Tuesday, June 28, 2005

"The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell

I'm currently reading "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell, which is science fiction but/and includes some linguistics stuff. I was inspired to by this post by Suzette Haden Elgin, herself a linguistics/science fiction writer. The book has been amazing so far (I'm halfway through it). She writes wonderfully, and it's all very interesting, and above all suspenseful.

What you know right from the beginning is that the Jesuits sent a team of priests and "civilians" to make first contact with a planet called Rakhat, something went terribly wrong, and only one man returned, physically and emotionally scarred. But why, and how? Even as you read about the inquest into what happened, a second storyline starts tunnelling its way from the beginning of the story, telling you all about the people who went on the planet and how the expedition got started. And the painful thing is that you know that every one but one is going to die. But you've started to like them, and it hurts.

Anyway, there's quite a bit on languages in it so far. I liked this bit, where the protagonist, Emilio Sandoz, describes one of his language-learning techniques:

..."Sometimes," he told her, learning forward over the table, speaking without realizing how it would sound, "I begin with songs. They provide a sort of skeleton grammar for me to flesh out. Songs of longing for future tense, songs of regret for past tense, songs of love for the present."

He blushed when he heard what he'd said, making it worse, but she took no offense; indeed, she seemed to miss any connection that might have been taken wrongly. Instead, she seemed struck by a coincidence and looked out the cafe window, her mouth open slightly. "Isn't that interesting," she said, as though nothing else he'd told her so far had been, and continued thoughtfully, "I do the same thing. Have you noticed that lullabies nearly always use a lot of command form?"...
This reminded me of a song we learnt in Arabic class: حبّيتك و بحبّك و هحبّك على طول was the first line, meaning "I loved you, I love you and I'll love you forever". It was kind of neat for remembering the distinctions between the three tenses in Egyptian Colloquial.


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