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“My Language Is the Sum Total of Myself.” (C. S. Peirce)

It is often insufficiently appreciated by linguists who concentrate on formal grammar in analyzing language structure that the root of human thought and action lies in language USE. Thus it is the SPEAKING SELF (secondarily, the WRITING self) that ought to constitute the basis for theory. The speaking/writing self provides the analyst with evidence of individual human beings’ world view, which underlies their self-perceptions and attitudes/behavior toward others.

The locus of linguistic reality is then the act, the creative moment of speech––a moment made possible by the existing structure of language with its general rules but which transforms that structure, so that linguistic structure is itself always in flux, always being modified by acts of speech.

In this connection, and in order to provide a detailed illustration of the aptness of Peirce’s famous characterization of the relation between selfhood and language, consider below the longitudinal linguistic profile of one speaker (identified hereinafter as J) together with  specimens of his language use.

I. PROFILE OF J:

Male, born Harbin (China), 1928. Mother tongue, Russian. Moved to Japan at age 3, then back to China at age 5, and finally Yokohama at age 8. British and American schools in Yokohama and Tokyo; Waseda International School in Tokyo during war years. Some school Latin and Spanish. Graduate of Tokyo American School in Japan. Two years’ post-war Spanish study in Sophia Univ., Tokyo (classes taught by Jesuits from Spain). Political Economy (= Law) graduate of Gakushûin University, Tokyo. Business career in Japan and USA, incl. extensive use of Japanese at all levels over many years. Appearances on Japanese TV as memory expert. Regular Spanish use during 3-year residence in Puerto Rico. Married to a Japanese. Retired, living in Los Angeles. Habitual  languages: English, Japanese, Spanish. Completely Japanized in outlook, value system, and habits.

LANGUAGES: Russian (native speaker), English (native fluency), Japanese (native fluency, incl. complete command of written language and immense  knowledge of proverbs), Spanish (near-native fluency).

READING: belles lettres (drama, fiction, poetry), history, and biography in  Russian through adolescence and in English throughout life; history and political science texts, also daily newspapers, in Japanese throughout adolescence and adulthood.

II. DISCOURSE SPECIMEN: telephone conversation of January 25, 2010, between J and the author (reproduced from memory)

M: “Moshi-moshi” [Japanese phatic opening phrase of all telephone conversations; rough translation: ‘hello, there’]

J: “Aa, moshi-moshi, Mikaeru-kun desu ka?” [‘Hello, there. Is that friend Michael?’]

M: “Sayoo de gozaimasu.” [in faux humble style: ‘It is so (Sir).’]

J: “I’ve been tracking you. Did your plane leave Albany on time?”

M: “Actually, it left five minutes early.”

J: “What time is your flight from Cleveland?”

M: “Four fifty-five.”

J: “I’m still planning on meeting you.”

M: “That’s good. Thanks.”

J: “Incidentally [endlessly repeated declarative sentence opener in J’s English idiolect, evidently derived from the much more frequent Japanese conversational equivalent tokoro de], you shouldn’t drive a car after taking medicine. Lekarstvo menia usypilo [‘The medicine made me  sleepy/put me to sleep’, referring to an episode a few days earlier when J took Robitussin for a cold and drove his much-coveted ’83 Chrysler Imperial into a metal stanchion], i ia tolknul zheleznyi stolb [‘and I knocked into an iron post’]. Usypilo––that’s correct, isn’t it?”

M: “What did you say?”

J: “Usypilo. Is that the right verb?” [J always apprehensive about his Russian not being grammatically correct.]

M: “Yes, it is.”

J: “I learned it from Papa. You see, I can still remember my Russian, even though I don’t speak it with anyone any more.” [A stock tag in J’s discourse whenever he utters something even slightly out of the ordinary in Russian.]

M:[to himself] “Grechnevaiia kasha sama sebia khvalit.” [literally: ‘The groats (buckwheat) porridge is praising itself’, meaning something like ‘blowing one’s own horn.’]

M: “Yah, yah. You always say that.”

J: “Anyway, have a good flight.”

M: “Thanks, see you at the airport.”

III. Sampling of J’s favorite kotowaza ‘Japanese proverbs/sayings’ (with rough translations)

1. setchin-mushi mo tokorobiiki ‘even the dung beetle loves its own bailiwick’

雪隠虫も所贔屓

2. saru mo ki kara ochiru ‘even the monkey falls from a tree’

猿も木から落ちる

3. saru no shiri-warai ‘a monkey laughing at another’s rear end [= ‘the pot calling the kettle black’]

猿の知り笑い

4. sumeba miyako ‘wherever I live is the capital’

住めば都

5. akka wa ryooka o kuchiku suru ‘bad money drives out good’

悪貨は良貨を駆逐する

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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