The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

GIBBERISH AND ITS USES: Foreign language studies are an unjustly neglected part of American education these days, a fact that I think every American ought to feel a bit embarrassed and then more than a little concerned about. The study of foreign languages, like the study of history, expands the mind and slows the creeping provincialism of time and place that is all too often a defining characteristic of American civilization. It seems odd that in a society as relentlessly empirical as that of this our Great Republic there is no voice supporting the study of foreign languages as a tool for personal and professional advancement, but facts remain facts: Americans are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages. Indeed, one could make an excellent case that the troubles Americans have in learning foreign languages are dwarfed only by their struggles to learn English, an obscure West Germanic dialect whose native speakers are found, for the most part, on fairly large islands and pool halls.

The slow death of foreign language studies in American schools is counterbalanced by the growing demand for self-instruction CDs, so that the average person who wants to learn a foreign language may pick up the rudiments while driving to and fro from work. I can personally attest to the benefits of this approach, as I have spent a goodly number of transport miles deep in the study of Gibberish. My knowledge of Gibberish, although shallow at the moment, has already stood me in good stead. On my occasional photographic forays to the Great Metropolis, where I do my best to capture the indigenous inhabitants in their native habitat, a few well chosen words of Gibberish are often all I need to fend off the hordes of overly aggressive street vendors trying to sell me everything from a small A-bomb (the better to eliminate your boy/girl/whatever friend with a minimum of physical evidence left over to send you to the slammer) to tap dancing zebus (don’t ask). Faced with such a situation I merely say,
“Ag’du na cha’u’ay no tritogash angleskui.” Then I smile apologetically and say, “No spik Eeenglish.” I follow this blatant falsehood with a small bow and then walk away. The small bow is crucial, however; most Americans may not speak Gibberish with any degree of fluency, but everyone knows that Gibbers are an extremely polite people, almost as fastidious as the Japanese in their respect for the proper use of etiquette in any social situation.

Why, you might be asking yourself, would anyone choose to learn such an obscure language when there are so many other, more popular languages I could attempt to learn. There is Spanish, after all, which remains the most popular foreign language still taught in American schools, followed by French, Japanese, and Chinese. Latin is still extremely popular amongst dead people, as is classical Greek and Akkadian, and Akkadian, which is written on clay tablets with a wedge-shaped stick, also counts as a ceramics class credit in a good many universities nowadays. In the foreign language marketplace, Gibberish is a distinct nonstarter and yet this language has become wildly popular amongst the nation’s cultural and governing elites.

Why this is so is something of a mystery. The Gibbers are a small people, as ethnic groups go; most modern Gibbers and their country as well would fit comfortably inside a caravan of recreational vehicles heading up from Florida to see the grandkids over the summer holidays. But even with their demographic and geopolitical deficiencies, there is scarcely a capital city anywhere in the world where you will not find devotees of Gibberish. More than one modern politician has made a great name for him or her self for spouting nothing but the purest Gibberish in public, and the interested legal researcher can find whole passages in much of today’s proposed legislation written in nothing but Gibberish, usually without a convenient translation. The concerned citizen will often find such exercises in monolingualism in the section where the pol sponsoring this particular bit of boondogglery explains how the government is supposed to fund his legislative brainstorm. There’s nothing that brings out the inner Gibber in any politician faster than having to explain where the money is coming from; some things just sound better (and cost fewer votes) in Gibberish than they do in English.

Gibberish has also become extremely popular in many other walks of life, such as the arts and the academy. One can seldom read a critical essay on modern art, for example, without finding long purplish patches of Gibberish explaining why the reader is too dumb to recognize a modern masterpiece when they see it, a phenomenon that occurred with great frequency as the latter half of the late and now unlamented twentieth century slid its way towards a long overdue retirement. So much modern artistic criticism is written in Gibberish nowadays that it is difficult at times to tell the difference between a paean to the genius of Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol and the New York City regulations regarding alternative side of the street parking during a prospective snow emergency. The trick of distinguishing between the two seems to be that the latter tends to be a bit more abtruse than the former and comes with a large number of meter maids willing to ticket you for your inability to speak Gibberish well.

What is odd in all of this is that the Gibbers themselves have little use for law, the arts, or the academy. Natural anarchists, the Gibbers’ own revolutionary period began and ended when they set fire to their country’s only opera house as a wandering troupe of Wagnerians rehearsed Die Gotterdammerung while listening to the Beatles’ White Album inside. No one is quite sure whether it was Wagner or the Beatles that the revolutionaries objected to, but the troupe did escape from the fire unscathed and with the record unscratched. The record player, on the other hand, was a total write off. When asked about the cause of this terroristic action, one revolutionary told the press that the music sounded too much like the death scream of the yellowfin tuna for your average Gibber to bear, an excellent answer until one realizes that Gibbers live nowhere near the sea and so have no idea what sounds a yellowfin tuna chooses to make in extremis or whether they make any sounds at all beyond those necessary to give the fishermen the middle fin, but then no one ever said that the Gibbers were an especially bright group of people.

To return to the subject, and yes, I think it’s about time too, nowhere is the relationship between Gibberish and its devotees more intense than in the case of the modern academy. Your average professor will write more Gibberish in a week than your average literate Gibber, assuming you could find such a rara avis, will write in twenty years. The Gibbers banned compulsory education after a particularly acrimonious teachers’ strike in 1523 and now educate their children at home. Since most Gibber families are dumber than rocks, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the general level of educational achievement amongst Gibbers tends to be on the low side; they are, however, excellent at sharpening scissors, which is the national sport as well as their country’s leading export. Given this, it is something peculiar that academics find Gibberish so attractive. There are many explanations, but I think the most persuasive one is found in Gibberish’s ability to convey the most complex and subtly nuanced shades of meaning in more than a few words, something that plain English is incapable of.

Still, even with the language’s popularity amongst the elites, it is a shame that more people do not take the opportunity to learn the language. It is among the most beautiful of the unnecessarily polysyllabic tongues and it is among, or so I have heard, the easier foreign languages for an American to learn. I turn to it whenever my decades long pursuit of Spanish frustrates me to the breaking point. My attempts to learn Spanish have been an exercise in linguistic futility, leaving me with little more than the ability to order two beers and ask where the men’s room is. Important things to know, to be sure, but not something that will allow me to read Don Quixote in the original or impress a date with a well-chosen line from Garcia Lorca. Spanish, Polish, Danish, Yiddish, Swedish, Gibberish, Finnish already, they are all mysteries to me, I fear.

Labels: , , , ,



Post a Comment

<< Home