Monday, April 14, 2008

Diseased Ovines and Spilled Beer: Not a History of Scotland

The benefits of studying a foreign language are etc. etc. But also, there are tongue-twisters.

I once came across a list of Finnish ones. Finnish is a tongue with a relatively limited supply of phonemes -- in fact, to the Indo-European eye it looks as though a typist has fallen asleep on the letters k, p, and t -- which means the potential for the kind of repetition upon which the tongue-twister thrives is fairly high. Reading the list (with its handy translations) was a delight, and one in particular was so appealing a sentiment that I promptly undertook to memorize it:

Ääliö, älä lyö! Ööliä läikkyy!

Idiot, don't hit! The beer is spilling!

Now, the Finnish front vowels -- ä, ö, and always y -- bedevil an English speaker such as myself, but still it took very little time before this phrase was tripping gaily off my tongue. Among other things, it seemed useful: the impulse to prevent some drunken, thoughtless partygoer from upsetting one's own beverage -- say, onto the shoes or shirt of a person with whom one aspires to hook up -- is an abiding human motivation. But then again, is this phrase actually practicable? Doesn't its nature as a tongue-twister prevents its use in real life? After all, in English, if one should turn to a friend and say to them, "Pass the peeled poached pears, please, Peter," it comes across as repellently, abhorrently cute (NB: not the kind with puppies -- rather the kind with lisping children of adorable precocity and cherubism). And honestly the Finns are much less likely than the Americans to respond favorably to cute.

Also at issue here is the ease of repetition, which at length began to puzzle me. Finnish tongue-twisters rattle easily from my lips, but telling a simple anecdote in the same language is fraught with pitfalls; on the other hand my English has native fluency, but I cannot opine about the sixth sheik's sick sheep with anything approaching reasonable speed. Is this due to the difference between vowel pronunciation and the damnable fricative "sh" -- or is there in fact an inverse relationship between comprehension of a language and facility with its most deliberately challenging form? I am able to memorize the Finnish sentence as a mere progression of syllables -- almost as a musical rather than a linguistic phrase -- while I am forced to deal with the English one as a set of discrete units and images. And something about my awareness of these images short-circuits the relationship between my brain and my mouth. Bizarre.

But now, having brought up the idea of meaning, we can't get away from it. The meaning of a tongue-twister is an inherently paradoxical business. On the one hand, what the phrase means is entirely subordinate to the sound: 'the sixth sheik's sick sheep' is not at all the same as 'the sextile desert chieftain's diseased ovine.' At the same time, no legitimate tongue-twister strings words together randomly. There is always the pretense of a story, even if that story makes no sense. Case in point: Peter Piper. How in the hell did the peppers get pickled before being picked? Or take sinful Caesar, in whose time snifters had yet to be invented. And what happens to those anachronistic snifters when he proceeds to seize his knees? A further sampling from Finland proves this odd quality is international:

Vesihiisi sihisi hississä.
The sea-monster was hissing in the elevator.

Höyhen löytyi yöllä työpöydältä.
A feather was found on the work bench in the night.

What is really at stake here is nothing less than the purpose of language. Generally our culture falls into two camps on this topic: 1) language as code, as a means of carrying information that is separate from mere human memory, and 2) language as fantasy, as imagination, as symbolic somehow of the real (or some unreal) world. What tongue-twisters point to is the elusive idea of language as specifically aural, a notion which only a very few poets these days really remember, in our world of type and text and videography. Sound, for all our musicophilia, is growing increasingly less important to language: it's strange even to think that the great poets of the ancient world wrote and performed works of staggering length and complexity without writing any of it down. (So far as we know -- but Milman Parry makes a good case.) And somehow -- and it necessitates stating at the outset that I still don't quite know how this tangent struck me as relevant, but I can't get it out of my head -- I thought about action movies. The lines we all remember, the quotes that become cultural currency -- it's at least partially because of the sound. Our greatest and most recognizable action stars: Sean Connery, Arnold Schwarzenegger (way less awesome as a politician than an actor -- a sort of reverse Reagan), Clint Eastwood, Sylverster Stallone, John Wayne, Robert de Niro, Bruce Willis -- all of them have something distinctive in the way they speak, whether it's an accent (Connery, Scwarzenegger, Wayne) or merely an inflection (Eastwood, Willis -- who, come to think of it, kind of sounds like Clint Eastwood). Lines that have virtually no linguistic content out of context -- "I'll be back," "The day is mine, Trebek!" -- become verbal milestones. The cinema studies world is crying out for an aural analysis of the action genre and its contribution to characterization. Maybe this also explains the lack of similar stardom in van Damme and Segal. Sorry, guys, you just didn't have the right sound.

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