Impenetrability, part 5: Unchained Melody
Trip Start Jun 10, 2008
16Trip End Ongoing
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My Finnish is clearly improving, I can spot the signs. It is no longer easier for me to understand the Swedish version of a sign than the Finnish one; one day someone in the street asked me for directions and I didn't have to say that I couldn't speak Finnish; once in the rehabilitation clinic, a nurse asked my boss a question and in a moment of distraction I couldn't avoid the answer slipping from my mouth; another time I was attempting to read the newspaper and asked my boss for the meaning of one word, then I didn't like her answer. You know you are learning something when you can argue with the person who is supposed to be teaching you. Our argument was actually about the role of this one word in the sentence - she said it was an adverb and I disagreed, thinking it was an adjective in an instructive form. Sure, it can be understood as an adverb, it might have been meant as an adverb on that specific case, it might even be almost always employed as an adverb in standard usage, but, the way I saw it, it was still an adjective in instructive form at its heart.
Three years ago I was close to graduating in psychology, and at the same time started a course in mathematics in another university. The fact that it was my second university path allowed me to take it very easily, and to feel free to indulge in my laziness, so that I often remained at home when I didn't feel like spending one hour in a bus to attend the classes. Also I had a good friend studying in the same building and would often, when bored by my class, go to her and propose that we traded our classes for some beers in the bar accross the street. I ended up missing about half of all the classes and also mostly neglected to do the recommended exercises. Then at the end of the term came the exams and, based on its results, I designed a brilliant excuse to further my laziness: The standard way to learn mathematics is to study some small point and then do loads and loads of exercises concerning some applications of it. But when you do that, when you right after learning some general rule spend a lot of effort trying to understand specific uses of it, you tend to form a hard association between the rule, which is general, and some applications, which are particular, and thus upon seeing the former it becomes inevitable to think of the latter, instead of possible alternative paths. And by missing so many classes, by refusing to do exercises and by not wanting to spend a very long time studying the subjects, I was forced to focus on their essence, on the general rules from which the particular cases could be derived, and I was not chained by the habits that limited the other students' lines of thought, and then in the exams I was free to probe many different routes to solve a problem and eventually find one that led to the solution, even when it was unconventional.
In some ways mathematics and languages are the same thing. Of course there are differences between them: one is commonly used to predict while the other is used to communicate; one can only tell the truth while the other is just capable of lying. But at their core, they both are just tools people use to think; they both are at their most beautiful when unchained. In mathematics the most interesting theorems are those that use logic in creative ways; in any language the most interesting texts are those that play with the words' meanings and placement. In a beautiful theorem, the conclusion doesn't matter as much as the process used to reach it, and the final result can be seen already as the process develops; in a beautiful poem, the contents are not as important as the form is, and the meaning is as much inside the words themselves as it is in how the words relate to each other in the text. That is why you can't translate a poem without being a poet, and still then the best you can do is craft a new poem that captures a bit of the original's spirit.
So I decided to learn Finnish because I think it is an interesting language, and the reason I think that is that it is structurally very different from other languages I know, and thus it would provide me with new thinking tools, it would provide me with a very different light by which to see the world. But for that objective to be fully accomplished, I want my Finnish knowledge to be unchained and for this reason I refuse to heed general usage except as a natural consequence of a higher understanding, except as a particular case that can be derived from the general structure. I got a good taste of unchained Finnish in Punkaharju, when I saw there was a room in the rehabilitation center called Ilmatar, and I remembered that I had a CD called Ilmatar, and I thought that was a strange suffix to attach to such a word, and asked Anita what it meant. She responded by dragging me to the clinic's library, grabbing a copy of the Kalevala and sitting with me there, reading through the entire first verse, which introduces the character called by that name. I could understand it loosely with her assistance, explaining the words' placement and inflections. 'It's like this because it means this and that', or 'It's like this because it is, this is the Kalevala and it doesn't always follows proper rules'. It's a really nice book, someday or another I will read it properly. While that doesn't happen, I tried the English version and found out that its content is easily recognizable, but its spirit is totally shattered.