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.
I had to learn how to play “chess” twice: once from my grandfather, and once from my aunt.
And the reason I had to learn it twice is that I was learning two kinds of chess: Chinese chess and Western chess. The two share a common origin, and in considering them side by side, one can glean a hint of a history of the world.
(I’ve barely started writing and have already tied myself in linguistic knots. In Eurocentric English, “Western” chess is simply “chess,” while Chinese chess must be distinguished by that ethnic descriptor. In Chinese, “Chinese chess” is called xiang qi, which can be translated as either “elephant chess” or something like “symbolic chess.” The elephant connection will become important below. Chess of the European variety is instead called “xiyang qi,” meaning “Western chess,” or “guo ji xiang qi”: “international elephant/symbolic chess.”)
On my second visit to Latvia recently, I was introduced to the Latvian national epic, Lāčplēsis. Written by Andrejs Pumpurs in the late-19th century, the epic poem puts together traditional legends about its eponymous hero, whose name in Latvian means “the bear-slayer.”
I claim no particular knowledge about Latvian history and culture. But what strikes me about Lāčplēsis and to some extent Latvia itself is the sense of contradiction. One contradiction that has fascinated me is linguistic: the Latvian language and its sibling Lithuanian are the two living languages most closely related to Proto-Indo-European. Listen to a Lithuanian or a Latvian speak, and you are hearing the best modern approximation of what the distant pre-historic ancestors of Europeans (and Indians and Iranians and others) might have sounded like thousands of years ago. Yet despite its antiquity, the Latvian language was not attested in written sources until the 16th century.
So the tale of Lāčplēsis strikes me with its contradictions. “The Bear-Slayer” is so-called because as a young man, he killed a bear by tearing apart its jaw with his bare hands. But it turns out that in reality Lāčplēsis is half-man and half-bear, his mother having been a bear. And although Lāčplēsis has mostly human features, his ears are those of a bear. In fact, Lāčplēsis derives his great strength from those ears, so that if an enemy cuts them off, then he loses his strength.
In my travels through many countries where I am ignorant of the local languages, there is one thing I almost always know how to say: orange.
From Western Europe to India, there are basically four ways to say “orange.” Three, really.
First, obviously, there is just “orange” along with its variants. In French it’s still just “orange,” but of course you have to say it like it’s French. In Finnish it’s “oranssi.” In Italian it’s “arancia.” Other variants retain the initial consonant from the source language. So in Spanish it’s “naranja.” In Portuguese it’s “laranja.” In Hindi it’s “naarangee.” In Hungarian it’s “narancs.” In Bosnian it’s “narandza.” And so on. All of these come from the Sanskrit word “naranga” of ancient India, which in turn was loaned from a root in Dravidian, that family of languages likely native to the Indian subcontinent.
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."