Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Diagramming Palinisms

Kitty Burns Florey at Slate diagrams Sarah Palin soundbites. Rather, Kitty tries to diagram.

I remember diagramming sentences in Mrs. Barnard's 8th grade English class. For a whole-thinking person like me, diagramming a sentence was a great way for me to understand the mechanics of language.

Reading comprehension has always been (and continues to be) a challenge for me. I struggle to find what is being said, focusing instead on the style - wordplay and linguistic tricks. Alliteration and juxtaposition are the shiny objects that distract me from the meaning imparted by a memo.

Recently, I attended a dinner party with guests from several lands who spoke several tongues. The guest of honor, Linda Klepinger Keenan, had given a reading of a memoir she had translated, Beyond Loyalty: The Story of a Kibei, by Minoru Kiyota. Fluent in both Japanese and English, Kiyota wrote in Japanese about his experiences in internment camps during World War II. He asked Keenan to translate his work into English. Other guests had also been published in multiple languages but did not translate their own works.

Other than assignments in Latin class, I had only written in English. I asked them why they did not translate their own works. They explained that each language is unique in how meaning is constructed and imparted. For example, at a Chinese academic conference, a speaker may tell an anecdote and share information leading to a conclusion, a why-this-is-important. Here in the United States, academics expect to hear that why-this-is-important very close to the beginning.

My fascination with wordplay instead of meaning has probably cost me a few A grades, 100 points on the SAT and GRE, and some career advancement. It also gave me a thesis on satire and a sharp wit. Still, I wonder if I am a linguistic foreigner, a naturalized citizen of the English language who has yet to find his mother tongue?

(Thanks to Heather Mac Donald for the tip.)

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