Thursday, July 14, 2016

Glossomania: A (Somewhat Rambling) Set of Reflections on Language Learning

Oxford psalter, 13th century, Morgan Library (MS M.43 fol. 9v).
I feel a greed for languages the way I used to feel a greed for books, the way that other people feel a greed for money. A greed for languages is really a greed for time—the time to learn the languages, then use them. Wanting to learn more languages is a way of spitting in the face of death.

We need to dispel the myth that it takes a special intelligence or aptitude to learn languages. It doesn't. Jürgen Leonhardt, in his wonderful book Latin: Story of a World Language, points out that, before the rise of the nation-state, polyglossia was the norm, and still is for many people around the world in linguistically diverse regions: ordinary people—merchants and workers and farmers—spoke (and speak) multiple languages for economic survival—not just an elite or scholarly class.

Modern America, where polyglossia is seen as an unusual attainment, is the exception, not the rule. In modern America, if you speak multiple languages, it probably means that you are either an immigrant or someone with an unusually good education, or both. The people who have learned even the most halting English on the go through economic necessity deserve the respect we accord scholars (or used to, anyway).

Friday, July 8, 2016

Juxtapositions: Moon

From Sky and Telescope.

[Every translation is a failure. As the philosophers say: any merit belongs to others, and all errors are my own.]

Thoughts on a Quiet Night 
Before I go to bed, the moon shines bright;
I don't know if the frost has fallen yet.
I lift my head and stare at the bright moon;
I bow my head and think of how the country used to be. 


—李白 Lǐ Bǎi

To the Moon
You lovely moon—I remember coming here,
so anxious, to this hill to stare at you
at the turning of the year. How you loomed there
over this wood; how when you do, you shine!
But now I shiver, clouded, from the tears
that soak my lashes: and then your face smiles
in my eyes. My life has been so painful,
and so it is; and its style stays the same,
oh moon, my lover moon. And yet the memory
delights me, and the memory of the epoch
of my grief. In time of youth (when hope still has
so far a way to go, and memory so short),
which needs the thankful remembrance of things past,
how sad those things still are—and how the panic lasts!

Alla Luna
O graziosa luna, io mi rammento
Che, or volge l'anno, sovra questo colle
Io venia pien d'angoscia a rimirarti:
E tu pendevi allor su quella selva
Siccome or fai, che tutta la rischiari.
Ma nebuloso e tremulo dal pianto
Che mi sorgea sul ciglio, alle mie luci
Il tuo volto apparia, che travagliosa
Era mia vita: ed è, nè cangia stile,
O mia diletta luna. E pur mi giova
La ricordanza, e il noverar l'etate
Del mio dolore. Oh come grato occorre
Nel tempo giovanil, quando ancor lungo
La speme e breve ha la memoria il corso,
Il rimembrar delle passate cose,
Ancor che triste, e che l'affanno duri! 

—Giacomo Leopardi