Anaïs Nin on learning a new language

Despite their Whorfian tang I enjoyed these reflections on language learning from Anaïs Nin. They’re from A Woman Speaks: The Lectures, Seminars and Interviews of Anaïs Nin, edited by Evelyn J. Hinz (1975):

Language to me is like the discovery of a new world, really a new state of consciousness. A new word to me was a new sensation. Reading the dictionary, anything at all, can add not only to your knowledge but also to your perceptions.

Do new languages bestow new states of consciousness? The idea that bilingual (and multilingual) people inhabit different personalities in different languages has much anecdotal evidence to support it – many bilinguals report feeling like different people when they speak different tongues.

Researchers who have studied the phenomenon are equivocal about its implications – it probably has far less to do with grammar than with the environments and cultures associated with the languages.

Anais Nin portrait photo in hoodPsycholinguistics professor and author François Grosjean, for example, has observed that “what is seen as a change in personality is most probably simply a shift in attitudes and behaviors that correspond to a shift in situation or context, independent of language”.

Another passage from Nin looks at vocabulary and the use of particular words in a new language:

I remember I used the word ‘rutilant’, and the American critics all fell on me and said: ‘Why do you use such fancy words. Why not just say gold?’ Well, rutilant isn’t gold. It’s red and gold mixed. So you see, you discover a word and that gives you a new perception too. We mustn’t disparage the language and say: ‘Don’t use the fancy words.’ That word meant exactly what I meant: gold and red mixed. Of course, that’s a foreigner’s advantage. As a foreigner, you explore the language because you don’t take it for granted. You have to study it. So I made more discoveries, because it was new and I was driven on to find all the new words. And then you’re amazed that people don’t use them all.

Rutilant is a word I seldom see. It first appeared in Middle English courtesy of Latin rudilant– “glowing red”, from rutilus “ruddy, reddish”. Rutilous means more or less the same thing, but occurs even less often.

Nin’s comment sent me to various dictionaries to see if they formed an agreeable consensus on rutilant’s meaning. They kind of don’t: it could be “bright red” (AHD), “having a reddish glow” (M-W), “glowing or glittering with red or golden light” (ODO), “of a reddish colour or glow” (Collins). Semantically it’s not so much specified as smudged.

The book, by the way, featured in a book spine poem here a couple of years ago. I had only dipped into it then, but recently read it through.


8 Responses to Anaïs Nin on learning a new language

  1. “[W]hat is seen as a change in personality is most probably simply a shift in attitudes and behaviors that correspond to a shift in situation or context, independent of language.” I’m bilingual in French and English, and while I see Grosjean’s point, what is so fascinating to me about the different personalities evoked by the two languages is that I don’t have to be actually in a French-speaking or English-speaking situation or context to get the effect. All I have to do is switch languages, and suddenly everything associated with the other language is present to my consciousness in a way it wasn’t a moment before. (I wonder whether, if I read Grosjean’s point in French instead of English, I would be more inclined to agree with him. In general, I find French intellectuals more convincing in their own tongue. :) )

  2. This was absolutely fascinating! And I learnt a new word, thank you!

  3. John Cowan says:

    The OED3 defines rutilant as “Glowing, shining, gleaming, glittering, with either a reddish or golden light. Also fig.” This is clearly justified by the evidence : a 1496 quotation says “Lykned to the rose rutilaunt and the whyte lelly”, whereas a 1542 one says “O repentaunce more rutilante than golde”. In the recent quotations, beginning with Browning in 1868, you can’t tell what color is meant, if any: “The chief engineer emerged from the service bay, cradling a rutilant cylinder of metallic glass” (1990).

  4. EmmaSofia says:

    Interesting idea, I welcome all perspectives and insight about the new language- new personality experience.! I once wrote a blog-post about the age of my Finnish-subpersonality. (Finnish is my 4th language, Swedish my first.)

  5. Stan says:

    Sharon: That’s an interesting point about persuasion. I think our personalities, or identities, are more mutable than we tend to suppose, and under certain circumstances are apt to change quite suddenly and significantly; bilingualism would be a familiar and moderate example of this.

    sodiamondwords: You’re welcome! The tricky part will be finding a way to use rutilant in conversation…

    John: It does seem as though it can be either (red or gold), but maybe also both, in a mix, something like this.

    EmmaSofia: “Finnish subpersonality” is a nice way to put it. In my teens and early 20s I had conversational Irish, French, and German, but I’m now regrettably far from being able to write a coherent blog post in any of those languages.

  6. languagehat says:

    Of course, that’s a foreigner’s advantage.

    Or curse. Nabokov, to take a notorious example, was annoyingly sure that he could wield English better than a native speaker, haughtily slapping down anyone who dared object that some word (say, carrick) was too archaic or obscure to be useful in modern prose. He really seems to have believed that if anyone in the history of English had used a word in the appropriate sense, it was the right word for the job. (I started to write “if the OED definition was appropriate,” but then I remembered that “carrick” isn’t even in the OED.)

  7. Garrett Wollman says:

    The mineral rutile is the most common form of titanium dioxide; Wikipedia describes its color as “Reddish brown, red, pale yellow, pale blue, violet, rarely grass-green; black if high in Nb–Ta”. (I checked in an old reference book and it agreed.)

  8. Stan says:

    Hat: “Lovable crank” is an apt phrase here. Like one of your commenters on that post, I thought of Irish carraig too, a word that has found its way into many place names in Ireland.

    ‘I remembered that “carrick” isn’t even in the OED.’
    But thanks to you the editors, as they say, are On It.

    Garrett: Well spotted. Obviously it’s an etymological cousin, and the Wikipedia page introduced me to the fine term pleochroism, a name for the phenomenon whereby a substance “appears to be different colors when observed at different angles, especially with polarized light”.

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