Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The voice in the restroom

It was in a men's restroom (i.e. a toilet) on a rest area (a lay-by or service station) next to a freeway (a dual carriageway) in California. Suddenly, a woman's voice rings out loud and clear, speaking in a language that hardly anyone can understand. She says “Dem Strassenverlauf sechzig Kilometer folgen!” Just imagine how the heads turn!

Oops, I have my GPS sat-nav in my shirt pocket and forgot to turn it off when I got out of the car. The lady in the electronic box obviously thinks I am still driving and wants me to continue for sixty kilometres (or is it kilometers?) straight ahead.

Yes, folks, I am taking a two week break. I am in jet lag country, a land where I have to make many adjustments. The most obvious is the time difference. When we touched down at San Francisco International, it was half past ten on Sunday evening - but in Berlin, which we had left just a few hours previously, it was already 7:30 on Monday morning. Nine hours! And in a couple of weeks I will have to make the same leap in the opposite direction!

Another adjustment is the language. When I left my home in Berlin, I thought I was going on holiday. But now I find that I am on vacation, and I am faced with a number of language mysteries. The first is the coinage. Exactly what value do nickels, dimes and quarters have? Quarters are explained on the coin (quarter dollar), but the dime coin only confesses to being a dime, without any numerical value, and the nickel (as far as I can make out), is just a slang term for one of those tiny coins with its value printed in words much too small to read in a hurry. Oh for those days of my youth when my currency of everyday use was denoted by easy-to-understand concepts such as tanner, copper, bob, quid and the good old threepenny bit.

So although I can hear and speak my native language here, some of the words are rather “foreign” to me. The water to wash my hands comes out of a faucet instead of a tap. A covered shopping arcade is a “mall”, which rhymes with “fall”. And the word “fall” itself has a couple of extra meanings. In the singular it is the season after summer, and in the plural it denotes a waterfall - as in the “Middle Falls”, which we saw yesterday. Very impressive, but it was only one “falls”. And the word “lever” rhymes with “clever” instead of “beaver”.

Power sockets have their own very distinct character here, too. A cute little face, but with a square nose and square eyes like a cartoon character. Perhaps the square eyes come from watching so much TV.

And even the seasons are different here. On the longest day in June, a day so hot that even the air conditioning in an American car is struggling to keep me moderately cool, a road though the mountains has to be closed because of deep snow. If I really tried to hitch a ride (or lift) there, I would have to wait a few weeks. Does anyone know what mountain this is? Anyone care to guess in the comments? Then I will let the cat out of the bag. Hey, that's probably a Britishism, I wonder what the locals here would say.

(Later addition:) OK, time to spill the beans. The mountain is Mount Shasta, which rises to over 4,000 meters/metres. The "Road closed" sign is at about 2,000 metres on a road that leads past the mountain, and even when open it probably does not go much higher than this car park.

We are staying in Redding, about 80 miles further south, and attending a Christian conference at a church here. There is a good view of Mount Shasta from the church grounds (sorry: campus).

Friday, 10 June 2011

Babel in reverse?


In many countries around the world, this Sunday (12th June) is celebrated as Whit Sunday, and in some places Whit Monday is a public holiday - and a day off work for employees in many business companies. So it is an important date in the calendar. But if you ask what is actually being celebrated, most people, even in churches, are lost for words.
The first "Whitsun" was the very opposite. In a spontaneous gathering in first century Jerusalem, which was rather like a "flash mob", the confusion of languages which originated in Babel was overcome, at least for a short time. The story can be found in the New Testament (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2):
They (the believers) were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak. There were Jews living in Jerusalem, religious men who had come from every country of the world. When they heard this noise, a large crowd gathered. They were all excited, because each one of them heard the believers speaking in his own language. In amazement and wonder they exclaimed: "[...] All of us hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things that God has done!" Amazed and confused, they kept asking each other, "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:4-7, 11-12, Good News Bible)

What happened?
The city was full for a Jewish religious festival. The visitors and residents were ethnic Jews and were there for the festivities, which were conducted in Hebrew. Some of the people in the city actually lived in other countries and spoke other languages. The text gives a list of the languages represented, citing 14 or 15 different languages or language groups. But almost all of the speakers of these languages probably spoke Hebrew too, at least as a second language, because they obviously kept their ties with their ethnic home country, otherwise they would not have come to Jerusalem for the festival. And although they had different primary languages, they were still able to communicate with each other about the surprising events they were witnessing. This discussion, and the public speech by the Apostle Peter which followed, were presumably in Hebrew - and without any miraculous translation.

Was it really necessary?
The New Testament narrative portrays a language miracle, a reversal of the events at Babel which I commented on in an earlier blog post. But what was the point of this miracle?
●   It apparently did not happen during Peter's subsequent speech. The message about Jesus was evidently not conveyed by a language miracle, it was conveyed in Hebrew, and the listeners were able to understand and respond.
●   The people in the crowd were able to discuss the events among themselves without a language miracle.
●    The language miracle came at the start of the flash meeting, when it seems all of the believers were speaking at the same time. They must have been pretty loud, because it was the noise that attracted the crowd. It was only after the crowd had gathered that some of the listeners started saying, "Hey, that's my home language! How come you speak that language?"
 ●   We are not told in detail what was communicated by the miracle. We are told that the believers spoke of "the great things that God has done", but the detailed explanation was then given by Peter in a separate speech, presumably in Hebrew.
So although this event was a language miracle and had an influence on the way the message was received by the crowd, its real significance seems to lie elsewhere - not just in getting the message across.
And this brings me to another observation on the way language works.

The credibility gap
This blog post is difficult for some to believe. When I speak about a language miracle, I am convinced that it is possible. To me, this is a logical consequence of my faith in God. Perhaps some of my readers do not agree. In itself, that is not a problem. I am sure that we are mature enough to differ without any hard feelings. But our differences also have a linguistic element.
When I speak about my faith, listeners who do not believe in God can understand the words, but they may find it difficult to grasp what I am talking about. Sometimes it even seems as if we can't communicate at all.
Similarly, if you tell me about the joys of deep sea diving, some listeners may feel the exciting ripple of water on the skin and the joy of seeing the many life forms that live under water. But the only message I receive is the claustrophobia of the diving mask and the fear of getting water in my nose.
Our experience of the world influences the way we "understand" language, and differences in our subjective make-up can interfere with our objective ability to comprehend what another person is saying. So when I talk about my belief in God, more than just linguistic ability is necessary to "receive" the message.

The view from the inside
As a linguist, I am curious about the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues" (which is the jargon term for speaking in unknown languages). This phenomenon still happens today, and sometimes I hear such unknown languages used by others, sometimes I use this phenomenon myself as a style of prayer. I do not know whether my own prayers in "tongues" are ever in an identifiable language. I have heard reports of such prayers being identified as specific languages (including a report from someone close to me), but usually I simply do not know. And if I try to analyse the sounds made, this somehow detaches me from the prayer. I can pray in "tongues" or I can analyse - but not both at once. And it is always my choice - this form of prayer is not compulsive or involuntary.

Language as a mystery
I regard language itself as a mystery and a miracle. This post simply explores one facet of this mystery. There is much more that could be said - so feel free to add other aspects in the comments