The problem with our public culture is not that it is low-grade: it is that it is fluent, clear, coherent, often vividly expressed, and more or less entirely free of fresh intellectual content

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

The villages we visited were populated by people who spoke Bembe, a Bantu language. My interpreter spoke Bembe fluently. Not all of our interpreters did. Swahili, another Bantu language used as a lingua franca across much of eastern Africa, was sometimes used in Bembe’s place. Monolinguals were sent to my interpreter, bilinguals to the Swahili-speaking interpreter. The occasional French-speaker was interviewed by our Swiss colleague. (She prized those exchanges, a rare chance to speak directly with villagers.)

At the beginning of my first interview, my interpreter asked our villager if he was ready to speak. My ears perked up in an unusual moment. He used a word I knew: tayari, “ready”. Kannada, a Dravidian language spoken in southwestern India, uses the same word for “readiness”—probably borrowed from Arabic via Persian and Hindi. Bembe probably borrowed the word from Swahili, a language that has absorbed a great deal of Arabic vocabulary through centuries of trade. How wonderfully curious, I thought, that a Kannada-speaker from the United States would have this word in common with a Bembe-speaker from one of the most remote regions in the world. I felt inspired—perhaps this interpreter bit would turn out well after all.

My readiness ended there.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Luo Yang

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