Wednesday, March 02, 2005


You stub your toe. You curse your teacher, boss, lover. You swear at the Lord up above (or below) for your misfortunes.

What comes out of your mouth?


What kind of words?

Bad words.

Where do they come from?

Well, they...come. They emerge. They exist. They are. You don't question their source, shape, texture. An emotion is triggered; a feeling is born. You need a way to express that feeling, preferably quickly, preferably now.

Out comes the word.

I think language is wild. We take it for granted. We are born with it, raised with it, live with it. It expresses who we are and what we want. It gives voice to those primitive, primal impulses that dwell within our hearts and souls, lurking, begging to be released.

But what is it? Language itself, in all it's manifestations?

It's strange symbols on a page that are no longer strange (at least to us), and sounds emerging from our mouths.

That's all.

I like words. Love words. I think when you grow up with a love of reading, you don't pay attention to the lanuage too much -- you're in it for the story, the high, the kick that you get when you come to the end of the tale. (Not realizing, of course, that it's the language that makes all of this possible.)

Comic books helped me to read. When I was twelve, I discovered Stephen King, and, literally, read everything that he wrote, one book after the other, until there were no more books left to read. (I know, I know -- he published, like, a book every six months back then, but still -- six months is a long time to wait for a twelve year old.)

But I liked his brand of horror and humanism, terror and fantasy; I wanted more. And I noticed that his name could often be found sprawled across the backs of other books by other authors, one of whom was Peter Straub, a fellow fantasist, and so I read his books, and they were, well, harder. The language and storytelling was more layered, more intricate. You had to work a bit more.

And thus it begins -- the life of a reader. You start to pay attention to the language. You start to identify authors by the way they do things with the language, deciding that Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell and James Herbert, being Brits, have a distinctly formal way with the language that somehow particularly suits the gothic nature of dark fantasy, while Stephen King and Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury have a flowing, American looseness to their prose that somehow suits what they do well, while, in more lit'ry circles, Joyce Carol Oates has a manic, go-for-broke pace that never compromises the story she's telling or the way she's telling it, and Norman Mailer has a muscular solidity to his style that creates a wonderworld of a phrase every page or so, and Elmore Leonard's style is so transparent that it's almost invisible (which is usually the hardest kind to do, this type of 'effortless' writing), and Toni Morrison has a simultaneous grace and resoluteness to her prose that makes it dense, and Alice Munro has a way of telling a story that never allows language to intrude on her themes, her emotions, even though you do notice, now and then, the way she handles a phrase, the wisdom in the phrase, and you gotta give her some props for that.

In other words, you respond to the writers you like based on the way they jiggle and shake and piece together the words, the letters, the English.

And then I moved to Japan, avoided studying Japanese the same way I once avoided Full House reruns, for two whole years, before finally giving in and taking three-times-a-week, ninety-minutes-per-session- group lessons at the Association for Japanese Language Teaching ( in downtown Tokyo, where I slowly, incrementally started to get off on the fundamentally bizarre strangeness of acquring (or trying to) even the most rudimentary basics of another language.

You start off as a child, basically. You don't know how to read, write, speak. Then, eventually, you begin to see how it is that we learn language, how it is that we start to build vocabulary.

In the beginning, for example, if I was excited in Japanese, or angry, or dismayed, well, there were no words for those feelings inside of me. There was no outlet in Japanese.

Then you pick up a word here, there, everywhere. You listen to the radio. You eavesdrop on schoolgirls' conversations on the last-train-home. You begin.

It's fun and fascinating and frustrating and just downright cool, this learning of another language (even if I've forgotten a lot of what I learned). I believe, now, that you are missing out on something fundamentally human if you only speak one language. You are exempt from the shades and tones of perception that another language allows you to possess.

Those same 'shades' are what make Japanese such a fascinating language, a maddening language, a complex language. I have the utmost, super-duper respect for the dudes and dudettes who translate Japanese literature into English, and vice versa. They don't get enough credit. Even beginning to learn about why and how different languages express emotions and ideas in different ways has been an experience for me; as someone who loves to read, who can read some (rudimentary) Japanese, even imagining what it would take to shift back and forth from one language to the next, trying to preserve the author's original integrity, is mind blowing.

One of the translators of Marquez put it much better than I can: That when you translate, it's like looking at an eclipse; the English word and the Spanish word for 'horse', for example, each share a similar meaning, but there's another aspect, a slight nuance, that is only available in the original language, that they don't both possess. There is an overlap between the words, but there is always something left behind, too.

If nothing else, being aware of ideas like this, being conscious of other languages, trying to utilize them in your everyday life, simply gives you touchstones, moments of connection, that you can't find in your own language. Six months ago I stood on a streetcorner here in Phnom Penh, chatting in Japanese with my Cambodian Japanese teacher, when I had a sudden, almost out of body experience: Me, this Canadian kid in Phnom Penh, talking in Japanese, with a Khmer.

Life (for me) doesn't get much weirder than that, friends and neighbours.

(Unless, of course, I started to study Khmer in earnest. But it seems so hard...)

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