Friday, January 14, 2011

Thoughts on language 

This should be considered fiction. Fiction, as opposed to some actual thoughts of mine inspired by actual events. I'm not sure if the ending is sufficient. It just sort of stops.


One night a few weeks ago I went to a party and found myself talking with a Polish woman. She was interesting to talk to – she seemed very feisty – and she had a great rack.

I’m a married man myself, so I spoke with her only out of curiosity and so that no one else would take her away from me. I needed to be able to stare at her chest off and on throughout the evening in order to keep the party from being a total bore.

In the course of our conversation, which ran from our favorite neighborhoods in the city to mathematics to literature, she asked me if I knew any Polish men. She said to me, in that thick, breathy Polish accent, “I need a single man who is single. And he must not like to hurt cats.”

Those were some standards! As it turned out, I did know a single Polish guy for her. I told her so. She seemed surprised that I did, as if she might have been the only Polish person drifting around outside of Eastern Europe.

Subsequently, I set them up with each other’s contact information and sat back to see if anything would happen. Piotr was a coworker as well as a friend and a week or so after, while we were eating lunch, he mentioned that he and the woman, Ania, had been trading e-mails and had made a plan to meet for a drink the next day. I had not described her to him, other than to assure him that she was attractive. I couldn’t wait to hear his reaction to her.

The question that I wanted to ask more than anything in the wake of their first meeting was whether or not they had spoken to each other in Polish. Did they conduct their whole date in English? Did they speak just a bit of Polish to each other, to sort of prove their Polish-ness? Or, in the context of blind dates and first dates, did they fully retreat to their native tongues? Did they feel so uneasy that they wrapped themselves in the privacy of a foreign language and hope to protect themselves from all of the English speakers around them?

I wanted to ask Piotr about what language that they had interacted in, but I couldn’t. It felt invasive and rude. It felt racist. Well, not racist, but nationalist. If two black friends had gone out on a date, would I have asked them if they had only talked about hip-hop? No, of course not. So how could I ask Piotr about speaking Polish or English?

I think the answer to my fascination lies in my not having any framework for bilingualism or multi-lingual relationships. A professor of mine in college was a Frenchman and he was married to an American. He mentioned to me that he only spoke French to his son and his wife only spoke English to the boy. This blew my mind. How does the human brain compartmentalize the two sets of words coming into it? Does the child even realize that these are two different languages? I think I can understand it when a long time speaker of language A then studies and learns language B. But from birth? Knowing zero languages and then being spoken to in two different languages at the same time? What does the human brain make of this?

Another time at another party, I talked with a guy who was a linguist. He was studying German dialects. Dialects! I was drunk and I kept saying to him, “I have no context for this! I have no context for understanding this.” I had studied Latin in high school and used it to understand the etymology of English words, but I never thought in Latin or spoke Latin. I just read Ovid or Virgil. I didn’t know anything about dialects or slang.

So I suppose I’ll never know about Piotr and Ania's use of language unless they tell me. Or maybe I’ll go on a double date with them and gain some insight into their relationship – how they interact with each other, how their intimate moments are conducted. Do they drop their voices and whisper to each other? Do they draw their heads together and turn slightly away so that they won’t be overheard? Or, as I suspect, do they switch to Polish and use my ignorance to protect their private thoughts?

Perhaps I’m just bothered that things might be kept from me. I helped create this relationship. I deserve some credit for that, don’t I? Let me in! Don’t shut me out.

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