Thursday, February 24, 2011

Works Cited

He didn't know who was right. or what was right; he didn't know if it was a war of self-determination or self-destruction, outright aggression or national liberation; he didn't know which speeches to believe, which books, which politicians; he didn't know if nations would topple like dominoes or stand separate like trees; he didn't know who really started the war, or why, or when, or with what motives; he didn't know if it mattered; he saw sense in both sides of the debate, but he did not know where truth lay; he didn't know if communist tyranny would prove worse in the long run than the tyrannies of Ky or Thieu or Khanh -- he simply didn't know. And who did? Who really did? Oh, he had read newspapers and magazines. He wasn't stupid. He wasn't uninformed. He just didn't know if the war was right or wrong or somewhere in the murky middle. And who did? Who really knew? So he went to the war for reasons beyond knowledge. Because he believed in law, and law told him to go. Because it was a democracy, after all, and because LBJ and the others had a rightful claim to their offices. He went to the war because it was expected. Because not to go was to risk censure, and to bring embarrassment on his father and his town. Because, not knowing, he saw no reason to distrust those with more experience. Because he loved his country and, more than that, because he trusted it. Yes, he did. Oh, he would rather have fought with his father in France, knowing certain things certainly, but he couldn't choose his war, nobody could. Was this so banal? Was this so unprofound and stupid? He would look the little girl with gold earrings straight in the eye. He would tell her these things. He would ask her to see the matter his way. What would she have done? What would anyone have done, not knowing? And then he would ask the girl questions. What did she want? How did she see the war? What were her aims--peace, any peace, peace with dignity? Did she refuse to run for the same reasons he refused--obligation, family, the land, friends, home? And now? Now, war ended, what did she want? Peace and quiet? Peace and pride? Peace with mashed potatoes and Swiss steak and vegetables, a full-tabled peace, indoor plumbing, a peace with Oldsmobiles and Hondas and skyscrapers climbing from the fields, a peace of order and harmony and murals on public buildings? Were her dreams the dreams of ordinary men and women? Quality-of-life dreams? Material dreams? Did she want a long life? Did she want medicine when she was sick, food on the table and reserves in the pantry? Religious dreams? What? What did she aim for? If a wish were to be granted by the war's winning army--any wish--what would she choose? Yes! If LBJ and Ho were to rub their magic lanterns at war's end, saying, "Here is what it was good for, here is the fruit," what would Quang Ngai demand? Justice? What sort? Reparations? What kind? Answers? What were the questions: What did Quang Ngai want to know?

Tim O'Brien, Going After Cacciato

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Spanish Speakers Should Capitalize More

SCOTT: What are you reading?

CARLOS:
Lanación.com.

SCOTT:
Como, ¿la cosa de la oveja?

CARLOS:
No, it means Argentina.

SCOTT:
Lana, sí? Wool, right?

CARLOS:
¡La Nación! ¡La Nación! ¡Dos palabras!

SCOTT:
I'm thinking, lana is wool, so lanación is "wooling" something.

CARLOS: No.

SCOTT:
Like, the act of wrapping something in wool. That is called lanación.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Phonological Distinctions

I’ve noticed that when I learn about a phonological distinction that English lacks – length of vowels, tones, palatization of consonants – I tend not to treat it seriously. On an intellectual level, I know and believe that, yes, e.g., vowel length is distinctive, and is very important to a, let us say, Estonian speaker. On a gut level though, I figure it just sounds a little different and whoever I was speaking to in Tallinn would understand me perfectly well. I mean, I don’t notice the difference in English, so how could anybody else?

This is a result, I surmise, of not having any real world experience with native speakers who would actually be confused by one of my mistakes. If I speak to other English speakers learning Estonian, then chances are they are similarly indifferent to vowel length; they don’t notice my mistakes, because they’re making the same ones. (This is particularly apropos when you’re learning Latin—it is quite challenging finding a native speaker. Our group has been looking for one for a year now with no success. I blame the harsh US immigration restrictions.)

The first time I really bought that different phonological distinctions really matter for native speakers, even if they don’t for me, was when I was having a conversation with my Uruguayan friend, Carlos. I was speaking in Spanish, and I said, “pero,” meaning “but.” But that’s not what I said – I actually said “perro,” meaning dog, rendering whatever sentence I was saying nonsense. A single “r” in Spanish is a single flip of the tongue, whereas a double “r” is a full trill – three or four taps. Learning to trill my r’s was difficult for me, and then after learning it, it proved equally tricky to limit a trill to a single tap. But because we don’t have that distinction in English, I tended to overlook it, figuring a long “r” in place of a short one would just sound a little like an accent, without sacrificing meaning. Plus, surely given the context of the sentence, the meaning would be obvious even if the word sounded a bit off.

But Carlos just stared at me, dumbfounded. Eventually, he snapped his fingers, and said, “Ah, you mean pero.” I’m sure it’s the reaction I’d have if someone said, e.g., “rack” instead of “rock.” (Or when Carlos foretold the Apocalypse). That was when I first really started to take that distinction (and others) seriously.

Sequels

SCOTT: I have an idea for a movie: "The Social Network 2: The Rise of FarmVille."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Works Cited

"Ah! Then you have found an answer?" Li Van Hgoc beamed. He looked genuinely relieved. "Our difficulty has been solved?"

"A piece of cake."

"Marvelous! Honestly, I cannot tell you how happy it makes me. Please, what is the solution to our puzzle?"

"This," the lieutenant said softly.

Li Van Hgoc frowned. "I must be mistaken. That appears to be a rifle."


Tim O'Brien, Going After Cacciato