Andrew Snowdon

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

More thoughts on Language and the Arts

In art, language, theatre on Wednesday 23 February 2011 at 8:00

In my copious free time, I’ve been trying to pick up a bit of Ancient Greek.

There are a few reasons for this. The recent Ottawa University (La Comédie des Deux Rives) production of Iphigénie en Tauride (Iphigenia in Tauris), and the upcoming Third Wall remount of Antigone put the idea into my head. I’ve also been working on a play (that I don’t expect will ever see the light of day) that has its basis in Greek mythology, and I find it helpful to get as close to the source material as I can.

The more fundamental philosophical reason I occasionally choose to pick up the basics of a new language, however, is that it changes the way one thinks.

Many, if not most, human beings are verbal thinkers. This shows up in language itself; the English word logic comes from the Greek word λόγος (logos) for “word”, suggesting that all thought is, or can be, expressed in words (and conversely, that all words express thoughts). A few major religious philosophies, Zen Buddhism being a notable example, concern themselves heavily with divorcing thought from the limitations of language.

Language does define, to a certain extent, the way one thinks about certain concepts. Once you’ve gone beyond naming things and actions that we can all agree upon (cat, for instance, or kick), languages diverge markedly when it comes to “higher”, less tangible, concepts (love, peace, serenity). An oft-cited example is “I am hungry”. In English, it’s a state of being. But in French, it is “J’ai faim“; as in many other languages of more direct Latin descent, it is a condition one has. This is a subtle difference. More dramatically, in Japanese, a (polite) request may be phrased a number of different ways: social hierarchy is built into the language, such that one implores a social superior to “hand down” something, but a social inferior to “hand it up”. There are countless examples across many different languages.

The utility of being familiar with how a similar concept is expressed in different languages, or through different artistic disciplines, is one of perspective. Knowing more than one language can free one from thinking about things in one or the other language entirely. The awareness of there being more than one way to express a concept in words permits one to recognize that no one system of words “perfectly” captures that concept, and that concepts can exist independent of symbols.

We can look at the artistic disciplines as a set of languages insofar as they are different ways to express similar ideas. You can take an idea (democracy), a feeling (hopeless bleak despair), or an event (the Spanish Civil War), and one person can paint it, someone else can turn out a song about it, someone else could write a poem, another could write a play, make a sculpture, do a photo montage; each one of these is a valid, valuable interpretation. Each of them is different, even if based on the same inspiration.

Is there a parallel benefit, then, to appreciating more than one artistic discipline?

I certainly believe so. There is no doubt that an appreciation of theatre is increased by the study of literature or dance. Likewise, an appreciation for visual art and sculpture often go hand-in-hand. There is a fantastic trend in the “new media” (primarily electronic- and computer-based) arts to combine sculpture, visual elements, motion, and music in ways that defy categorization.

Science-fiction author Robert J. Heinlein once wrote that “specialization is for insects.” As much as it applies to the rest of human endeavour, I would say that it applies especially to the arts, and we are provided our richest aesthetic experiences by works that cross disciplines.

One day, I may even be able to say that in Ancient Greek.


Je parle le théâtre

In Uncategorized on Tuesday 8 February 2011 at 0:38

When I was about seven or eight years old, I had a realization that changed my life: I realized that if I learned nothing else in school, I had better learn French.

I live in Ottawa, and to anyone else living in Ottawa it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a kid would twig to the idea that knowing French is pretty important here; not only is it essential for most government jobs, but a fair selection of private sector jobs require it too. Not being bilingual is almost a disability in this city.

It was an uphill battle. I was, after all, born in Vancouver to an English (not anglophone, but English) father and a Winnipeg mother. There was no precedent for learning French in my family tree. Latin, Italian, Ukranian, even Yiddish—but no French up either side as far back as anyone could remember. Luckily, I was decent enough at it that I made it through school, taking at least half of my high school courses in French, and I ended up somehow winning an award for it at one point.

Despite my awful accent (which runs the spectrum, according to unsolicited criticism, from “cute” to “Méxicain”), I managed to hold down a (private sector) job requiring me to speak both English and French roughly equally for the better part of a decade.

Another side-effect of learning French, and perhaps the most important, was gaining an appreciation for francophone and Québec culture. It started with watching MusiquePlus, for sure, but I enjoyed reading the francophone literature we were exposed to in school, and renting the occasional Québec film. For a time I even maintained that most of the culture in Canada was in or from Québec… and I’m still not sure it isn’t.

Brian Alkerton asked a question on Twitter a few weeks ago that stuck right in my prefrontal lobe. He asked (I’m paraphrasing as I didn’t have the foresight to save the tweet) if it were possible to fully appreciate Québec culture in the absence of the French language. The question stuck with me because, although my gut answer was “NO!”, I couldn’t say that definitively. It’s a valid point; a lot of cultural product only sells outside of Québec once it’s been translated into English. Is something always lost? How essential is the language to the culture?

It’s a complex question.

Last week, during the undercurrents festival, Kevin Orr directed Andy Massingham and Julie Le Gal in a fascinating experimental piece called Bifurcate Me, about which I’ve already written and spoken to possible excess. One of the features of the piece is that Massingham’s character speaks and understands only English, while Le Gal’s character speaks only French (but seems to understand English—also not unfamiliar in Ottawa). This led to some cute humour within the piece, but also had the effect of dividing the audience into those who understood what was being said in French and those who didn’t, which was evident from who was laughing at certain points. Whether or not that was the intention, it certainly underlined the gap that does exist.

It also brought to mind a more abstract question: Is it always necessary to understand the language to appreciate a cultural work? Well? Don’t we watch opera in Italian, or even German? I had the chance recently to test this question: Wayne Current and I went to see the Once Upon a Kingdom production—children’s theatre of the highest calibre—which was entirely in Russian. Now, I do know some Russian. I know how to say “Yes”, “No”, “What?”, “Please”, “Thank you”, and “I don’t speak Russian”. Beyond that, if I recognize a Greek or Latin root I may be able to get the gist of what’s being said… but otherwise I’m hopeless. I guess I’ll never know what linguistic nuances we missed during the performance, but the plot and the characters were perfectly comprehensible. I think I even picked up a new word or two.

Is there something to that, I wonder?

Isn’t that how we learn language in the first place, even our own maternal tongue? Not by reading it off the page, but by seeing it used? At their most basic, words are symbols devoid of intrinsic meaning; they acquire that meaning by association, and we infer meaning from context long before we run to the dictionary to look up definitions. Theatre and its offspring, film and television, probably provide the richest context (the visual elements, and the interactions between people) possible to observe without the pressure of interaction.

My personal opinion is that, although a good translation or adaptation is by no means a bad thing, any cultural product is best appreciated in its original language, whether one understands it or not.

I don’t expect everyone to share that opinion.

I do expect people to broaden their horizons. We shouldn’t be thinking so much in terms of “English theatre” or “French theatre”—that’s like watching with one eye closed.

There is much to be learned by an anglophone who takes the time to experience francophone theatre; including, but not limited to, the French language itself.