I’ve run across another book I’ll have to acquire someday, linguist A. L. Becker’s Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. It’s a collection of essays that describe “Becker’s experiences in attempting to translate into or out of Burmese, Javanese, and Malay a variety of texts… emphasize important kinds of nonuniversality in all aspects of language and look toward a new theory of language grounded in American pragmatism.” I was immediately smitten by this passage in the introduction (Becker has returned to Burma a quarter of a century after studying the language in the late ’50s):
I have always kept field journals about learning languages in various parts of Southeast Asia.
That evening I wrote in my journal, “If you take away grammar and lexicon from a language, what is left?”
Then I wrote, “Answer: Everything!”
At that moment, as I was trying to remember the Burmese I thought I had once known, grammars and lexicons seemed beside the point, just things we do with languages, not things that are somehow within languages, not part of their being as languages. People like me make grammars and dictionaries — these artifacts are not in the minds of the users of languages. Grammars and dictionaries were not what was buried in my memory. This came to me with the force of a revelation.
I was by then a professional linguist, and these questions were important in my profession. I wrote them down, then went back to remembering Burmese words. After a while a doorway opened — a curtain parted (there is no nonmetaphoric language for this) — and some of the Burmese I once knew came back to me.
What I remembered were not patterns and definitions, certainly not rules, but particular things. First of all, a children’s song — the tune something like “Polly Wolly Doodle”: “A poh gyi oh … kha khohn khohn … m’thay ba hne’ ohn … nowght hnit ka . . . t’saung mohn . . . pwe kyi ba ohn.” [‘Old man, bent back, don’t die yet. Come back next year, month of Tazaungmon, see the play.’] I sang it to myself with almost no hesitation, sounding it in my mind. […]
I got the words for ‘back’ (kha), ‘bent, convex’ (khohn khohn), ‘old’ (oh), and ‘year’ (hnit) not separately but together. The tune helped me remember. I am sure everyone has a story like this to tell, some old remnant of learning a language. I think the particularity of it made it memorable. It came with so much particular context: the other teachers, the written words, the children singing, the familiar tune, the rhymes, the story. The particularity made a unique place in my memory for “it,” the little text.
Yes, particularity is vital, and as he says, surely everyone who has learned a language has such remnants, redolent of their first acquaintance with it; for me, a much-anthologized little Pushkin poem plays that role in Russian, and the song “Mo Li Hua” in Chinese.