Tag Archives: Alice in Wonderland

Learning a new language can add magic to your writing

 

Trying to learn a new language in your 60’s is a bit like beating your head against a brick wall—in an entertaining kind of way. It’s hard. Much harder than I imagined. First I had to stop comparing my 60-something brain to my 20-something brain.

In my twenties if I’d studied Spanish for five years, I’d have been fluent. Now, after five years of study I’m hovering in the doorway of intermediate, but not fully in the room. I had to learn early in the process to define progress as simply knowing more this week than I did last week. It had to be as simple as that or I would have been utterly discouraged.

So why do it? Why learn a brand new language?

Really, it was to change myself. To feel that even in my sixties and older I could become new. Instead of looking back and wishing that I could speak a foreign language, I realized that I could become someone who did.

Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back, but then once in awhile I get a reward like a talk with a taxi driver in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a pretty simplistic conversation, but we easily chatted for 20 minutes and my husband was wonderfully impressed.

I feel less helpless when I travel, even to a non-Spanish speaking country. So many people around the world speak more than one language. It always rather embarrassed me to not be able to do anything but English (and a few phrases from long-ago French classes.)

Most of all, I’ve enjoyed how my own language has become richer by learning a different one. I can see more clearly how English is a combination of Romance languages (tracing back to Latin, of course) and Anglo-Saxon.

Take the Spanish word “dormir” meaning ”to sleep” derived from the Latin “dormire” which goes even further back into a common root language known as Proto-Indo-European which connects a whole range of languages from Hindu to Russian.

From it we get words like dormer, dormitory, dormant.  But I love how our own English verb for the actual activity is “sleep” coming to us by way of Old English by way of Proto-Germanic. It gives English a wonderful facility for humor and irony because we get to play with two-dollar words like mausoleum from Latin mausoleum. And two-bit words like grave from Old English græf. In English, you can be a scurrilous buffoon or an oafish clod.

Although I knew all those English “dormir” words, even the French dormir, it wasn’t until I was studying Spanish that it dawned on me that the sleepy Dormouse in “Alice in Wonderland” wasn’t just as random choice by Lewis Carroll.

He undoubtedly knew that “dormouse” is rooted in “dormir.” But when I first read it, I didn’t consciously make the connection, but I suspect my subconscious did. And this subconscious connection made this sleepy character feel all the more right.

Learning Spanish has reinforced just how powerful it is as a writer to know more than one language or to, at least, seek out the roots of words. If an author gets names and terms right, it can do half the work of creating a world. JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at this. Rowling, in particular, really milks the Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots of English which give the Harry Potter books that entertaining mix of the grand and the mundane.

Rowling does this over and over again with her names. Albus Dumbledore, a mix of the Latin albus meaning “white” and the very homey, English-y Dumbledore. Or consider Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (lots of earthy Anglo-Saxon roots here) in contrast to Beauxbatons Academy of Magic (Latin and Greek here.)

It certainly didn’t hurt her as an author that she speaks excellent French. She also studied German and got some exposure to Greek and Latin through majoring in Classic Studies in college.

Tolkien was a scholar of linguistics, especially Germanic languages, and even developed several languages of his own. He, too, played with linguistic contrasts, but more seriously and consistently than Rowling. Bilbo Baggins and Aragorn Elessar, the Shire and Lothlorien, Frodo and Galadriel. Obviously both he and Rowling knew the Latin-rooted mortalis. Mordor and Voldemort don’t both sound ominous just by chance.

I don’t expect studying Spanish will turn me into JK Rowling or Tolkien, but maybe it will help me improve my names. After all Mouse and Bear are about as basic as you can get!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distractions

“Foolish Fashions” – from the Library of Congress website.

When I decided to write a little bit today about writers and “distractions,” I went straightaway to the Oxford English Dictionary to check out what the pronunciation of it looks like ( “/dɪˈstrækʃən/” ) because – well, because it’s pretty – it’s the phonetic equivalent of an ideogram. A word, but not a word.  I also checked out its etymology (<from “the Latin distractiōn-em, n. of action < distrahĕre to pull asunder”) and I confirmed different definitions (all basically dealing with the pulling asunder of something – severance, dispersion, stretching, extending – either mentally, emotionally or physically – ouch.) The different definitions all emphasize how a distraction is seen in an “adverse” light, though one definition pushed the word toward a rosier definition, one of diversion and relaxation. While I was at the OED site (thank you, wonderful Seattle Public Library, for your research databases, which save my bookshelves from having to accommodate all 11 volumes of the OED) I also took a look at  some of the earliest examples of the use of “distraction,” such as this one in William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “While he was yet in Rome, His power went out in such distractions, As beguilde all Spies.”

The New Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, London, 1909.

Of course, then I looked up “beguiled” since it’s such a lovely word. The OED is a poet’s equivalent of falling down the rabbit hole. You find yourself in a strange, swirling, distracting and beguiling world, and it’s difficult to find your way back up to the surface. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction.”

All eleven volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary

Let’s hear it for distractions like the OED and even Browning herself. What would the world be like if we always stayed on task? What would clear our palates, and when would we make room for the new? I believe in distractions, a fact my students all know, since in addition to sending them assignments, I send them enough website distractions to derail them from their work. I do that to encourage them to let in the fresh air of new ideas from time to time.

Every so often here at Books Around the Table I’m going to offer up a few websites that I consider good generative distractions – generative in the sense that they lead to new story ideas.  Here are three Alice-in-Wonderland-style rabbit holes (aka distractions) that I’ll send your way today in case you suspect  the air around you is getting a little stale.  Click on the website name below – and get distracted.

Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of Alice in Wonderland

1. Brain Pickings – It’s the “brain child” of Maria Popova, and its stated purpose is to a be a ” human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are.” A typical post has many subjects, such as this one about the artist Maira Kalman.

Maira Kalman and Pete

Or this one about the “sculptural soundtracks” of Nathalie Miebach: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2011/07/12/nathalie-miebach-musical-weather-data-sculptures/

A 3-D rendering of the soundtrack of a storm – Nathalie Miebach

2. TYWKIWDBI – yes, that’s the name of the site. It stands for “Things You Wouldn’t Know If We Didn’t Blog Intermittently.” It is self-described as “an eclectic mix of trivialities, ephemera, curiosities, and exotica with a smattering of current events, social commentary, science, history, English language and literature, videos, and humor. We try to be the cyberequivalent of a Victorian cabinet of curiosities.” For example: Did you know that Cleopatra lived closer chronologically to the moon landing than to the building of the pyramids?

Marble Bust of Cleopatra – 30-40 A.D.

3. The Library of Congress – very dangerous site. You can get so distracted you never get tracted again. Maps, manuscripts, prints, photographs – and a search engine that brings up everything in an instant. The next best thing to actually living at the Library of Congress.

Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress

More distractions soon. Whenever I discover them, I’ll pass them on.