13 agosto 2004

The Genius of Language

If possession of one language gives us such a leg up on this material world, two ought to be doubly advantageous. As the contributors to this collection suggest, however, things are not that simple, especially for writers. Joseph Conrad, born in Poland, succeeded in forging a unique and powerful style out of his acquired English — but he was an exceptional talent, even among great writers. Can other writers follow his example?

To explore the problem, Lesser, an editor and critic based in California, recruited 15 writers whose mother tongue is a language other than English but who now write in English, at least part of the time. Perhaps the best introduction to the collection is an essay by Amy Tan, a writer of Chinese heritage. In this essay, she tackles head-on the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is of interest not just to writers but to anyone interested in language. The thesis roughly states that an individual's perception of the world is moulded by his or her language. There's something to this theory, Tan writes, and she cites "Eskimos and their infinite ways to say `snow,' their ability to see differences in snowflake conflagrations, thanks to the richness of their vocabulary."

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