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1May2009
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Both of my parents were in Viet’nam during the wars there — rather during the USA’s involvement there. I was some measure dismayed when I figured out that the viet phrases I had learned from their stories and casual conversational speech patterns were, in fact, all French (boup coup) or some odd bits of an English pidgin that the camp followers had used.

Some of which is featured, oddly enough, in the graphic novel <<Watchmen>>, itself named from a famous quote in Latin which I still cannot pronounce correctly. Although my complete lack of a classical education leads to little disappointments such as this, it has never stung more than when I had to give up reading John Stuart Mill’s autobiography.

In some casual conversation, perhaps with that private investigator chap, I mentioned this fact (my parents both being in ‘Nam) as partly explaining how my politics might have come differ at a young age from my peer group, or the populace at large. When he asked me to explain that I faltered and merely references the war’s brief mention in history classes and textbooks. Although at the time I thought he was just justifying militarism in a rather jingoistic way I have come to appreciate the truth of my father’s explanation of why we were there and fit into a greater historical continuity.

So, no Vietnamese phrases and I’m not certain I could pick their traditional writing system out of a metaphorical line-up. One thing I did get from all this is additional significance attached to “Chinese New Year” (as the lunar new year in dubbed around here). My father’s unit received the brunt of a rather successful and very violent Viet Cong offensive on that holiday one year. It may have been then that he witnessed his friend’s death. I can’t assert that I have kept his stories straight. That story has a lot of power to it, and is better told in his book. Flippantly, it also lend unneeded seriousness to popular music lyrics that use a particular cliche.

Both of my parents told stories about their war experiences when I was quite young. It was nearer then to them than it would be later, as they had both been back home for several years before meeting, marrying, and having me. At some point I began to participate in this story-telling activity which seemed so important to them. Of course my stories were simple fabrications. Their stories, or quite similar ones are fictionalized most closely in the novel <<Going after Cacciato>> or <<The Things they Carried>> and in her case the television show <<China Beach>> (My mother was stationed there for some time).

I never did get the hang of lying. In English it is even a tricky gerund to spell. Vital issues of ethics and theology put aside for the moment, dishonesty is often complicated. I have enough trouble trying to remember which non-secret thing I am not supposed to tell which person for what month. Actual secrets are another thing entirely. Please do not tell me your computer passwords.

My father knew some German from his childhood there and had learned some smattering of other languages in the Army. In his peak he could manage useful tourist phrases like “Hands up!” in a dozen terrestrial languages. My mother had quite forgotten all of the French she had studied in college by the time I was learning to read English. As I learned some German in school (even some that met on Saturdays) my father tried to recall his so that I could practice. Perhaps also he enjoyed being able to discuss National Socialist history without alarming my mother. She remains quite sensitive to discussion or portrayal of things she views as absolutely evil such as Nazis and child abuse.

Actually I studied Spanish in school before German, although only for that one year. More recently I took a semester of beginning Spanish and was able to recall and rebuild most of what I had originally learned ten years previously around the changes that had been made to the alphabet and language in that time. The simplified Castillano alphabet is certainly an improvement particularly with respect to compatibility with other languages using the Latin characters (actually Phoenician, related to phonetic, I believe). It is no easier for me to type in having been born to a native language that does not have any accents or diacritics at all. As annoying as accents and extra consonants might be, they really are small gnats compared to the strange antiquated ideas built into English and Spanish, German (et alia): namely gender, plurals, conjugation, and occasionally declension.

My studies of Japanese have not yielded fluency, literacy, or even much understanding beyond the blue pencil level, but they have certainly removed any fondness of or patience for any of that rot. There are certainly still some antiquated things in Japanese — and I’m not even going to discuss the writing systems here — including some gender politics that American Standard English or a least a fairly wide swatch of its native speakers are of no doubt envious. On the other side of things, American English usage does nothing to prepare one for the concept of casual and formal usage built in to every other Western European language (at least). In that regard, moving from English through Spanish and German to Japanese is quite the journey, even if some of the words come along for the ride.

ガヅロブ: n. furniture, standalone clothes closet , from French garderobe アルベイオ: n. A non-career job, such as one held by a student from German Arbeit パン: n. Bread, from the Portugeuse

“Casual joking around with your wife at home in private” speech in Japanese is so different from “everyday on the street” speech that in popular language education programs the former is presented entirely separately for advanced students to marvel at, or for verisimilitude. These two are not the only politeness levels and in fact both politeness and formality are highly adjustable and variable in modern Japanese. American English usgae has both but they are uncommonly used and not taught much in school. It is flexibility such as this that makes Japanese such a vibrant living language and so interesting to study.

So, running back though all of that: American English, Spanish, German, Japanese … some tourist phrases in French and Russian and a near inability to hear changing tones that makes it risky for me to try and speak Mandarin to anyone … Oh, and a few poorly recalled words of two constructed languages: i Quenya and ta’Hol. Transitioning right on out of human languages, then.

I can read and understand computer programming code in several common languages, although I’m often at a loss to explain the intent or motivation of the author, much less why they are doing a particular thing. I can compose trivially simple programs in that same collection of languages. The two programming environments I did briefly study so far in my convoluted college career are in fact the ones I have mostly avoid using entirely and I try to avoid even reading them. On the brighter side I have certainly learned to speak the code and jargon of computer operators even including a few specialized dialects.

That seems to be enough banter about language to illustrate a point. I have spent an awful lot of time thinking about and even studying languages. Although I have completed coursework in several other areas, including certificates in two fields which are not specifically language, it seems to be the study of language to which I keep coming back from whatever else has grabbed my attention. Languages, computer hackery, reading science fiction, and video games are what I spend my time on when given the choice. Let the record show that I might have made a solid point based on the idea that play video games when bored.

Leaving aside failed hobbies such as various crafts I have also drawn, written, consoled the distressed, watched telly, and married people a fair bit. I mention these only to point out that I am not an artist, crafter, minister, vegetable, or writer. I’m pretty sure about all that. Ys, even, especially the last one, even as I scrawled this line into a small notebook, and still as I clumsily key it into Scrivener on my Mac laptop.

Quadrille ruled Moleskine, perhaps six inches high.

It’s hardly fair that so many nice words (such as quadrille) come from French, an overcomplicated strangely spelled language. I did pick up some French by being in Paris for a couple days, but I was still astonished when the little book I was perusing illustrated the written form of a common query, commonly pronounced (in pop music) “keska se?”. I shan’t attempt to reproduce it here, so you will just have to take my word. I maintain that French is not a phonetic language, not even as much as the Gaelics. Of course many great artists and writers wrote in French, including Alexandre Dumas pere who wrote one of my favourite novels <<Le Comte d’Monte Cristo>>.

I have the right to make fun of any language’s spelling, actually. I’m distantly related to some folks from Wales (Cymrgh (sp) ). Before a popular entertainer brought the spelling of the name we share into the popular press, I had to carefully spell my name twice for most everyone who wanted it.

Not a writer. Certainly no tin the diagnostic sense suggested by Sam Clemens and Bob Heinlein, among others. I don’t have it like that. The dozen or more pages I have scrawled and pecked in here easily equal the amount of creative writing I have produced in the last five years, probably in total.

And I can assure you that I am not a programmer. I can order computers around and I make a damn convincing argument that I am a good developer but real programmers, even terrible ones, can code circles around me, and have. Along similar guidelines I can safely conclude that I am not a mathematician since I am so bad at executing maths. I am better at understanding it than doing it I also had at least one really bad teacher in high school). In fact this turns out to be true of a number of things. In the case of computer jockeying I can teach the basic operations and core theories quite well to anyone motivated enough to listen and follow along. They’ll shortly be a better tech than I am, especially if they have small nimble fingers.

I have grown increasingly fond of the bumper sticker slogan:

Those who can, do.

Those who can’t, teach

Some have found it insulting to teachers, but I think that is just a misunderstanding. It could also just be my warped perspective.

Often enough I give credit and blame to early childhood exposure to science fiction, particularly that of Robert A. Heinlein and Issac Asimov. Not the least bit of absorbsion has me wanting to write something good enough that other people would want to read it.

Alas, or perhaps luckily, I am not a writer. Nor a programmer. I’m not quite firm enough on my own theology and ethics to take up giving people advice on theirs for money, not to mention that I would have to start my own church, since the existing ones only hire people whose theologies match theirs. That is reasonable of them. Starting your own religion runs up against a sacred principle similar to Marx’s remark about membership in organizations mixed in with the dilemma of the town sheriff.

A good friend of of mine took up being the Buddha for awhile but quit, as his bio notes, because the pay was lousy. I’m not the Buddha, not the moon or the finger.

So what do I do, now that I have crossed off quite a few things? First a few more.

I’m not a linguist or a translator. I am not fluent in any other than my native tongue.

In fact a lot of people have trouble understanding my casual speech patterns and I don’t hear language very clearly and often have to prompt for repetition. And I’m not the Buddha, not even as much as everyone is.

What do I do? I explain things. I learn things and then I explain them, often enough to people who have no interest. An anecdote to illustrate this:

Earlier I mentioned that despite interest in German I studied Spanish is school first. This is because of the heroic efforts of my mother to keep me in good safe schools. That’s a common enough theme, but the actual story involves:

I actually told nearly all of this story to a socially captive audience at lunch the other Saturday. Poor things. It may have gone on for as much as an hour.

In my defense, to explain the two important cases you really do have to briefly discuss the two major precedent cases that the decisions were based on. He was an octaroon, you see…

Why yes, I am pretty handy at trivia games. Just so long as someone else can answer the sports questions.I played sports badly as a child with little enjoyment but only minor injuries. I never much enjoyed spectating, particularly after the local baseball team got popular and greedy when I was still young. An exception is going to a hockey game. I don’t follow the sport at all, but watching a game was quite exhilarating.

Maybe the baseball the hit me in the head did do something. More likely that than the mutagens sprayed by the U.S. Army in Viet’nam, right? ——-