By Eric Olsen
A few weeks ago the writers’ website Redroom.com invited readers to blog about learning another language, the assumption being, I suppose, that writers are multilingual, or should be.
Certainly there are all sorts of reasons why a writer should know more than one language. Knowledge of another language can provide a writer with exposure to new ideas and ways of looking at the world and talking about it that can only enrich a writer’s own work. And the process of translating a passage from one language to another requires a close sort of reading and attention to intent and meaning that surely will benefit a writer’s own prose or poetry, for writers inclined that way. Or as Goethe put it, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
And of particular interest to writers who are getting on a bit in years is the fact that studies have shown that speaking more than one language, and especially learning a new language later in life, rewires the neural circuitry in the brain and helps delay or prevent the onset of dementia in old age.
Thus I started a response to the Red Room invitation, writing about my own infatuation with very dead languages, but got distracted and missed the deadline. I wish I could say I was busy learning another dead language, but in fact I was busy obsessing about the upcoming election, spending a rather unhealthy number of my waking hours surveying the presidential polls.
But now that Obama has won—quelle joie —I figured I’d turn back to my original post and give myself my own deadline, one I can meet this time, and in fact now that I’ve started thinking again about the topic, it occurs to me that one of the many beefs I have with Mitt is that he speaks French, and apparently fluently.
But don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against French. Some of my best friends are fluent French speakers, including Glenn Schaeffer, who wrote the first chapter of We Wanted to Be Writers. He’s even read Foucault and Derrida in the original! (Though I guess it should also be noted that this particular experience led directly to his abandoning his graduate studies in English to pursue an MFA in fiction writing.)
No, my beef with Mitt is how he learned his French. My beef with Mitt is that he spent nearly three years dodging military service while gallivanting around France trying to convince les Francais, en francaise, to become Mormons, while tens of thousands of other young men of his generation (of my generation, too) were risking their lives in service to their country. My beef with Mitt is the narrative.
Whenever I go into the home or office of someone who reads, I always find myself checking out the books on their shelves, or stacked on the floor or piled on the end tables. I like to think a person’s books reveal something about that person, and I’ll admit it, I’m nosy. But then what writer isn’t? Indeed, a writer should be nosy. (Thus I like to keep lots of “serious” literature on the living room shelves, where guests can see it and be impressed, and all of my cheap murder mysteries tucked away in the bedroom). Likewise second languages can be revealing. They have stories to tell. How they were learned, and why, and where?
And of course for writers, a second language can be material; a second language can inspire stories, and good ones, even dead second languages. Maybe especially dead ones.
Consider Jane Smiley’s Greenlanders, for example. This fine novel developed out of her interest in dead languages, first Latin. “My mom married a Catholic when I was 11,” Jane told me. “We went to Mass, which was then in Latin. So when we had to take a language starting in 8th grade, I chose Latin, and took it for five years. This got me interested in the origins of English, so I took Old and Middle English in college.”
Then in graduate school, naturellement, it was on to Old Norse. “Old Norse had the biggest body of secular literature from the Medieval period,” Jane says, “so the sagas sort of married my interest in the novel and the Medieval world. I had read the Saga of Eric the Red, about Newfoundland and also the Saga of the Greenlanders by the time I went to Iceland….”
And about that same time, I was up to my eyebrows in Attic Greek, another dead language. I wish I could say I’d enrolled in my first class in Attic Greek for lofty reasons, out of, say, an interest in the origins of the English language, but the fact is I enrolled for rather petty reasons.
When I started college, we were required to take two years of a foreign language, unless we were proficient enough to “test out” by taking a placement exam. I’d taken German in high school, but apparently not enough. I blew the exam, and thus I ended up facing the prospect of still more German. Worse, that meant the dread Language Lab. This was at U.C. Berkeley, where they made all language students — students of living languages, I should say — sit for endless hours with their heads clamped between gigantic head phones, listening to scratchy recordings of happy-sounding young Spaniards or Frenchmen or Germans in my case saying, in der deutschen, things like “Hello, my name is Hans! What’s your name?” and “Is this your first trip to Germany?” and so on and so forth. Quelle horreur!
I remember standing in line at the dormitory cafeteria later the day I’d discovered the horrors of language lab, sharing my despair with a skinny kid standing ahead of me. He suggested I take a dead language, instead. “Dead languages are dead,” he explained, “ergo, no language labs.” He was taking Latin.
I picked Attic Greek, the language of Athens in its heyday, of Plato and Aristotle and Herodotus and Sophocles. Greek had a weird alphabet; I liked the looks of it on a page. It turns out that these classes were the only classes that I actually liked during my two rather undistinguished years at Berkeley, before I dropped out to be a long-haired hippie anarchist anti-war activist, but one who could read a little Plato and Herodotus in the original….
Later, when I returned to college and had to declare a major, I asked my advisor where I had the most credits. What major would get me out with the least grief? He considered my transcripts and did a little addition and announced it was Attic Greek — quelle surprise! And so it was still more Greek, and I’ve never regretted it. Sure, it’s useless on a day-to-day basis, but a lot of my early fiction played with mythology in sometimes less than successful ways, but it was fun writing those stories and I have the Greek to thank for that. Along the way, I also dabbled in Old English and even a bit of Sanskrit, a couple other dead ones.
And now it’s on to Tocharian, a little research for a novel-in-progress. Tocharian is a particularly dead dead language, having left behind only a few fragments of the written language, mostly translations of Buddhist texts and trading documents. Tocharian is an Indo-European language, like Greek, Latin, and our own English. It was spoken in regions of what is now western China by a people who apparently had migrated east out of the Caucasus region thousands of years ago. A lot of them had blond or red hair and very cool tattoos, and apparently liked to do deals all along the Silk Road, when they weren’t making war. Archeologists suggest they might have been proto-Celts. Their language disappeared completely about a thousand years ago, absorbed into the surrounding languages. But one can still hear its faint echoes even in English.
I suppose we should give Mitt some credit, however grudgingly, for at least learning another language. Dubya could barely string together two English sentences that made much sense, so it’s hard to imagine him learning another language, but according to a list of multilingual presidents on Wikipedia, Dubya could speak Spanish, though without fluency. Obama has said that he regrets he doesn’t speak another language — as well he should — but he apparently did learn at least some Indonesian while living in Indonesia as a child. Give him credit for that, huh? Herbert Hoover, by the way, apparently was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, of all things, according to the Wikipedia article. As a young man, he was a mining engineer in China.
Wikipedia’s list reveals a disturbing pattern: Most of our first presidents spoke several languages each, including Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and German, as well as Polish (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and several others), and Dutch (John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, for whom Dutch was his first language).
By the time we get to the middle of the 20th century, though, our presidents have become distinctly monolingual, but for a little high-school Spanish or French or German in some cases. During the Cold War, apparently none of them bothered to learn Russian, though a familiarity with the language might have given them some useful insights into a rival world power. And Ronald Reagan wasn’t satisfied with merely not knowing Russian, though. He had to extend lack of knowledge into the realm of outright stupidity, declaring that the Russian language had no word for “freedom.” It’s svoboda, by the way.
Of course, presidents have people to learn languages for them. Writers don’t. Which may be a good thing. “The limits of my language,” said Ludwig Wittgenstein, “are the limits of my world.”