March 02, 2009

On not speaking the language

I don't know whether a language can be inherently beautiful, independent of the quality (dare I say timbre in a pretentiously French accent) of the speaker's voice or the content of the utterance, but if so, I'd say Arabic would be a good candidate for a highly beautiful language. Then again, maybe some world traveler is sitting in a hotel room in the states right now, marveling at the beauty of English as it trips off of Ann Coulter's treacly tongue. And yes, that's as close as I ever came to talking myself into throwing up.

I'm not much of a traveler in general, which is strange because I like being in places where I don't speak the language. I first noticed this at MLA in San Francisco many years ago ... no, not at a Derrida panel, but in Chinatown, where I wandered aimlessly for several days, interviewless. I was staying at a hotel called the Californian. Me making the reservation:

"So, let me get this straight: I can check out any time I like?"

"Yeah, but you can never leave. Ha ha. Never heard that one before."

Well, screw you, buddy ... it was new to me. Though I did adapt his response for use when people ask me if I feel good. "Oh, yeah, I guess he and I do have the same name. I never thought of that before. That's pretty funny. I guess I have a kind of funny name. Thanks for pointing that out."

I used that one once on the clerk at the BP--Sohio, it would have been then--on Lane Avenue right near Grad School U. It was about 3:30 in the a.m. and I was buying a half-price just-expired egg salad sammich with my gas card. The power of nostalgia is such that I look back at the time with a certain fondness. Anyhow, I continued to ask the clerk what his name was, forcing both of my eyes to focus at once on his name tag, which read "Miles."

"You have a kind of funny name too, Miles. Are you 'Kind of Blue'?" I said it just like that, with the hyperlink. He was edging toward the phone as I left.

As I think I've demonstrated, there's something liberating about being someplace where you can't speak the language, and I'm not talking simply about a calculus class or something. I mean a place where you can't even tell what sounds the letters on signs make, or when one word stops and the next one begins. How much of our brains is dedicated to parsing useless words in the background? People walking around wearing stupid slogans on their stupid shirts, car radios blaring, the television on 24 hours a day ... stuff like that.

If you can't understand a word spoken to you, it's probably a lot like being a cat.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You just said coulter and tongue in the same sentence, and I did gag a little.

Just don't cross the River Jordan while you're there. [knee slap]

secret word: chaletc