Friday, August 06, 2004

Tongue-Tied Wall Street Journal

Fellow blogger Ed Lanza, who reads the Wall Street Journal, pointed out this article by Michael Gonzalez, the newspaper's editorial page editor. Gonzalez belittles Teresa Heinz Kerry's multilingualism by saying that the five languages she speaks is "no great achievement." Why? Well, Gonzalez believes that they are all Romance languages (English is also a Romance language?) and they are really one and the same. Even if Gonzalez is right about Romance languages, isn't Teresa at least bilingual since she also knows English? Gonzalez bunches up French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese and says that if you know one of them you essentially know the others. I wonder why I spent years of my life trying to learn French, Spanish, and Italian (my native language was Calabrese, a dialect spoken in Southern Italy). Gonzalez who is apparently much sharper than me learned them the easy way. Since he grew up speaking Spanish, the other Romance languages (All of them, Romanian, Catalan, Sardinian, Provenzal, Calabrese, etc?) "fell into place.... as easily as they must have for Mrs. Heinz Kerry." Teresa must, like me, be a slow learner, since she also collected diplomas in languages from a university in South Africa and also studied interpreting in Switzerland.
To show that Romance languages are one and the same, Gonzalez translates the following sentence
"I sing the national anthem."
Spanish: Yo canto el himno nacional.
Portugese: Eu canto o hino nacional.
Italian: Io canto l'inno nazionale.
French: Je chante l'hymne national.

I won't comment on the Portuguese since I have never studied it, but Gonzalez mistranslates the Spanish and Italian. By using the subject pronoun (Yo, and io, the meaning comes out with emphasis on the speaker, i.e., the real meaning of his translation is I sing the national anthem (suggests "you" or other people don't). It's a basic point I teach my students in the first few weeks of classes. Gonzalez' article is not really about trying to define what a language is. His interest is in bringing down Teresa and mostly her husband. And that's where he moves in the second part of his piece. He goes on to say that American superpower has made it easy to get away with monolingualism. That's an incredible statement given the war on terrorism requires much more linguistic knowledge. Since much was made about Teresa's five languages, Gonzalez goes on, "Democrats tried to create of a multilingual, worldly wise party, in contrast to the Republicans, a know-nothing rabble led by a man intellectually incurious." It was not very difficult to do, given Gorge W. Bush's actions after 9/11, his inability to get virtually anyone to help him in "his war," and the fact that he is linguistically challenged.
Gonzalez ends his piece by saying that ideas count more than the language in which they are conveyed. He's right. But if you don't know the definition of "language," your argument falls totally apart.

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