ON LANGUAGE


Every language, through contextual differences with other languages, creates its own reality and its own particular intimacy based on its possibilities of expression: the concepts that exist in that particular culture which give way to linguistic turns that may not exist in any other language. This is one aspect of the language barrier, a more cultural one, which makes it difficult to distinguish the linguistic aspects of a person's upbringing from the sociological.

Broadly, the nuances that shape an immigrant's career choices, which is the least revealing result of his experience, are far more complicated. A person's language influences his relationship with people, his perception of people, and his perception of reality in general. A bilingual almost necessarily sees the world dually and believes in a reality that consists of and is dependent upon the context of language, or doesn't believe in a reality at all. A child learning several languages simultaneously will either lag behind considerably in both languages, or exceed far ahead of his native peers in his second language while watching his own native language deteriorate. Rarely will the bilingual fully master both languages on a superior level: examples of this are Nabokov and Brodsky (who are both dead); and almost never does the bilingual maintain both languages on an average level (i.e. the average native level and average level of the adopted tongue).


These linguistic difficulties indefinitely shape a child's attitude of the society around him, not by making him "mad at people who think he's stupid because he speaks bad English", but by developing a more unique concept of thought and its translation into words. We can see this loss of information demonstrated in actual literary translation. When a text is translated from French into German, then from German into English, from English into Hindi, from Hindi into Chinese, consecutively for about twenty degrees, the end result, as has been shown through tests, bears practically no resemblance to the original. In other words, all the information from the text has been lost, and the text, if we define "text" here as the original, no longer exists.

In this sense, when a child encounters a concept or idea which can be expressed in one language but not in another, he will wonder if there are not certain concepts that cannot be expressed in any languages. From this a paradox arises- a child will not encounter such thoughts, because, not being to formulate them in any language, he will not be able to place them. The bilingual then begins to notice exactly the opposite- that ideas and concepts are dependent on language, and therefore reality is dependent on language, creating the possibilities for several realities.


Reality is defined, whether an independent individual likes it or not, by the untrustworthy eyes of others. A person's life and character are shaped by his interaction with other people- his experience and reflection of experience is influenced by how other people formulate or articulate their own experiences. A person is constantly borrowing linguistic turns that are determined by his awareness of himself in social situations, as well as by the literature he is exposed to, and by his formal and informal education. Reversibly, in a new social setting or in the context of a new experience, a person will base his reflection (which is really an articulation) according to his individual linguistic experience- his vocabulary, his style of talking (which is an accumulation of styles copied from others), and his slang. Over long periods of time within one society these linguistic aspects are continually shaped by history, geography and the local mentality. In turn each developing language influences and practically determines the historical and particularly sociological issues in a country.

Languages taken out of context, as happens among bilinguals, acquire new cultural aspects and influence the development of the second language. I recently overheard a strange mixture in a horrendous phrase from a nearby conversation between two Russian-Americans: "They were fucking igrali s toboi"- They were fucking playing you, which could not have been stylistically accurate in Russian or English. What struck me in this construction was not the mixture of slang and obscenity between two languages, but the fact that the American slang-idiom playing you was directly translated into Russian, making no sense in that language. Moreover the construction itself reflected perfectly the upbringing and education of the speaker in Russia and America, since both parts of the phrase indicated the audience the phrase was intended for. Examples like this sprout in every conversation between speakers of different languages- they act as a makeshift compromise for the speaker between his two realities of language and culture, a compromise that he will unsuccessfully struggle to establish throughout his life.


I feel like I have three months to live. Bilinguals should be kept at zoos and exhibited to the public on Nabokov's birthday. There are American jaws and faces with quick, sober eyes, but who wear another face underneath. They have the Moscow subway map memorized and speak impeccable Russian without an accent. Communicating with them alters all the unspeakable details of one's surroundings, so that your reality becomes twilit, your system of measurement and deception morbidly vague, while you speak English to a Russian who speaks English back, and it is like walking in a geometrical nightmare. Suddenly the uselessness of other people's words becomes banal and evident, the danger of listening to them- fatal, and several planes slide in together only to crumble the moment they merge. I keep dreaming of earthquakes so that my mouth is full of dust and my ears are full of ashes in the morning. There is nothing I strain to hear any longer. That is because I die several times and give birth to myself immediately afterwards. It can happen that I sometimes die and get born several times in one month. I will not speak in detail because you cannot understand and so much the better, but I know what it is like to die. I think, therefore, that heaven is hell, because the most unfathomable torment is existing after death.

Two languages cannot be reconciled, no matter how good the translator. At most the one is an abstraction or a model of the other, and it is better to create a new reality altogether, rather than try to reconstruct the old one which is dependent upon the coordinates of time and cannot be imported. I have not figured out whether the death a speaker feels upon changing countries is associated with a linguistic one, or if, perhaps, it merely goes back to the severing of a spider-web, when the speaker is suddenly in the air and no longer dependent on anything. But that is only temporary- soon he is once again aware of the forces of interdependency.