The Little French English Improvement Project

little french person trying to improve her english, little french english person trying to improve herself, french english person trying to improve a little bit… and blogging along the way. (Now in Deutschland)

Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Quote… unquote.

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on February 6, 2012

There I was reading my book the other day when I saw this:

McLuhan, page 54 of Understanding media: “…as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism.”

Did you see it? I saw it. Hurray!¬† I am an educated woman. The sort who can notice a reference to Shakespeare in a modern text without a literature teacher having to point a chalky finger over her shoulder and leaving a little white mark on the page. It felt so good! I basked for a little while in the glowing warmth of self-satisfaction before realising how pathetic I was. Not only was this a reference to the most famous speech in Shakespeare’s most famous work, but the only reason I knew it is because one day in school I just randomly decided to learn said speech off by heart. Did I do so in order to be a more refined, educated person? No. I wanted to show off. How unscholarly. What’s more, if McLuhan did just happily pepper his book with quotations, Shakespearian or otherwise, he surely hadn’t limited himself to one from Hamlet on page 54. I had spotted one; how many had I missed? It would seem after all I am not the sort of person capable of floating from one text to the next in what the French call transtextualit√©.

So I wonder: how do the other people do it? You know when you listen to the radio or watch politicians on TV. There they all are, debating away when all of a sudden it happens: one of them says something and pauses. Just a second. The rest nod with knowing glances and smile and you know. You just know you’ve missed out on something. You look around nervously. Did the other people in the room get it? Ears peeled you listen and hear a ripple flowing through the BBC radio 4 audience. Did they really get it? Or are they just trying to sound clever? It could just be some obscure reference but all of a sudden, doubt creeps in: could it have been obvious? Are you the only one who doesn’t know? Often a benevolent chairman will kindly clear things up as subtly as they can: “Mr. N., you were just quoting Voltaire I believe… would you say his opinions on Utopia are still…”. And they always get it right.

But HOW? I mean surely they can’t know ahead of time what their panel might come up with. How can they keep in mind everything every politician has said over the past eight years, and everything every second politician has said during the eight years before that? Not to mention every passage from every significant book and article ever written. Some even manage to fit in a couple of pop culture references in there too, before conjuring up musicians, artists, filmmakers and figures from greek and norse mythology. And this database grows daily; with the media capturing every minute of everything, everyone is given the chance to speak out and have their dose of nonsense filed into the global archive. How do chairmen and women keep up?

Do they have the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford Companion to literature digitalized and saved in their brains in zeroes and ones, and maybe a live connection to ever-growing wikipedia, wikiquote, wiktionary etc?

Or maybe I’m just stupid.

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Oooh look! Grammar…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on January 20, 2011

Like oh-so-many people, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship thing going on with grammar, and german grammar in particular. I mentioned a few days ago that Mark Twain called it the “awful language”, partly because of its strange and mind-boggling syntax. I still haven’t read the rest of his essay, but I like to imagine it like a metaphorical summary execution, each rule being dragged out of the dark recesses of a grammar book, into the light, exposed to everyone’s view and shot down. Aaaah, if only someone could do that with Russian genitives…

looking for the local tribes in the German library

But I’m missing the point really, because although I could kill a prepositional verb right now, as well as the person who turned up with the idea of declensions, in fact I really love grammar. I love observing it, and as with most things pertaining to language, I think it’s a wonderful invention. I personally am definitely not a grammarian: I don’t like putting labels on things and saying : “This is the way this should be” or “that should happen in such and such a way because that’s the way it is and otherwise it would be wrong”, just in the same way that I hate it when people put their pre-conceived set ideas on my and label me as “nice”, “boring”, “french”… Some people go through languages with a magnifying glass, a butterfly net and a pair of tweezers, ready to catch a grammar rule, pin it down onto a page and pull it apart under the microscope. I’m much more of an explorer: I travel through the world of languages with my backpack and a safari hat, taking a few notes, and trying to get used to the strange customs of the native compound-adjective tribes. And the populations of these heathen lands are both fierce and shy. I had to circle around the declension village about ten times before I could even get close, and even today some of the little guys won’t come out of their hiding place.

I honestly do get a little thrill of joy when I find out something in the way a language works which cries out loud: I am somehow related to such and such another language. I get pangs of recognition, sometimes, in Russian or German, and I go: but that’s just how it works in English, or I wonder if that’s related to the way they say that in spanish… I get all flustered and most people think I’m crazy, but I just love it. In fact, I’ve long since figured out that’s the only way to understand a language.¬† By observing it in situ. All those guys with their butterfly nets and their glass boxes haven’t understood a thing, and this is probably why there are so many display cases hopelessly labelled: Exceptions

So basically I love grammar, I just don’t like studying it. Am I a linguist then or am I not?

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