The (im)precision of language: Four countries in one day
On my nice, 8 hour trip to Baku, I decided that I owed it to myself to take a break from reading sociology for a day. I have several books in the queue that I've been meaning to read, during opportunities like this - on long, winding road-trips, where the hum of the fans lull the children to sleep, and the landscape gives way to flat planes as far as the eye can see. I first cracked open The Giver when I was just a kid, and, if I'm being honest, the depth of it was lost on me. It turned out that on this particular trip, this book was uniquely suitable. Two things strike me about the story, first is the "precision of language" that seemed so important by the community, but ultimately left much to describe. The second is that memories, emotions, feelings, color, pain and experiences are wrapped up - interwoven - in the language used to express them.
On my little journey, I met six different languages in four different countries. The second leg of my trip - from Icheri Sheher in Baku to the Airport - was full of partial understanding on my part. While waiting for the metro (at Iyrimi Yanvar), I carefully formed some Azeri sentences in my head and repeated them over and over. My goal was simple, one-word-answer questions. "Which stop do I get off to go to the airport?" However, what I got were not one word pronouns, or precise at all. After a few rounds of asking (after the previous answerer was out of site, so as not to think I didn't trust them!), I discovered that the stop I needed to get off (Koroglu) was previously named something else (Ezizbeyov) - and I just found this article to make sure my suspicion was correct.
When I was first learning Azeri, I could only form very precise sentences: yes-no, good-bad, I'm hungry - I'm not hungry. However, even though I was unable to convey that I was, for example, neither good nor bad at the moment, I often would error on the side of good. It made things easier, with much less to explain or elaborate on, no problem to get to the bottom of - and so on. However, my family's "experience of me" is deeply connected with the language I used to communicate, even if I was "meh" - their understanding is that I was "good."
The ability to describe something vaguely and still be understood, is a sign of really grasping the language (and by that I don't mean, using the wrong words or spitting out horrible pronunciations and hoping for the best). That is why, in my opinion, humor is difficult to catch by someone outside the culture (and this is even true in terms of subculturals). None-the-less, the people in our fall training class did manage to communicate (with varying degrees of respect/acknowledgement of the uncertainty and success with which they communicated).
This trip also really hit me in the face with the fact that, as a native English speaker, I am very privileged (for lack of a better term). On my flight to Russia, I was about the only person who didn't know Russian on the plane, but the flight attendant knew English. At the airport when I was having difficulties getting my next ticket, the lady at the ticket counter knew enough English. On my flight to China, the flight attendants knew English, and the police at the passport office at the Shanghai airport also knew English, and the same in Japan. If I only knew Azerbaijani, for instance, traveling on an international flight would be incredibly difficult (especially considering all the little problems I ran into!)
On this issue I claim no entitlement, in fact, I felt a great deal of shame for not knowing the native tongue of the people I interacted with (save for Azeri, although I have a long way yet to go). Unfortunately, there's a limit to the number of languages a person can learn, and that limit is even smaller for the languages a person can wield, imprecisely, to a vague effect.