Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Three Languages


It was my supervisor who told me about a Thai tongue-twister which, when transliterated, reads mai mai mai mai mai, but which in fact consists of five distinct words pronounced in different tones. Apparently it means ‘New wood doesn’t burn, does it?’

And this naturally led us to consider the possibility of an entire language consisting of a single syllable spoken in an infinitude of tones and registers.

I think our conclusion was that whatever other attractions such a language may have, we wouldn’t fancy using it to draft an intercreditor agreement.


I read a novel recently, with the improbable title of A New Finnish Grammar. I will now proceed to quote from it liberally, because it is not everyday that you find an author who writes so passionately about language.

On the noun:

In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative.
On memorising words:
With some difficulty, one by one, I was taking in Koskela’s words. In the pauses between them, I heard them die away. I watched them floating down into the landscape of the city around us, so as to note where they fell, so that I could go and collect them later: a belltower would remind me of a verb, I wasted a whole ship on an adjective and entrusted the all-important subject to a tram. The pastor’s thought was scattered throughout Helsinki, and I could reread it every time I pleased.
On obsessive practice:
I would shut myself in the sacristy and study every word I’d put down in the notebook, declining it in all possible cases, conjugating each verb in every voice I knew, down to the most tortuous forms of the passive, the conditional, even the past potential. [...] Those syntactical digests were my defence against an enemy who was attacking me from behind. I had no tanks, no bombardiers, and each day surprised me on a different front, drawing me into the open, far from reason’s hiding-places, towards a chasm of gloomy, giddy thoughts. It was then that I needed all fifteen Finnish grammatical cases, the four forms of the infinitive, not to mention the negative pluperfect to keep my mind engaged, to drag it clear of that carpet bombing.

Beautiful, no?


I learnt the word naruhodo on a snorkelling trip in Japan.

I had taken an underwater photo of a senior colleague, and I was quite pleased with the result. Back on the beach I showed her the photo. She said, “Naruhodo.”

Now at the time I did not know what the expression meant, and I was too proud to ask her. But I assumed it meant, “This photograph overwhelms me. Your talent makes me go weak in the knees, and I love you with a passion that is inextinguishable.” For it really was a pretty good photo.

When I went home, I checked. Naruhodo means ‘I see.’


Riddhi G.D said...

I giggled when I read mai mai. I guess this makes me a Joey >.<
And who Finnish author? I love.

Riddhi G.D said...

Oh also you changed to pop-up yay :D

relativelytruthful said...

courtesy a copy of ripley's believe it or not from the eighties, i know that there is in fact a tribe in [conjecture alert] africa, which speaks a language that consists entirely of a single, hyphenated word, given different intonations to mean different things.

i am fairly sure these people do not need intercreditor agreements, so you may heave your sigh of relief now.

i too learnt a fantastic new word this week - 'nyaka' - in bengali. what a damn cool word man. what a really great word. can't stop using it.

Sowmya Rao said...

I would really recommend Embassytown. I didn't know you were a likes-language-interest-in-syntax-also-tone-also type person.

Tommy said...

If a camera isn't having the desired effect, maybe an electric skateboard is in order.

Sroyon said...

@Riddhi: Diego Marani.

@rtf: I have nothing but envy for this tribe. And 'nyaka' is a beautiful word. I can't imagine why it doesn't have an equivalent in other languages.

@Sowmya: Thank you for the recommendation.

@Tommy: xkcd to the rescue!

Anindita said...

I loved the Finnish Grammar bit. Who is the author? I'm buying this off Flipkart!