Living in SE Asia creates many questions about languages and their many nuances. Right now my Alzheimer’s is kicking in and I have forgotten what I wanted to say when I arose from my throne on the sofa just before I began to watch one of my fifty cent, first-run, academy award nominated movies on DVD. I’d finished The Ides of March (just so so), The Artist (just above boring), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (read the book, skip the movie), and The Iron Lady (GREAT performance by Merill Streep) and was about to snooze into The Descendants and War Horse.
Ah, the thought has passed from a forgotten short-term memory to a recalled intermediate memory, so better grab it before it reverts…
I wanted to talk more about those guys that select a writer for a Nobel Prize in Literature, or more to the point, about difficulties they face which I believe are insurmountable. Those difficulties begin with idioms, and every language on earth has them and few people who learn second languages ever can grasp the entire range of idioms in the second language.
Just think, there are huge volumes in bookstores about idioms in American English and idioms in the English spoken in England. There are probably books about Australian Idioms (surely the largest of all volumes), New Zealand English, Irish, Scottish, and Indian English. Most of us know what a “Shelia” is, probably due to the success of the ‘Crocodile Dundee’ movies, but there are thousands, perhaps millions of idiomatic expressions with which we are unfamiliar (how about: holdover vs. a hold over, which in itself has multiple meanings), so how can a person who learned American English from studying in school ever hope to understand these major differences created with a space between words?
It is interesting that in looking for an idiom that I thought might be difficult or unfamiliar to my erudite reader, I had difficulty finding one in my small A Dictionary of American Idioms, Fourth Edition. While this speaks well of my familiarity with my native language, I know from teaching English to people with whom it is a foreign language that they would have great troubles understanding 99% of the idioms in the book. They would, and they did.
I first learned of a foreigner’s difficulties with idioms from a Chinese friend of mine who taught English to eleven and twelve year old children in Nanning, China and then emigrated to the USA. She told me that although she could communicate very well with people, when she heard an idiom or an idiomatic expression she became totally lost in the conversation. It was a good lesson for me when I tried to teach, for I tried very hard to avoid idioms and idiomatic expressions in my classes. I also offered my copy of A Dictionary of American Idioms, Fourth Edition for the class as reference material. Few had time to use it.
So getting back to the question of the abilities of the Nobel Committee to judge fine writing in a foreign language, I think they are attempting a vain and futile effort. Sure it is nice for me as an American to see that John Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for Literature (he did, didn’t he?), but I don’t particularly like most of his writing and would prefer that the prize was given to Max Schulman, the author of Dobie Gillis books or to the guy who wrote Auntie Mame (Patrick Dennis?) or Kipling or Edgar Rice Burroughs. They entertained me and made me laugh, taught me about far away places and improved my vocabulary, and that, when it comes right down to it (to use a very popular idiom), is what it is all about (another!)!
And now, back to The Descendants.