Novelist and “Life of Pi” author Yann Martel has lived a life of travel and multilingual adventure. Nothing opens the mind like travel, he says, and nothing defines the self, or how we relate to one another, quite like language. Martel adroitly compares the linguistic practices of different nations, noting how the French are often hungry to adopt English words, but French Canadians resist such intrusion. And he dispels linguistic myths, such as the Inuit having more words for “snow” than other languages. Trilingual himself, Martel gives an insider’s account of this fascinating topic.
Yann Martel: I think my travels and speaking sort of more than one language — French is my mother tongue and I speak Spanish quite well — it does shape you of course. I think mainly traveling especially opened up my mind. My parents — I had the luck of having parents who were peripatetic, first of all as students and then as diplomats. They worked for the equivalent of the secretary of state. They were diplomats working for Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department. So we lived in Costa Rica when I was a child. I also lived in Paris, in Mexico as a young man. And then I got that bug and on my own I continued traveling. So traveling to me is like reading in a sense. You are in a foreign element encountering foreign characters and they mold you. Because when you travel you necessarily open yourself up. I mean I just arrived in New York this morning out of what’s it called — Union Station? Or is it Penn Station? Whatever it’s called here. I come out and suddenly I’m in the heart of New York and you can’t ignore that. You cannot ignore what’s happening to you when you travel. And so it opens you up. It was a lot colder this morning in New York than it was in Washington, so even just the weather. But then all the people. The way they walk, the way they talk. There’s a buzz of activity of New York as opposed to sort of the quieter pace of Tempe, where I was earlier. That opens you up. And then when you encounter different people, you realize to what extent there are different ways of being on this Earth. Obvious ways of speaking, but ways of thinking, ways of dressing, ways of eating, ways of relating to each other. And then in a sense what that does is it gives you options. Each one of us can be slightly different than what we are, you know. Life is a matter of taking what you’re given and then going with it somewhere. You can evolve. You can change. You can learn. You can relearn. And I think traveling teaches you that. And as for languages, language is an interesting one because I find languages can both be an open door and a closed door. So yes, growing up speaking more than one language, learning more than one language and speaking more than one language, it shows you comparative ways in which things can be explained. So there’s all these differences between English and French. One thing, for example, that was lost in English that we still have in French is different levels of familiarity when you’re talking to people. So in French, when you know someone well, you will say, "Tu." Comment vas-tu? How are you? But the "tu" is a familiar form of you. It implies that you know the person well. Either the person is younger or is an intimate.
And if it’s something you don’t know that you’re meeting for the first time, you would say, "Comment allez-vous?" You would say, "Vous." Now we used to have that in English. "You" used to be the formal one. I’d say, "How are you?" when I didn’t know you. If I knew you well, I’d say, "How are thou?" I'd say, "Thou," and that’s been lost. And that’s a nuance that’s interesting to be aware of. When you speak French, it’s a little fork in the road that you are constantly coming to. You instantly have to know how do you speak to people. In Quebec, where I’m from, for example, we get to "tu," to the familiar thou much more quickly. In France you will stick to "vous" much longer. It’s a slightly more formal society. It’s more aware of its formalities. So that gives you a sense right away of how language can be distancing or get you closer to people. And also there’s sometimes some languages have more obviously a word at hand to describe a situation or something than another language. And they also have a very different spirit. English is wonderful because it’s such a cannibal. English because of — English, of course, is a Germanic language, but it’s spoken by these people in this dank, little island called England — but because of Christianization, because of the Norman invasion, there’s a huge influence of Latin languages, of French and of Latin on the English language. And then because of colonialism — of course the English colonized the world — well the language has an enormous vocabulary. It’s an enormously flexible machine that swallows up words all the time. So it’s a beautiful language because of its variety of vocabulary. But what I retain from learning French, for example, from speaking French is of the 26 letters of the English alphabet, I pity the letter R. The letter R is a very sad letter in English. It has no backbone unless your Scottish. So, you know, most of us when we say rural road, rural road. The rural roads of Rhode Island. The R is not a very — whereas in French it would be Les routes de rurales. It’s much more guttural in French. Les routes de rurales. So unless your Scottish and say rrrural rrroads — the rrrural rrroads of Rrrhode Island. Then it has a real personality. So that’s one more thing when I’m writing English and when I’m speaking English actually. I sort of always miss that resonant R that we have in French. So language is an interesting thing because it’s like these patterns of colors and you can compare them. But I’d also argue — this is the converse side and this is what you don’t want to hear — is often I find languages are a closed door.
So for example India — what’s wonderful about traveling in India is that most everyone with any education in India will speak English. Which means despite the fact that in India these people speak over 200 languages is a multi-millennial civilization. It’s an island; it’s a continent civilization. It’s very accessible to those of us who speak English because they make it accessible by speaking English. Compare that when you go to China where Mandarin and Cantonese are walls. Because few of us Westerners speak Chinese, which means immediately you cannot tell if a door says this is the bathroom or this is the emergency. You have no idea what it says. Immediately everything is a barrier. So hence the usefulness of people speaking more than one language or a universal language. Now I’m not advocating English imperialism, but the fact that it is a language that is spoken by people in the billions does mean that we can reach out to people where we wouldn’t otherwise. It makes a huge different when you can speak a language and you can understand the people you are encountering. Otherwise you’re reduced to sign language and, you know, pigeon English or pigeon whatever else. I find when I’m writing in different languages that it can shape what I am wanting to say, but only if I don’t make an effort. If I make an effort, then no it doesn’t. This idea that, for example, that Inuit will have 40 words for snow and that English only has snow is not true. You just have to talk to skiers. English-language skiers will give you 40 different ways of expressing different ice conditions, different snow conditions. I think any language can do the job it needs to do given a little time. Every language will come up with neologisms, new words, to express new ideas. Those neologisms just have to come in and be encountered by the language and then it will. And English is a perfect example. English is coining, you know, for example, "smartphone." The word "smartphone" didn’t exist what, 10 years ago. But now when we say a smartphone we know what we’re talking about. Any language can do that. Some are more adept at it; some are more nimble. English is extraordinarily nimble. France, for example, French is slightly less. If you look at the difference between French in France and French in Quebec; in Quebec a parking lot is "terrain de stationnement." In France, they’ll call it "un parking."
Quebec because they’re surrounded — 6 million Francos are surrounded by an ocean of Anglophones, 300 million Anglophones, Canadians and American, they tend to resist English words coming into it. So in Quebec a sweater is a "chandial." In France they’ll say, "le pull-over," pullover. They’ll use an English word that they’ve Frenchified. A really funny one in France is to go jogging is "faire du footing." Now footing is not a word in English. No one says I’m going to go footing. You can foot a bill maybe or something, but you don’t go footing. So it’s there the English have used an English word that doesn’t really exist as a word for jogging. In Quebec you would never say, "footing." You’d be laughed out of the room if you said, "footing," in Quebec. So it’s interesting. So some languages are more adept at taking on new ideas. But fundamentally I think — and this is where writers and artists come into play — they’re the ones who renew the language and they will do it where they see and when they see a need.