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French homonyms and Japanese etymology

Let it not be said that I’ve misspent the semester break.

The state of my office hasn’t changed appreciably (sad to say), but the pile of books-in-progress at the side of my bed has diminished by half. At this point there is one minor observation I can offer: learn a second language. Two books have made the point.

Kenya Hara’s White (a thoughtful Christmas gift from Mr Jeremiah Johnson) offers an Eastern perspective on minimalism, a topic explored in a seminar last semester and one that continues to fascinate as a multi-disciplinary phenomenon ricocheting under various identities among literature, art, music, and architecture for at least a century. Hara–who is also the author of Designing Design, both published by Lars Muller–uses the etymology of shiro (white) and several related words to explain the nuance of “white” as a concept in tradition Japanese culture. Estimates of the number of words in the English language vary between 600,000 and one million, but I wonder how many of them can equal the subtlety conveyed by shiro.

The Facts of Winter by Paul LaFarge plays wonderful games with language–French–in a dense story-within-a-story work of fiction. I had heard many years ago that French has many sentence pairs that have different meanings (some of them pure nonsense) but which are pronounced identically. Witness these three phrases that each play a role in the layering of LaFarge’s tale:

  • les faits divers (the diverse facts)
  • les faits d’hiver (the facts of winter)
  • l’effet d’hiver (the effect of winter)

As someone who dropped Introductory French three times, I’m singularly ill equipped to read these aloud with conviction or authenticity. But LaFarge attests to their identical sound.

Both of these books brought other foreign word games to mind, such as a Frisian tongue twister that helped the Dutch reveal Nazi sympathizers during WWII (told to me by our AFS son Tjipke Okkema). Or linguistic curiosities like Gaelic, where both one and two are singular; apparently in the Highlands of northern Britain you’ve got to have three of something before it reaches a status worth boasting. They also raised old questions that still intrigue, like the possibility of Chinese crossword puzzles and what English sounds like to someone who doesn’t understand it.*

At sixty-six, there probably isn’t enough time for me to master even the rudiments of another language, and I feel the loss acutely. Don’t make my mistake.

*This last question—what English sounds like when you don’t understand it—has been nicely answered by an Italian television variety program. Search “what English sounds like” on youtube and be prepared to wet yourself.


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