May 042013

Another repost from my old blog:

Last night I helped my dad clear the table. “Where do we put the trivet?” I asked.

Then I interrupted myself. “What a useless word, ‘trivet.’ In a way it’s nice that there’s such a precise word for this specific thing, but it’s sort of a waste of mental space to have to know a word that almost never gets used.”

To which my dad said, “Oh, I don’t know. I try to use it three to four times a day.”

And then, over the course of the rest of the evening, he did. Of course, not always in its original meaning, as a noun describing a portable flat surface upon which one sets hot dishes. Sometimes he used it as a verb or an adjective. Which necessarily involved adding some new meanings to its definition, as the context it was used in would dictate.

At first its meaning fluctuated somewhat randomly, but over the course of the evening it did seem to take on a consistent usage. As an adjective it sort of described a state of flummoxed confusion. In fact, in a way it described that particular condition better than any other actual English word did. So much so that I think the word “trivet” (or, in this case, “triveted”) should be adopted for common parlance.

I suspect it could be done so successfully, because at one point my sister had wandered into the room and overheard my dad inserting the word into conversation. It was perfectly clear to me what he was saying when he used it, but not so my sister who had never come across this word before (despite her rather expansive vocabulary). Completely trusting that it was an actual word in an actual dictionary, she asked my dad what it meant so she could add it to her repertoire. I think she genuinely expected that it would have some lengthy etymology, dating back perhaps all the way to Ancient Greece. As opposed to the backyard, an hour earlier.

 Posted by at 4:18 pm
Feb 282013

I’m visiting France for the first time in 10 years, struggling to get my French skills back up to the moderate fluency I’d had before. In thinking about foreign languages I wanted to repost something I’d first blogged when I was still a law student at the end of my semester studying in Germany.

I recently read a cute blog post written by a law student whose toddler son just uttered his first sentence.

“I am struck, as I march wearily through Evidence, at how effortlessly Nathaniel learns. We adults, we must choose to learn something new. We dedicate ourselves to learning consciously. If we didn’t want to learn anything new for the rest of our lives, we could. Plenty of people drift unresisting along that route through life.”

Certainly there is something marvelous, as she goes on to describe, about how children are so inexorably drawn to learning new things, and how they do it so easily. But for grown-ups, maybe it’s not that we’re any less adept at learning but that what’s left for us to learn is things like Evidence. Something that’s learned in a much more mechanical, deliberate, and less-rewarding fashion than the really cool, substantive stuff like walking and talking.

The other day I went back to the bike shop I’ve visited several times since I’ve been in Germany, including in the first few weeks when I had almost no German skills whatsoever. Back then I had to make the staff speak to me in English, since there was no way anything would get communicated otherwise. But on this day I strode in confidently. I asked my German friend for just one word, the particular one for the part I needed. “Why don’t you just ask them for it in English?” he asked. But I couldn’t do that. Not here, anyway. I needed to do this in German. It was a matter of pride.

So armed with my word I went up to the counter and asked for what I needed. The whole conversation only consisted of a few sentences back and forth, but it was indeed back and forth. I asked for what I wanted, the clerk responded with a question, I answered it, and then he provided the information I needed. By the end of it we both understood each other perfectly.

Outside my friend marveled at how quickly I’d learned to speak that well. Now, let’s not kid anyone: I’m only barely functional in German, and my conversational ability is strongly limited by my tiny vocabulary. And what I can say I may not always say quite right, or quite smoothly. But I can communicate in this language, that is clear. And maybe my friend is right to be impressed.

The thing is, it was easy to learn. Surprisingly easy. And much easier than learning things like Evidence. Because unlike rote, mechanical things like Evidence, learning a language is a dynamic process full of reinforcing affirmations. It wasn’t something I learned abstractly and then took a test for, after which I needed to wait days or even weeks for feedback on whether I’d learned anything at all. Learning German in Germany meant that I got feedback immediately, on the spot, with every word I uttered. That dawning look of understanding on the other person’s face, it helped to immediately cement in my brain everything new I’d absorbed.

It does matter, of course, tremendously, that I learned German in a German-speaking place. Learning a language in a rote form, far removed from anyone you could connect to with it, is much like learning Evidence. I gave up Latin in high school for that very reason — it always felt like learning algebra, something with memorizable formulas but no spark of life. But I switched to Spanish in an environment where, although it is a living language, I was so detached from anyone who lived in that language that the educational experience was just like learning Evidence too: a discrete set of material to be learned and memorized, but nothing more than that. And so while I can truthfully say I’ve learned Spanish – I studied it quite a bit over several years – it’s still not a language I can (so far) in any way say I truly know how to speak.

But in the right environment, somewhere where you can explore and decode language with each breath you take and be rewarded for your discovery almost immediately, language is amazingly easy to learn, no matter how old you are – whether you’re toddler in your parents’ arms or a grown-up in a new neighborhood.

Or at the very least, it’s much easier than Evidence.

Feb 182013

I’ve always thought it sad somehow that people tend to groan at a pun. To be fair, a pun is a little hard to react to because it’s not humorous in an obvious, laugh-eliciting way. For a regular joke, or an obviously humorous situation, a laugh is an instinctive, immediate reaction to our recognition of an unexpected absurdity, some sort of ironic contrast between what was anticipated and what was observed. But a pun’s humor is often more subtle. It usually has to be thought about or processed somehow, thus evoking a slower reaction, and its humor is often less starkly obvious. As a result, I think people just don’t know how to react, because a laugh doesn’t just tumble out automatically after hearing one. And in that moment of awkwardness people likely groan in order to shift the embarrassment they feel from being confused as to how to react back onto the originator of the pun.

Still, while understandable, I think it’s disappointing that people do that. A pun, a quality pun, is a special thing that deserves appreciation. It’s your own limitation if you can’t do that; the originator hardly deserves your scorn. Unless, of course, it’s a stupid pun. The kind that’s so awkward and contrived that it needs to be followed by an elbow to the ribs and a “Get it? Get it?” Go ahead and groan at those, because they’re just stupid.

But a quality pun, an efficient package of wit, deserves a more positive reaction, like a genuine giggle upon fully appreciating what was said. It takes some sophistication on the part of the originator to be able to cull from a vocabulary of all possible words just the right verbiage appropriate for the situation that can then be lobbed like a stealth grenade into the listener’s brain, sneaking it into their consciousness where it can then explode in a glow of realized humor. When that realization happens, a giggle – at minimum – should be the natural articulation of the tickle that it makes.

And a particularly well-timed pun should be further admired as a thing of beauty on its own. These are the puns for whom it seems there is exactly one set of circumstances in which their humor could be fully actualized. Said at any other point their brilliance would have paled. It’s almost as if the pun was waiting for its moment, or that the moment was waiting for its pun, and, because it would have been so easy for that unification to have forever gone unrequited, when convergence is able to be achieved it’s really something to savor.

Originally posted on my old blog.