the Chinese character 绝 (jue), which for me means something broken, lost, ended, beyond or going right past the end of no return… 絶望 is thus to lose all hope, and despite his constant rejection and resistance against being called this name, obviously his name spells out his personality in the show…

From “Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei”
To go back to the excitement of discovering there are different shades of meaning in languages – basically what I mean is that for me my interest is in learning the foreign word in order to understand how it is similar or dissimilar to the same word in another language; all whilst recognising that difference without absorbing its values and ideals into one’s own. On one hand I suppose it is a way to excuse oneself for being a little too lazy or fixed in one’s ways to master and internalize a whole other language, but then again, perhaps this is all I really want out of the second (or third, or fourth) language experience – not to speak it but just to be able to produce a theoretical construct of a foreign language/logic?

And in a way it is not just foreign languages which are of interest to me but also alternative forms. I like to think I want the same from maps or data. Like for example, in Moretti’s Abstract Models for Literary History, he posits an experiment in which text is quantified as data points, from which models of literary forms can be drawn, such as in the style of “graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary theory” – which looks really interesting in that it “challenges existing interpretations, and asks for a theory”, which in the end is also a problem in itself…

“I had found a problem for which I had absolutely no solution. And problems without a solution are exactly what we need in a field like ours, where we are used to asking only those questions for which we already have an answer. ‘I have noticed,’ says Brecht’s Herr Keuner, ‘that we put many people off our teaching because we have an answer to everything. Could we not, in the interest of propaganda, draw up a list of the questions that appear to us completely unsolved?’

Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, pg 26