15 feb. 2007

"English is inherently mathematical, she noted, arming a writer with the perfectly precise word to match the meaning, while Turkish is an emotional, sentimental tongue, she said, better suited for writing about sorrow and the past."

So said a Turkish writer quoted in the New York Times. This kind of thing drives me crazy. One language is not inherently more mathematical or logical or precise than another. Obviously it is one's personal relation to a language that is infused (or not) with a certain degree of sentiment. To write about Turkey in English, as a Turk, implies a distancing effect, but one that should be separated from the Orientalist fantasy of an Eastern language particularly suited to the expression of sorrow. She should know better.

17 comentarios:

Henry Gould dijo...

But there might be something to it. Orhan Pamuk's memoir "Istanbul" is largely structured around a particular Turkish word (very roughly translated as "melancholy") which he says represents something fundamental in the Istanbul-dwellers' worldview & approach to life.

Languages do differ in their structure & organization. An inflected language, that piles shades of meaning on nouns positioned with great variation in the sentence, might have a different effect from that of a language with more syntactical regularity.

But this is probably a topic providing for endless debate...

Jonathan dijo...

Sure, every language has its culturally laden and specifically *emotional* words. The Portuguese saudade for example. That doesn't mean the Portuguese language is more emotional because it has this word.

It is not clear that inflected languages are more or less logical or precise than languages that organize their syntax in a different way. It cannot really be debated endlessly because there is not really much to be said for this kind of generalization about the emotive qualities of a language.

Henry Gould dijo...

"One of the most striking properties of Turkish is its morphology, i.e. the structure of its words: there are neither prefixes nor infixes. All of the derivational and inflectional morphemes are suffixes. One can build very long words that can correspond to entire sentences in more familiar languages such as English. An often cited example is the following:

Amerikalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmıydılar?

This word means: “Did they belong to those whom we were unable to Americanize?”"

- from a website on the Turkish language. Which leads me to think that the author you quote here is referring in part to the fact that English is not an "agglutinative" language - but uses more simplified, unchanging (distinct) vocabulary (her "perfectly precise word").

- Henry

Jonathan dijo...

It's still extremely stupid. Why would agglutinative languages be less precise or mathematical? It's just a different way of organizing thought. Is morphology less "logical" than syntax?

Thomas Basbøll dijo...

I agree with you, Jonathan. But I think saying that it's "a different way of organizing thought" grants the very point you're trying to correct. What you mean is: "just a different way of organizing signs", perhaps "...organizing letters" (or sounds). Once you say languages organize thought differently there's nothing stop anyone from adding that they organize feeling differently. That's what this remark about Turkish hinges on. Like I say, I also think it's wrong (but I of course base that only on my knowledge about other languages that people say just as stupid things about.)

Jordan dijo...

Not to complicate this issue -- but maybe the apparent biodeterminism just needs to be rewired? That is, I object to essentializing remarks about languages and peoples as a whole -- incipient racism, right. But when those remarks are reworked into a context of, say, regional variation, my skepticism falls by 80%.

For example, I've been told by some comp lit scholars that rhyme is generally applied less often to comic ends in languages with most words ending in vowels than it is in languages with most words ending in consonants.

Maybe that's a Sapir-Whorfian chestnut too.

Jonathan dijo...

Thomas. I guess I think that, say, having Subject Verb Object is a different form of organizing the same 'thought' than "Subject Object Verb" would be. In other words, the intellectual elements of the sentence would be subject to a different syntactical organization. That's all I meant. I don't think that commits to a hard Whorfianism.

Jordan. Good point. But aren't regional stereotypes just as incipiently racist? If someone started talking about the suitability of the English of the US South as more suited to sentimentality and emotion, I'd have a similar reaction. Maybe not as extreme--your 80% estimate is food for thought.

But then think of the taciturn Yankee and the drawling Southerner, the ineffectual Briton and the thrifty Scot, and then think of how each is using substantially the *same* language, which to a Turk might seem mathematical and cold. Obviously there can be multiple perceptions of the *same* language. The stereotype of the language just ends up being the stereotype of the *culture* to which it belongs. The passionate Italians have a passionate language, by this logic, but Italian is seen as passionate because of a cultural stereotype, not because of some inherent quality in the langauge itself.

Henry Gould dijo...

Has anyone noticed that Jonathan (nor I nor anyone else) has bothered to mention the NAME of the "stupid" bilingual novelist? Has it occurred to anyone that she might be speaking from experience? There are many forms of "essentialism" & "determinism". & I don't think she called English "cold". I think "mathematical" was used in a positive sense. & I'd be surprised if she is completely renouncing her Turkish "sentimental" culture - rather more likely, she's struggling with it in a productive way.

My objections to Jonathan's post have to do with his cold & mathematical judgementalism ("stupid", etc.). He writes like this to be provocativce in a bloggiste way - when it's really not a reflection of his true, Kansan sentimental nature. These things are nuanced.

Jonathan dijo...

I didn't want to mention the name because I want to denounce the thought, not the thinker. If she had indeed spoken from experience and said, "I have a sentimental relationship with Turkish, but writing in English forces me to distance myself from my material," I would have had no problem. It is the ideological construction of the Oriental language as sentimental and the Western language as "mathematical" and precise that is objectionable and "stuupad." Just as dumb as French people who still think that French is a logical language because it lets you express thoughts in the same order that you have them. While, yeah, you might think that is true, if you grew up speaking French! If you grew up speaking Turkish, I'm sure English would seem to force you to make decisions about what you mean that don't feel "natural," that go against your comfort zone. Why you would want to express that contrast in a tired Oriental/Occidental contrast is beyond me.

Henry Gould dijo...

OK, I agree with much of what you say. & yet it still bothers me that one puts the politically-correct judgement ahead of the empirical particulars. How much do you really know about the specific differences - in usage, descriptive application, linguistic history - between Turkish and English? The example of agglutinative vs. "simple" nouns is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Here is an author who has found that difference useful as she negotiates her own culture by way of the leverage of a second language. Moreover, is it relevant that she has received death threats for being "un-Turkish" enough to deal with the Armenian genocide in her novels? We sit here & defend the equivalence of all languages and the equality of all peoples : while she works for "equal recognition" in a rather different cultural situation.

Jonathan dijo...

I don't mean to trivialize her attempt to negotiate a cultural divide. It is interesting, however, that she reaches for something that will confirm the cultural stereotypes of the New York Times readers. Or maybe the reporter translated her words into something culturally intelligible to those readers. Reason /mathematics is to sentiment as English is to Turkish! English is modernity / Turkish is tradition, the past. Then Henry Gould comes along and says, well maybe Turkish really is more emotive! Jonathan tears his hair out. Jonathan is reason, Henry is speaking according to his own agglutinative logic.

Henry Gould dijo...

Your logic is impeccable, Jonathan. but I can't help thinking of Orhan Pamuk's (sly & devious) parallel comments about his language & culture. "Istanbul" is structured around a Turkish would for melancholy & nostalgia which he describes as virtually UNTRANSLATABLE.

Henry Gould dijo...

Your logic is impeccable, Jonathan. but I can't help thinking of Orhan Pamuk's (sly & devious) parallel comments about his language & culture. "Istanbul" is structured around a Turkish would for melancholy & nostalgia which he describes as virtually UNTRANSLATABLE.

Henry Gould dijo...

"turkish would". right. I meant "Norwegian wood".

Jonathan dijo...

Untranslatability is always a funny trope isn't it? That's why English translations of Lorca revolve around the virtually untranslatable term of the duende. Every language has its special culturally specific terms that are identified with a particular culture. Yet we are reading Pamuk in translation, aren't we? (At least I am.) Untranslatable terms don't impress me much any more because, well, the appeal to such terms is always the same rhetorical/ideological move.

Gary dijo...

Wow, this is a great thread.

But, I think the woman in the NY Times can't be entirely dismissed.

As Nada said, vis a vis some Japanese-to-English translation, there's an aspect to the "mood" in Japanese that, in English, just sounds overly sentimental. She said it kind of sounds that way in Japanese, but not--there's a whole other structure of logic & how one interrelates with that type of speech or writing act, that we just don't have.

Similarly, I remember a translator telling me that certain things in French don't sound as pretentious as they do when translated into English, and that there's really not a way to do it w/out the pretentious soundingness in English.

Hindi! Urdu! OMG! There's a reason the Bollywood song lyric translations and Urdu poetry translations can almost always be counted on to be extremely funny in English.

Anyway. I know what you mean, with your response to the woman in the Times, because what she says is a grotesque overgeneralization ... but ... but ... but ...

Jonathan dijo...

I know about those kind of translation effects. But isn't that a sort of naive view in the first place, to think that a piece of translated language will have the same mood, the same smell? It's almost never going to. There are words in Ashbery that have a certain "smell" that their equivalents in some other language wouldn't have. But where I think people go wrong with this is in then attributing these differences to inherent differences between the two languages, as though a certain language just couldn't go there because of some grammatical reason.