Languages 3/31/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Working at a private institution, it was common to have required services periodically throughout the year. Not on a regular basis, but when the students returned and graduation, just two or three times a year. While it was a religious institution, it was also inviting and respectful of other faiths. I’ve never had a problem with requiring students learning of the beliefs of the founding faith in private colleges; that’s just part of the agreement to attend that institution so long as they are respectful of other faiths as this college was (and still is I’m assuming). They weren’t trying to convert anybody (as far as I could tell), just teaching their beliefs and that’s okay.

At one of these services, there were three rather beautiful young women standing at the front. As the chorus sang a song, they signed the words to the song. Usually sign interpreters have to work so fast to keep up with the speaker that much of the beauty of the language is lost, but with the slow song it was like watching a dance. It’s actually quite a beautiful thing to watch.

Languages are such a fascinating societal development, and not restricted to humans. Birds and whales actually sing very specific songs, both of which seems to begin with a sound that identifies the singer, kind of like a name. Like humans, these languages are learned. In an experiment, cruel and evil scientists played bird songs for baby birds backwards, and the birds learned the songs in reverse. Even dogs have their own language, which becomes clear when two dogs are playing. Their interaction begins with a form of introduction to each other, then a “bow” indicating “let’s play”. Despite the showing of their teeth and play biting, the hopping, falling in the prone position and other actions are how they display that they are still playing.

Human languages are so fascinating, and such an interesting affectation in that it can both draw us together and keep us apart. English is highly utilitarian in nature. Borrowing phrases and words from languages around the world, it is highly flexible and very expressive. It is becoming a type of universal language as it is often learned by many nations and is probably spoken, either as a primary or secondary language, by more people today than any other language.

Romance languages such as French tend to be much more lyrical in nature, flowing and beautiful to hear which brings up another interesting point. Some languages are very difficult for us as humans to speak after a certain age. There are inflections and tonalities that we learn as children and practice. Much like bones that become less flexible as we grow, these sounds become difficult to learn after a certain age. Even our own ears acclimate to sounds. Western music has seven basic notes (A through G), whereas other nationalities (and I believe Chinese language is one) have ten. To western ears, this just sounds very unusual because of this basic difference.

German is a fascinating language. Almost the opposite of a romance language, it’s very no-nonsense almost to the point of being brutal. I’ve often chuckled at the thought of a romantic evening, wherein he has made a beautiful dinner for that special someone, with candles and clothe napkins, and all is going beautifully. He finally works up the nerve to finally tell her the deep feelings he has been hiding for far too long. Leaning over, looking deep into her eyes, drawing a breath and saying those three little words he’s been longing for her to hear, “ICH LIEBE DICH!!!”

Okay, English isn’t much better, but, frankly, Mozart’s opera showed up how beautiful the German language can be as well.

The written word is equally interesting. Many languages, such as English, has a fixed number of symbols to represent letters which can be ordered and strung together to represent words. These letters, as you know since you’re reading this blog, represent the basic sounds of our language and are usually put together to represent the sounds that make up our words, although English also has many spelling exceptions that many words have special spellings, like special, in fact, where “ci” has the “sh” sound. Other languages, and probably the oldest, tend to have a different symbol for each word, not terribly dissimilar to glyphs. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are an example, with eyes, snakes and birds having specific meanings that scholars still study to this day. As I understand it (and since I cannot read it this is secondhand knowledge), many oriental languages are similar. I’ve always found these written languages to be personally appealing and beautiful, but they must be difficult to learn. For example, the strokes representing a house is kind of reminiscent, if you look at it, of a house.

A common language pulls people together, much like nationalistic pride, and it can also be a barrier to keep people apart. It must be easier to get people to fight in wars if the opposing army speaks a different language. There can be no philosophical discussions with the “enemy” if they cannot understand one another. Americans in Korea were fighting to oppose communist expansion, while Koreans saw Americans as a foreign army in their homeland. If the soldiers could actually explain their views to the other side, would it have been fought as hard as it was?

Legend tells of the Tower of Babel, although, this was the story of how languages were put upon the humans by God, but as a burden rather than a blessing. The story never made sense to me; people of the world came together to build a great tower in the land of Babel the goal of which is to reach the heavens. For some reason, according to the story, this rather irritated God. To put an end to the construction, God gave different peoples of the various participating nations different languages so they could not communicate, and therefore couldn’t coordinate their efforts so the effort would fail. Kind of a sad story if you ask me.

The Rosetta Stone was apparently an attempt to breech the barriers of various languages. A single stone slab, with the same text in two languages (Greek and Egyptian) in three glyphs (hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek) was found in Egypt. The stone seemed to have been written around 200 BC and was found in 1799. It was originally a decree written on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes that established the new king. Because the decree was written to be nearly identical in all three components, one of which was recognized as an ancient version of a modern language, the tablet became the cornerstone of scholars trying to learn the Egyptian language and hieroglyphic and demotic writings.

As we continue the struggles between cultures and peoples, maybe someday we can find the Rosetta stone we need to finally understand and respect each other.

2 thoughts on “Languages 3/31/20

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