The Skeleton Key
By Alexander Genis
Translated By Sierra Perez-Sparks
28 March 2012
Edited by Laurence Bouvard
Russia - Izvestia - Original Article (Russian)
Writer Alexander Genis on the era of nonviolent bilingualism.
One in five Americans does not speak English at home and lives bilingually. In New York, where more than half the population was born outside the U.S., the percentage is higher. In Queens alone, 137 languages have been registered, which allows linguists to save on the cost of a plane ticket and take the subway to study rare languages.
The linguistic archipelago, if remarkable for nothing else, provides the opportunity to catch unique words that have been created by a single nation to the envy of all the rest. And do not be jealous; the short Swedish word “lagom” means “not too much, not too little, but just right.” Those that speak Tsonga, from the Bantu group of South African languages, know the verb “rwhe,” which requires three unrelated words: “to get drunk, crash and fall asleep naked.” No simpler is the Brazilian-Portuguese “cafune: to tenderly caress the hair of a loved one.” Or “gigil,” a word from the Tagalog language of the Philippines that is spoken in Queens almost as much as Russian. That’s the word for the irresistible urge to bite a lover or at least pinch him. On the other end of the emotional spectrum is the Persian “war-nam nihadan.” The translation from Farsi requires an entire story: “Having killed an enemy, to bury the body and plant flowers on the crime scene in order to conceal it.” And finally, a word that I can’t get enough of. It expresses the secular catastrophe that happens each time when I need to introduce a person, whose name I have forgotten, but should know. The Scots express this entire storm of emotions in one word, “tartle.”
With regard to unique Russian idioms, even Dal didn’t know what it meant to “sniff one’s own cuffs.”* In the more sober America however, I should first recall the bottomless word, “vulgar,” which, out of helplessness, Nabokov explained to Americans with the assistance of advertising pictures and demanded that it be entered in Webster’s dictionary along with the “intelligentsia,” and even for it.
Every language makes the world richer, making an original contribution to the collective consciousness. After all, we, in contrast to Tao, are able to take control of only that which we name. And the fact that one thing is labeled differently means that it isn’t the same thing at all.
Two languages in one head creates, in a sense, a second individual and enables civilized dialogue, allowing one to speak out in turn and when necessary. This is not a metaphor, but the physiology of the bilingual brain, which American psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee impartially study. Bilingualism, their research claims, teaches us to better manage the resources of our consciousness. The habit of living in two parallel worlds makes the mind flexible like a bow and obedient like an arrow. Depending on the situation (at work or at home, with one’s wife or friend, in the sauna or in a bank), the bilingual brain turns on one language and then the other, but never mixes them, leaving this practice to the uneducated, snobs and Tolstoy in “War and Peace.” Art consciously makes use of languages and affects all cognitive operations, which gives a tangible advantage to bilinguals, and in areas where language plays no role. Statistical analysis, encompassing babies and the very old, shows that bilinguals learn faster, live better and battle Alzheimer’s more successfully.
This sensational research can even be applied to politics. Bilingualism is the first lesson of democracy. A sign which uses two alphabets, as used to happen in my hometown of Riga, sets an example of tolerance. A birth language is one of many; in it, and in us, there is nothing that is indisputable. You can look at everything from at least two points of view.
In this you can see the impact of empire, imposing bilingualism on its subjects. Thus, nearly half of the Soviet Union became bilingual, many of them, like Fazil Iskander, became great Russian writers.
Today, however, empire is being replaced by a general global civilization, which has already chosen a language for itself, and in this or that way, has learned it. We live in an era of nonviolent bilingualism, where English acts not as a foreign language, but as a universal one.
Actually, this is the language’s misfortune: Having given others an irreplaceable means of communication, it has deprived its own native speakers. English is good for everyone except those who grew up speaking it. For them there is no beacon of a second language: there’s no point. Having conquered the world, English discovered that it won a Pyrrhic victory, because the invaders were left alone with their native dialect.
On the other hand, we are lucky. If any language is a key, then English is the skeleton key. Opening any door, it paves the way to informational freedom, where the people are taught to compare and choose. Those who, with the help of the universal language, are connected to the branches of world opinions and information, are unlikely to believe in spies in cows' hooves, stupidly shuffling around Bolotnaya Square.
*Translator’s Note: This phrase describes the unfortunate situation when, having no chaser to eat after a shot of vodka, one must pretend to eat one’s shirtsleeves.
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