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Street Mural in Valparaiso, Chile

I’ve never thought of myself as appearing ethnically ambiguous until I saw how confidently South Americans assumed I spoke Spanish.  Frankly, South Americans were more confident addressing me in Spanish than North Americans are addressing me in English.  It was like I’d returned to my motherland.  If a Caucasian friend of mine asked a question in Spanish (fluently), nine times out of ten the response would end up directed at me, and I’d act obnoxiously smug about it.

You might think this helped me master the Spanish language.  But apart from quickly forgetting most of my English (which I’m told is the first, vital step), I never really progressed.  It was easier to just lie about how long I’d been living on the continent.

Linguistics has to be one of the most universally intriguing fields, and reading up on its rudiments lately prompted me to critically examine (read: shamelessly justify) this mental block.  Don’t get me wrong – I wish I had learned Spanish, and I doubtlessly missed out on more cultural richness than I can possibly grasp.  But considering that I mostly travelled by myself, on the lowest of budgets, in places where people rarely spoke a word of English, how could my ignorance of the language be so persistent? What the hell did I do?

Wittgenstein examined the uses of language through a construct termed “language games,” which show how people are trained to react in certain ways to the words of others.  For example, in a simple language game, a leader on a building site says the word “beam” and the worker knows to go and get the beam.  The word “beam” does not just label the object; it makes something happen.

This seems obvious but it makes a fine point – it shifts the focus of “language” from labeling and vocabulary to communication and utility.  Likewise, in the acquisition of language by infants, as informally described by David Carkeet, they must first learn to communicate without vocabulary before learning to communicate with it.

Vocabulary, it turns out, plays an entirely inferior role.  Truffaut’s film “The Wild Child” closely follows the true story of the French Dr. Itard’s frustrating attempt to socialize a young boy, Victor, who has grown up in solitude in a forest, unable to speak or understand any language.  Nothing makes Victor happier than drinking milk, and at one point in the film Dr. Itard refuses to pour him some till he asks for it by name, eventually bellowing, “Lait!! LAIT!!!” at the cowering child.  But Victor remains silent.  Defeated, the doctor hands him a glass of milk.  In the tense quiet afterwards, Victor drinks from the glass and feebly utters “Lait.” The doctor’s voice-over is etched with disappointment.  Had Victor said “Lait” before receiving the milk, he would have been using a word to express a desire and bring about an action. He would have been deliberately employing language. Saying “Lait” after receiving the milk, however, as a mere expression of his pleasure, was useless.

The doctor’s pessimism was apt: “Lait” was the only word the “wild boy of Aveyron” ever learned. It had mattered not that Victor knew that there is a correct label for milk (he could memorize vocabulary); he needed to understand that using words could procure it for him (or effectively communicate).  Vocabulary and communication can thus be wholly distinguished.

Common examples of this abound. Many people are linguistic virtuosos on paper or in classrooms, but comically incapable of communicating their emotions or desires in “real life.” Tourists are especially notorious. Spanish fluency or not, if you can’t kick your American accent, don’t ask for the price of something by saying “Esculpe senor, quanto questa?” You will be cheated. Obscenely. You might be practicing your vocabulary, but you aren’t effectively communicating your desires (to hear the fair price). Better to just grunt with an upward intonation while holding the object.

It’s interesting how vocabulary can thus distract, or prevent, us from communicating.  For example, when asking for directions in our native tongue, we often barely catch the hasty instructions before reflexively offering thanks, and only five minutes later realize we cannot fathom what we were told (though we recognized the words as we heard them).  But in crowded South American bus terminals, when you hand your ticket to a random employee and babble unintelligibly (though sweetly!) in English, he realizes he can’t blow you off, resigns himself to being your baby-sitter, and walks you to exactly where you need to go. I suppose this is why I couldn’t learn Spanish. My desire to communicate effectively, to get where I needed to go, overrode my memory recall every time.

But apart from this purely utilitarian aspect, could I make friends with people? Communicate socially? All the time. I cannot count how many hours of conversations I had with people who spoke hardly a word of English, while I spoke hardly a word of Spanish.  As it turns out, you don’t need much shared vocabulary to get along with someone. In his Aphorism 42, Wittgenstein describes how, in a primitive language of only a few words, A can give B a name that has never otherwise been used for something, and one can imagine that as a joke between them.

Wittgenstein was clearly a hilarious guy, and I observed the application of his principle – that one only needs two words to make a joke –  first hand. I was eating chips on the beach at La Isla Negra, Chile with a young Argentinian man who only spoke three words of English, but we liked each other all the same.  He proudly pointed to the chips and said, “Potato.”  “NO, not ‘potato,’” I said with exaggerated reproach, “it’s ‘CHIPS,’ you moron!” He knew to respond with feigned repent. When another friend came up to us, he picked up the bag and, grinning at me, offered him, “Potato?”  We both fell out laughing.

Okay, so you had to be there, etc., etc., but his joke was hilarious to us, because we liked each other, almost right away.  We got the impression that if we actually could comprehend each other’s jokes, we would be laughing at them. So we just laughed at what the other said anyways.

Is this always the case – that we just like who we like, and it rarely has to do with what they say or any particular words they use? Is it just the nature of their vibe, and the overall confidence and good-humor they project? If vocabulary can have little communicative utility (it can’t get you what you want) perhaps it likewise has just as little social utility (it can’t make people like you). “Cultural richness” aside, is there much point to it at all?


5 responses

  1. papey

    i laughed at the joke!

    May 26, 2010 at 8:04 pm

  2. I stumbled on this post after you started following me on Twitter (oh our interlinked technological creative lives) and was very, very pleased that I did. I followed your humor and lively intelligence through your ethnic ambiguity (me too), Wittgenstein, and lait with great pleasure. Thanks for that.

    May 26, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    • ujalasehgal

      Caroline, what a lovely thing to say! I must confess I’m new to Twitter (and still not quite sure I understand it) but it did lead me to your blog…

      May 27, 2010 at 1:19 pm

  3. Jordan Hauer

    Very insightful and totally true. You cn still have relationships without the use of much language. However, my argument is that a relationship can only go so deep when not being able to express feelings. Do you think you could have a semi-serious romantic relationship when both sides do not share a deep understanding of a common language? Even though it happens, it is rare, and I’m not sure I’d be interested in trying it.

    Also, just to nitpick, were you trying to write “Cuanto cuesta”? I believe q’s are used in Portuguese.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:19 pm

  4. Ujala Sehgal

    You’re right that there’s something idealized about my argument in the context of romantic relationships (as coincidentally I’ve been coming to realize myself lately!) Above I’m more or less suggesting that language has nothing to do with whether two people “vibe” (which may be right) but that will only take you so far and is only interesting up to a point. It’s sort of a corollary to when people (like myself) claim that in successful love affairs, everything just *flows*. Reassuring, but not right either.

    I’m pretty sure the Argentine Spanish spelling is q and not c for quanto if not q(c)uesta but that’ll be Rachel’s call. And thanks for commenting Mr. Hauer! We’d like to hear more from you here at Seductive Banter.

    July 25, 2012 at 11:34 am

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