Category Archives: Literature

Reasons to learn an obscure language

I don’t need to explain why you might want to learn Spanish or French. Travel, dining, literature, socializing, access to a vast cultural heritage . . . It’s self-explanatory.

Choosing to learn an obscure, difficult, and unconventional language, on the other hand, is an undertaking that offers rewards which the conventional languages cannot.

The opportunities of specialization

Picking a strange foreign language enables you to specialize in something that few non-natives have mastered. This can open up a lot of opportunities, given the lack of competition and surprisingly high demand for these languages.

Work opportunities

You’ll find there are a lot more opportunities for fiscally promising work if you know Farsi, Korean, or Kazakh fluently than there are for Spanish or French. Why? For one, these are hard languages, with few people who know them well outside of the native speaking population.

Some of these opportunities might be in very specialized fields—law enforcement, the military, the foreign service, intelligence work, etc.—while there will still be fewer openings for teaching and translating.

But they’ll often pay well and will bring you into an important position quite quickly.

Academic opportunities

These are similar to work opportunities. Although there are a lot fewer schools that offer programs in Czech or Estonian than in German, you’ll be a much bigger fish in a smaller pond. You’ll have a better chance of doing original research amid literature that hasn’t already been pored over for generations.

You’ll have openings for studying at foreign universities, translating works, giving readings, and working with clever, highly specialized professors and students. It’ll be a lot easier to pursue your goals if you choose a less conventional path.

In this case, I can’t guarantee a job as much of course, unless you’re willing to travel. (Which, if you happened to stumble upon this world-popular blog, I assume you are.)

Social opportunities

Every major American city has a little Serbian and Ethiopian community. Sure, there are plenty of Russians, Mexicans, and European exchange students too, but they’re often so large and diffuse that the community has little cohesion. If you pick a smaller community, you find it’s much easier to meet people and fit in.

My wife, for example, is Polish. You’d not expect there to be many Poles in the Bay Area, but there are a few of them, and they have a strong sense of community. We’ve met them through a number of events and have immersed ourselves into a unique tight-knit group. Could we have had that opportunity among the city’s large Hispanic or Chinese populations? Or, for that matter, among the Russian locals and German backpackers?

I don’t think so. They’re either too large a group, too independent and self-sufficient, or too much on the move.

Access to obscure knowledge

Everyone knows about Flaubert’s and Goethe’s contributions to literature. Everyone can read the Tales of Genji or Anna Karenina on their Kindle if they want to. We’ve probably all seen a couple Antonioni films. Internationalism has set in quite nicely—at least if you’re a big, culturally dominant nation.

But few people still have heard of Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai or Cambodia’s pre-Khmer Rouge rock scene. Choosing an obscure language, you’ll get to be one of the few who has this exciting, esoteric knowledge. If you’re lucky, you can be one of the first to find something new and valuable and reveal it to the rest of the world.

* * *

As you can see, learning a language can often be about how you want to invest in and add value to yourself. Although it may be tempting to pick something that will go the widest and farthest, you can often go farther choosing a language less mined and picked over.

But before all that . . . pick something you like.


Posted by on October 12, 2014 in Art, Career, Language, Literature


The “cuckold sign” in Latin politics

I knew that Berlusconi had made the cuckold sign behind a Spanish minister in 2002, so I was surprised to find another incident in Portugal, where a politician lost his job for giving the cuckold sign to the leader of the Communist parliamentary group.

For those of you who don’t know what a cuckold is, it’s a man who’s wife is cheating on him (there’s a vast amount of literature on the subject). It’s also implied that he doesn’t have the gall to confront her about it and that the situation is obvious to everyone in the community. To use common parlance, the man is whipped. And, surprise, surprise, it can be a pretty big insult—or just a joke. So the very symbol itself has heavy connotations.

In America, you only really see the “real cuckold” sign at metal concerts. We have our less serious form, known as “bunny ears” or the “v-sign” which might be a simplified, somewhat less serious cuckold sign. This prank is common, but people in the Latin world seem to prefer using the full cuckold sign, and it still carries with it the medieval meaning.

Cuckoldry is really a cross-cultural phenomenon, but there is an interesting explanation of what it meant to the Greeks, who took it a bit more seriously than some other cultures.

… the act of disobedience by which she damages her husband most severely is adultery. In adultery she makes her husband a cuckold (κερατ□ς), one who wears a horn. ‘She puts horns on him’ (το□ βάζει κέρατα), it is said. The implication that the cuckold wears a horn may be an ironical allusion to the sexual potency which his wife’s action suggests he does not possess (Campbell, 1964, p. 152)

As such, flashing the sign in a serious setting is essentially calling into question a man’s masculinity. I’m sure, in another era, duels were fought over it. Now you just lose your job.