Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Travel advice? This is the first such post for this blog. But I’ve been asked enough times how I travel in countries where I don’t speak the language — and keep in mind that I am only a middling linguist, not one of those people who speak six or seven languages fluently. I know such people; so annoying.
No, I speak only two languages fluently, and then I dabble in a few others to varying degrees of proficiency. But I have never had any serious problems in the course of my travels as a result of language barriers. Below are some tricks of the trade that have helped me get around.
It was in El Calafate in Argentine Patagonia when a woman asked me whether I spoke “Castellano.” It took me a second to rifle through the clutters of my brain to recall that in Argentina, Spanish is often not called “Español” but “Castellano,” or Castilian.
Obliquely, this exchange was a forewarning of the frustrations I would have a couple of months later in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Portuguese, the language where everything is close enough to Spanish to be confusing, but different enough that no one understands you if you simply speak Spanish.
Last month I was on Easter Island. Legally a part of Chile, the island is really part of the great Polynesian triangle whose other two points are Hawaii and New Zealand, where I grew up.
Easter Island is of course famous for its Moai statues. At various “ahu” or shrines where the Moais stand, signs in English and the native Polynesian language, in an effort to stop visitors from climbing on top of sacred rocks, read, “STOP — TAPU.”
So I recently saw the film Arrival and read the short story it’s based on, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
At the center of the plot, both in the film and in the story, is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the language(s) that one speaks determines or influences the way that one thinks. The film and the story present an extreme version of Sapir-Whorf, wherein one who learns an alien language comes to see time the way the aliens do. But in fact most scholars have rejected the strong version of Sapir-Whorf, which suggests that people aren’t even able to think outside of their linguistic categories.
The weak version, though, seems to me surely true. This is an autobiographical account of how languages have repeatedly predicated my thinking.
In 1754, the 4th Earl of Oxford, the gothic novelist and Whig politician better known to us by his real name Horace Walpole, found himself reading a Persian fairytale called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Actually he was probably reading the Italian translation of the story, “Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo,” published in Venice in 1557.
The story begins by explaining that once upon a time, “in the country of Serendippo, in the Far East,” the king had three sons. As the tale progresses, the three princes embark on many adventures and experience many twists and turns before finally reaching a happy ending.
In a letter to Horace Mann (a lot of Horaces back then) dated January 28, 1754, Walpole summed up the tale as one in which its heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” With this quality of fortuitous happenstance in mind, Walpole coined a new word, “serendipity,” now defined (in Merriam-Webster) as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also: an instance of this.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."