A Question of Semantics
OK, I'm gonna warn you at the outset: this isn't one of the "Paul makes fun of something" columns I usually do. This is the first article in the new "Paul has a seemingly minor experience from which he draws an unexpected and hopefully profound conclusion" genre. These are going to be my new thing. When I get enough articles like this, I'm going to publish them as a book, which I plan to call "It was On Fire When I Lay Down on It" by Robert Fulghum.
The other day I was taking a bus to New York to visit my girlfriend, who may or may not be Gotham City mayor Billy Dee Williams. As I sat at the bus stop, munching on some peanuts I had found in someone's luggage, a stooped, middle-aged man approached me. He offered a folded newspaper to me and pointed at a headline. "INDIA AND PAKISTAN ARGUE OVER SEMANTICS," it declared.
"What this word mean?" asked the man, tapping the word semantics.
My well-trained ear, aided by ample context clues, instantly placed the man's accent as "Indian or Pakistani." My face lit up as I prepared to do a Good Deed. Here was my opportunity to help this man learn English a little better, while simultaneously letting him know what was happening in his native land.
"Semantics," I mulled. He stared at me expectantly.
"It's like the interpretation of words," I said. He met my gaze unblinkingly, waiting for me to use non-made-up English words. "Discussing-- talking about the meanings of words."
The man tapped the word semantics again. "What this word mean?" he asked, with a slightly more exaggerated and irritated emphasis. I realized that the meta-concepts I was using might be tough for a non-native English speaker. Using small English words and staying away from abstractions, I pitched him a slow ball. "Uuuhhuhhggghhgghh..." I gurgled. Mercilessly, the man's finger ticked down again. Semantics. "W-words," I said desparately. "India and Pakistan don't have any real differences, you see... they're just hung up on words." As the finger ticked again, I empathized deeply with the nations' plight. "They have a disagreement about words." Tick." "Words." Tick. "Words. Words. Words. Words," I repeated, each time more helpfully than the last.
"I know is a word," said the man, "but what this word mean?"
At this point, frustrated with what I could see would be an endless reiteration of the "who's on first" routine, I told him that semantics meant "mutual nuclear missile exchange." Satisfied, the man wandered away to make several confused and terror-stricken phone calls to Pakistan, and I was left to bask in my well-earned sense of total linguistic failure.
The whole thing got me thinking. Here was an obviously smart guy. I am a pretty good judge of people, and no mean phrenologist, and just from examining the bumps on his head (which I got the opportunity to do after his phone call, when he headbutted me repeatedly in the stomach and face) I could tell that he was intelligent and great-hearted, although oft given to venting his spleen, and rupturing the spleens of his enemies. In the country of his education, he was probably the kind of professional, paper-reading guy who had no problems expressing himself. And here he had to depend on some scruffy kid at the bus stop to find out what was going on at home.
I know it's a threadbare observation at this point, but travelling does make you dumber. You will never be quite as smart in a second language as you are in your native one.
For me this wouldn't be an issue, since people generally think I'm a prize fool even if I do know the definition of semantics is "words words words words words", but for those who are used to being able to express themselves fluently, it must be a terrible hardship to move to a new country and give up the language you think in. It would be like giving up using your body to move around and instead operating a robot by jamming at an unlabeled keyboard with your feet. If the robot couldn't hold a can of beer without crushing it, could you be blamed? The "Hold can gingerly" button and the "Crush can" button and the "Go on killing spree" button are so close together, and they all pretty much look the same.
At this point, I began thinking some nonsense about "walking a mile in another's shoes" and "making an effort to connect with everyone"-- nonsense which was banished from my mind when the bus arrived. I'm happy to say that I bowled down no less than three foreigners in my effort to get a window seat.
Next week I'll return with the observation, "When you get down to it, we're all pretty much the same, on the inside, right?" See you then!