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A language I never expected to need.   

Edward Ordman (c) 2015

(an edited version of this appeared in the Christian Science Monitor,
on  July 1, 2015   as   Making myself understood   )

I had to study French in High School, and did not do well at it. I knew I eventually wanted a Ph.D. and was told that studying foreign languages was required for that, but didn’t understand why. I began to realize that other languages might be needed, sometimes unexpectedly, when as a college undergraduate I audited  a course in the Old Testament.  One day I asked the professor, the Rev. Richard Henshaw of the Bexley Hall Divinity School, what sort of research he did.

 “Assyrian literature,” he replied.

I didn’t even know then that there was enough Assyrian literature to work with. But my next question was, “How on earth do you learn Assyrian?” 

He replied “First, you get very good at German, since the textbook is in German.”

It was my first realization of the complexity of some sorts of scholarly work. One of my undergraduate mathematics courses even used a French-language textbook on the theory that naturally mathematicians should know how to read French.  My graduate school insisted only that I be able to read mathematics texts in French and German, but my father insisted I learn to speak the languages. I have needed to read and speak both, and have had to pay to have papers in Russian translated for me, for my research. I’ve even lectured in French, although not in German.

In 1986 I was invited to lecture in Shanghai, China, in English.  I knew the students would read English better than they understood spoken English, so I wrote out the big words on transparencies. (Computer slide shows had not yet arrived.)  My hosts produced a dusty but functional transparency projector, but to aim it at the only blank wall in the room I’d need an extension cord.  They didn’t seem to know the words “extension cord” or understand my request or gestures. The students filed in. In desperation, using some unknown instinct, I turned to the students and asked, “Haben Sie ein Verlangerungschnur?”   I’m not at all sure I had the German correct, but a student jumped up and brought me an extension cord. I asked if he spoke German. No, he said, he had only studied English. But the only foreign visiting professors he had encountered before were from East Germany, and he had learned the German words for the things a visiting professor might want.

I’ve continued to encounter some surprises of that sort throughout my life. Quite recently,  I was speaking with Dr. Fred Albertson of the University of Memphis in Tennessee.  His research involves looking at art from ancient Syria.  One of the most useful  reference works in that area is a collection of volumes called the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum, of which at least some are available online. A typical page contains a copy of an inscription written in Aramaic, a transliteration into Hebrew, and then a translation and a commentary in Latin.  Well, Fred said, that was playing fair. But then he discovered that to work out the dates and chronology of the objects he was looking at he had to go to a book by Harald Ingholt called Studier over Palmyrensk Skulptur, in Danish.  A need to cope with Danish seemed to Fred unreasonable. 

I teased Fred a little about his problem with Danish.  In the Fall of 1987, my wife and I were on sabbatical from the University of Memphis and were teaching computer sciences (“Informatics”) at the Aalborg University Center in Denmark.  We lectured and collected homework in English.  Students were assigned to us for the same reason that I was assigned a French-language textbook in college: they would need to read, and perhaps write, computer manuals in English.  Our colleagues expressed surprise when I asked where to sign up in the course in Danish for foreigners.  I gained some respect from my Danish colleagues with my answer: "There are passages in Kierkegaard's book Fear and Trembling that I want to understand better."  Due to all the similar words from  English and German, I found it fairly easy to learn to read basic Danish.  Unfortunately, Kierkegaard's convoluted sentence structures often proved incomprehensible to me.

A semester later, my wife and I were teaching in the Færoe Islands - a part of Denmark almost as distant geographically and linguistically from Denmark as, say, Puerto Rico is from the United States. I recall one day going sightseeing, being ready to go home, and standing at a bus stop for so long that I finally figured we had inexplicably missed the last bus. We had to hitchhike home.  Much too late, using a Færoese-to-Danish dictionary, I deciphered the footnote in the bus schedule: "This service operates one quarter hour earlier on the Thursday before Easter." 

I realized I was going to have to learn some Færoese.

Edward Ordman

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