volume – the phonetic, syntactic, and morphological space that a word occupies. A very “long” word is one with a lot of syllables, a very “tall” word is one with a lot of morphemes.
Let me preface everything I’m about to say by first checking my privilege: I’m a white American. I’m affluent enough to up and move ten thousand miles without putting my whole family in serious financial peril. I natively speak English, and have never been forced to learn a second language because of my place in situation. I have never worked for minimum wage in the United States. I went to college mostly on loans.
Next, let me complicate my privilege a little bit: I’m the racial minority where I live. I do not have permanent residence here. The work I do puts me in a sometimes-fluctuating legal status, even though I am a legal alien. I’m the linguistic minority, and share no language with the government of the country I live in. I rely almost entirely on my employer and my bilingual friends to help me with legal and financial transactions. I’m learning, but I work full time and cannot devote enough time to the language to make a serious scholarly effort at it– my efforts are all pragmatic, all focused on getting me through my day-to-day routine.
This does not remove my white privilege, nor does it change the (quantifiable) fact of my linguistic privilege– I am employed because I speak English. That is the primary reason I am employed. My degree, my skills, my personal qualities are all secondary to this.
So! All that said, my kindergarteners are weird. Just last week, I got switched into a K2 class– what Americans would expect as normal kindergarten age, around four or five years old. They’ve had one year of school already, in K1, which is essentially preschool-with-high-expectations. After a year of ESL immersion in K1, my K2 kids are basically fluent in classroom English. They know the alphabet, they know all the objects in the room, they know most of the verbs we encounter every day (sit down, clean your bowl, go get a tissue, stop hitting your classmates, be quiet, don’t put your shoes there, color nicely, be careful not to drop your crayons, etc etc). They comprehend surprisingly complex syntactic constructions from me. They’ll parse conditionals, embedded clauses, WH-clefts, all sorts of bizarre shit that I can’t always explain analytically. They speak to me in English. They stutter almost exactly like American kindergarteners stutter. They get too excited to form words slowly, and garble everything together– exactly like American kindergarteners. There are very few times when I don’t understand them because of a language barrier. (I even understand some very basic child-uttered Chinese, like wo mei yo “I didn’t do it/I don’t have it!” and bu yao “I don’t wanna!”)
For the most part, they also speak to my Chinese co-teacher in English, and she does the same to them. This is where it gets interesting, though– for emotional concepts, or confusing things, the kids or my co-teacher will switch into Chinese. It’s just easier for them, and it’s not so impolite to me that they’d get in trouble. When she’s trying to figure out why someone’s crying, or trying to explain a difficult new task that we’re doing, Chinese is just smoother. My co-teacher will usually translate anything that I need to know, so I’m not terribly out of the loop. My kids will usually remember not to try to speak Chinese with me, though when they’re very emotional they sometimes forget.
With each other, the kids mostly speak Chinese. They speak it when they’re playing, or coloring and trading crayons, or gossiping, or teasing. There are only two situations in which I’ve ever heard these kids speak English to each other: either they’re bossing a classmate around (for general bossy reasons, or repeating my directions to get them to hurry up), or they’re calling them out for some perceived slight. English is the language of instruction and discipline, to them; this is what they use it for with me, so it’s what they use it for with each other. I’m constantly surprised with how consistent this is– I’ve seen similar behavior in my elementary students, and it gets more cemented the longer they’re in this format of school. Chinese is what you use for an emotional conversation; English is what you use for an official one. This is a kind of bilingualism that has the diglossia very finely cut, so the slices are almost translucent. They’ll change between sentences, but the code-switch is so controlled by this factor that I can sometimes figure out what they’re saying just by the fact that it’s not in English.
Anyways. It’s a thing. Thoughts, internet?
Stanislaw Lem, author of Imaginary Magnitudes, source of the “eruntics” portion of this blog’s title, also wrote The Futurological Congress, which I am currently in the middle of. Here is a passage, from pretty late in the game. (If you’ve read any Lem, though, you know it’s impossible to be spoiled, so don’t worry.)
“[…] without a couple of good, stiff shots I couldn’t be a futurologian today!”
“That word means something different now. A futurologist makes profutes, prognoses, prophecies, while I deal exclusively with theory. This is a completely new field, unknown in our day. You might call it divination through linguistic derivation. Morphological forecasting! Projective etymology!”
“Never heard of it. How does it work?”
To tell the truth, I had asked more out of politeness than curiosity, but he didn’t seem to notice. Meanwhile the waiters brought our soup and, with it, a bottle of Chablis, vintage 1997. A good year.
“Linguistic futurology investigates the future through the transformational possibilities of language,” Trottelreiner explained.
“I don’t understand.”
“A man can only control what he comprehends, and comprehend only what he is able to put into words. The inexpressible therefore is unknowable. By examining future stages in the evolution of language we come to learn what discoveries, changes and social revolutions the language will be capable, some day, of reflecting.”
“Amazing. How exactly is this done?”
“Our research is conducted with the aid of the very largest computers, for man by himself could never keep track of all the variations. By variations of course I mean the syntagmatic-paradigmatic permutations of the language, but quantized…”
“Forgive me. The Chablis is excellent, by the way. A few examples ought to make the matter clear. Give me a word, any word.”
“Myself? H’m. Myself. All right. I’m not a computer, you understand, so this will have to be simple. Very well then–myself. My, self, mine, mind. Mynd. Thy mind–thynd. Like ego, theego. And we makes wego. Do you see?”
“I don’t see a thing.”
“But it’s perfectly obvious! We’re speaking, first, of the possibility of the merging of the mynd with the thynd, in other words the fusion of two psychic entities. Secondly, the wego. Most interesting. A collective consciousness. Produced perhaps by the multiple dissocation of the personality, a mygraine. Another word, please.”
[…]”But these words have no meaning!”
“At the moment, no, but they will. Or, rather, they may eventually acquire meaning, provided [they] catch on. The word ‘robot’ meant nothing in the fifteenth century, and yet if they had had futurolinguists then, they could have easily envisioned automata.”
A little deterministic, yes, but god I like that this is a thing. Wish I’d found this book when I was taking that cyberpunk class, I could write a million papers for it right now.
(7:45:33 AM) stealthbananax4: Walk around?
(7:45:37 AM) stealthbananax4: What time is it there, dark?
(7:45:47 AM) negativecosine: it’s night, and while that doesn’t mean it’s like, closed
(7:46:00 AM) negativecosine: actually Taipei’s probably at its most active between seven and eleven at night
(7:46:06 AM) negativecosine: all the shops, and the night market, and whatnot
(7:46:16 AM) negativecosine: but I am physically worn out from all the schlepping today
(7:46:58 AM) stealthbananax4: Ah.
(7:47:05 AM) stealthbananax4: Taipei sounds rad
(7:47:28 AM) negativecosine: you’d love the shit out of it
(7:48:08 AM) negativecosine: it’s got this weird ass bifurcated sleep schedule, so everything’s closed in the mornings, opens around eleven a.m., stays open ’til like ten
(7:48:27 AM) negativecosine: and the night markets start around eight and go to maybe a little past twelve, haven’t been out late enough to see them close
(7:48:48 AM) negativecosine: if you’re up and about between three a.m. and 10 a.m. nothing’s open
(7:48:49 AM) negativecosine: nothing
(7:51:32 AM) negativecosine: and then there’s the huge intersection of normal market and night market, hence the upswing in activity from seven to ten
(7:51:43 AM) negativecosine: also the interbutts just crapped out for a bit, did I miss anything
(7:53:36 AM) stealthbananax4: Nope.
(7:53:41 AM) stealthbananax4: I like this night market idea
(7:53:58 AM) stealthbananax4: Sounds like a place one goes to buy blow, hookers, and milk because goddammit somewhat finished the carton and left it in the fucking fridge
(7:54:03 AM) negativecosine: it’s sweet, a whole extra layer of shit just… springs up, like, from nowhere
(7:54:16 AM) negativecosine: it’s mostly weird shit, very little actual illegal
(7:54:19 AM) negativecosine: that I’ve seen
(7:54:35 AM) negativecosine: we’ve been sticking to the secondary alleys so far, no tertiary dark ones
(7:54:57 AM) stealthbananax4: Goddammit. Why did not I not sign up for this.
In truth, I don’t think I know yet what exactly I signed up for. The way I’ve been living in Taipei the last few days is bizarre, probably a combination of covert jet lag and really quiet culture shock. We’ve been consistently waking up pretty early, around eight or nine, and going out to find breakfast on the relatively empty streets. In the morning, there are only a few things open, mostly food places, and not all of them. The chains (7-11, Family Circle, etc) are open, and they’re thick enough on the ground that you’re going to be able to get some sort of pastry and tea for breakfast no matter what. The shops don’t begin to roll up their doors until around eleven, by which time the heat has set in, and I’m usually already sticky and a little fatigued by this time. It’s also around that time that we generally make it onto the train for wherever we’re going—it’s one subway stop from Ximen to Taipei Main Station, and from there you can get to most of the country. The high speed rail from Taipei to Hsinchu is amazingly easy and fast, and we’ve gone back and forth three times in three days, taking care of various kinds of business. Getting from the hostel to the subway to the HSR is a bit tricky, mind—the heat and humidity makes every three-block walk through downtown Taipei seem like a Goddamn Intrepid Excursion, especially while at all encumbered by any kind of luggage, and navigating the underground labyrinth of Taipei Main Station was sort of terrifying the first few times. But once you’re on the HSR it’s something like a thirty minute jaunt to go some seventy miles, and it’s air conditioned and there’s a snack cart and everything.
Jubei is a little weird. The part closest to the HSR station—which is where we live, actually—is in a very odd stage of flux, as far as I can tell. The HSR station is very new, probably less than fifteen years, and it’s opened up this neighborhood as a possibility for a commuter’s suburb. As such, it’s almost entirely construction site, with almost no infrastructure. There are dozens of huge, beautiful apartment buildings and condos in the works, but only about half of the buildings (or less) are finished. The sidewalks are cracked, warped, very overgrown. The stray dogs are rampant, the vacant lots are like jungles, and the buses don’t come to most of the future residential areas. I think the thing about this neighborhood is that it’s like it decayed backwards in time—it’s splendid in the future, grand, clean, well-run, but as you move back towards the present it gets decrepit, empty, a little creepy. It’s a pre-ghost town.
The school’s pretty nice, though. And sometimes there’s a breeze to relieve the heat, and there’s a pretty good sandwich shop around the corner. No grocery store—that’s a ten minute walk and then a half hour bus ride into downtown—but it’s enough. It’ll do.
[Typed all mid-yesterday, which is still a slightly fuzzy concept for me]
We left deep enough into the night that the airport, SFO, was relatively empty but for a few dazed travellers– not a few of whom were pajama’d. The goodbyes were not terribly drawn out, since it’s been a solid week of that and we’re all quite fatigued by it. There was the last-minute worries, the mildly-tearful/kind-of-painful hugging, the very-much-more-tearful phone call to leave a voicemail on my absent sister’s phone, and then we were gone.
I was feeling ill and borderline narcoleptic for the two hours between security and boarding; I read only a few pages of Homestuck (by “a few” we mean “a few dozen,” but shush) before dozing off in various locations around the gate. We boarded and I fell into almost immediate unconsciousness. I don’t remember any safety announcements, or taxing, or take-off. I woke up somewhere mid-Pacific, eight hours in, in total darkness, having apparently missed the first of two meals. I spent a good deal of time on the remainder of the flight with my nose pressed messily to the glass of my inadequate porthole, watching the pitch of the sea and the ashy clouds as they were lit from beneath by sharp spikes of lightning.
From the plane to the ground to the baggage claim to the car was uneventful; the most noteworthy thing was our ride, which was some sort of slick black luxury hybrid, and made me feel very cyberpunk (a la Gibson) to ride in. Our driver, though polite, was totally silent for the drive into Taipei, and for the first half of it so were Devin and I. It wasn’t until the red, fat sun first showed his face that we could speak. He asked me how I was doing. I still felt unreal– not surreal, not dreamy, just artificial. I told him as much, and watched the forest of smokestacks that lined the highway belt gray columns of steam or smoke into the gray/orange sky.
We could not check into the hostel when we arrived there, so just left our bags locked there and wandered out into the damp heat. The sun was still not all the way up, and already it was harsh and sticky, and the city smelled strongly of too many things, putridity and sweetness mixing into an overwhelming mix. We walked around for a good while, because nothing was open except convenience stores, and I tried to adjust to breathing the thick air. I’m still having a hard time with that, though it’s been hours since.
At length, over milk tea from 7-11, we decided to ride the subway to nowhere in particular, then honed our destination to Taipei 101, which is the second-tallest building in the world. That’s where we are now; it took a bit of doing, since we couldn’t figure out what subway stop it was, and since we fussed about underground trying to find free wi-fi anywhere. We still haven’t found any, and are still therefore unable to alert our families that we landed alright. Moreover, we discovered that the mall in the tower here is also still closed– we landed at five in the morning, local time, which means the last five or so hours have been largely useless since no tourist attraction opens before ten. We did find that the observation deck on Taipei 101 opened at nine, though, so we’ve absconded up here (on the world’s fastest elevator!) to marvel at the view and try and cool off in the air conditioning. Our next mission is to find SIM cards; then, internet. Then back to the hostel, then probably out to Jubei to look at the apartment.
Devin periodically asks me for my impressions so far. I’ve told him, so I may as well also tell you: I feel very separated, very alone, but not quite so alien as I expected to feel. The language barrier has got me incredibly shy, and so far I’ve spoken to no one but Devin. Without my phone, he’s pretty much the only person I can talk to right now. (He does insist that with the cupla focal, couple words, that I have– and with slow, clear English– I should be able to order food and such, but the shyness has thusfar prevented me.) I have not fully formed impressions of the place itself, though the observation tower here has helped me a great deal in visualizing the grander conceptual lay of the place. Seeing the roofs and the gardens and the streets helps; I can pinpoint differences, similarities, begin to build an epistemic model of what I’m dealing with, here. I’m not as ontotic as I was when I travelled last, which is perhaps a good sign. Perhaps it means I’m building a tolerance. Perhaps it’s just having him here as a stabilizing influence. I think I shall ask him about that now, and then perhaps we’ll descend the seventy floors down to the mall to look for iphone cases or whatever. (Ha, he hit the end of his chapter just as I finished this. Good timing!)