Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Language and confusion

click photo to enlarge
The pleasure to be found in language is limitless. You can learn history through language, conceive beauty by arranging it well in poetry and prose, better express yourself by understanding it more, create humour playing with it, and reveal your own ignorance by uttering just a few words!

In, I think, the 1970s, at the height of frosty relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, I heard a senior US politician being interviewed by the BBC. He was complaining that the Soviets weren't negotiating in good faith, and were putting obstacles in the way of reducing tension between the two super-powers. "You know", he said, embarking on what he saw as a clinching argument, "it's significant that the Russian language doesn't have a word for detente." I wanted the interviewer to point out that neither does United States English, which is why it borrowed one from the French! But he didn't, and the moment passed. But not without my concern about the safety of the world ratcheting up one more notch!

On another, more recent occasion I was talking to a young boy, newly arrived in England from Malaysia. We were talking about the differences between his country and England, and in the course of our conversation I asked if, during his weekend exploration, he'd enjoyed the pier. He paused before answering, and then politely told me that he'd enjoyed everything he'd laid eyes on, and that England was a fine country with many wonderful sights. It took me a few moments to realise that he thought I was using the word "peer", meaning "to look searchingly"- an understandable confusion by someone young whose first language wasn't English, and who clearly was doing well in it! The homophones of the English language can be decidely baffling.

Today's photograph is of the pier (as in a long structure on legs extending over water!) at St Anne's, Lancashire. I was taking a few shots of it at the end of the day, and captured this one of a figure walking in front of the ironwork. I liked the bold and delicate silhouettes making lattice-work across the orange glow of evening. My camera had a long zoom lens at 226mm (35mm equivalent), and was set to Aperture Priority (f6.3 at 1/1000 second), ISO 100, with -0.7EV.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen