I am thankful that throughout my time in Secondary Education I have studied German as a subject in itself, but also Middle English through learning Chaucer in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The memories that strike me most immediately when I think back to my time learning German, in particular, are those in which I remember learning more about the English language obliquely through the other. These instances which actually informed me of my native language yielded more than a historical-linguistical interest to me, what imprinted them firmly into my memory was the reflections they inspired in which I realised I know so little about the language I have always used. These nuggets of lexical semantics did not present to me just the kind of pleasant or at least curious illumination of my language that might be expected on a surface level, but rather they overwhelmed me slightly, made me mentally recoil with the sudden realisation of that massive gulf of basic knowledge when it comes to the language I live in.
For example, in my AS German classroom sometime in early 2016 I remember reading the word ‘Ostern’, the German word for the festival of Easter, and seeing within the phrase the lexical stem of ‘Ost’, meaning ‘East’ in English. While the proto-Germanic root ‘Austrǭ’ has no semantic similarities to either ‘Ost’ or ‘East’ in ‘Ostern’ and ‘Easter’, it is the root of both prefixes and I was wholly dumbfounded, when I saw this in ‘Ostern’, that I had simply never seen the word ‘East’ in ‘Easter’. I have been on this planet 17 years. I have read, written, spoken and listened to the word ‘Easter’ probably thousands of times, and before that day I had never recognised one of the most rudimentary of English terms within that six-lettered expansion.
Sometimes I only need my own language to realise that I am a deplorable lexical philistine. Later in 2016, during a Religion lesson, I happened to by complete coincidence pronounce the word ‘disease’ with a hard medial ‘s’ instead of a soft ‘s’, so as to say in phonetics ‘diss-ees’ by accident. In this moment of unwarranted epiphany I knew at once: for my entire life I had never realised that the brilliant term ‘disease’ is a cohabitation of ‘dis-‘ and ‘ease’. A loss of ease.
It is almost scary how little we tend to know about our own native language unless we elect to study it linguistically, which is not readily available for most English schoolchildren until university level (in my experience). I have chosen to study English throughout the entirety of my time at Secondary school and I still know less about English linguistics than I do of German, I imagine. There is a crucial distinction between knowing language and using language. Although it is a universal principle that babies can express an understanding of language through speaking far before they can read (which would entail two separate understandings of two separate communicative systems), in Western cultures the phonetics and alphabet of a language are inextricably linked unlike in some Eastern cultures, so we tend to treat the written English language and spoken English language as one and the same when that isn’t necessarily correct. Living in a country that has an absolutely alphabetic principle to language has probably been the reason why I don’t know a thing about English linguistics.
Although this post is about reading Lolita, one of my regrets (which I’m successfully in the process of reversing) is that I really don’t read enough. I do love to read a good book, and I love the gratification that comes with finishing a good book and having processed its ideas. But, the majority of media I’ve consumed which could be considered formative or linguistically formative has undoubtedly been conveyed with screens and with speakers. As such, when I write, I write to reflect ideas which have been conveyed to me visually and aurally, and as such I can go 17 years on this planet reproducing the word ‘disease’ as the phonetic referent ‘dizease’, never realising that as a lexical entity ‘disease’ has a life of its own. For Centuries after the death of Christ written European languages simply weren’t standardised, and standardisation of written English is seen as late as the 16th Century. This does not mean that prior to the 16th Century the English language did not exist, only that it was known primarily through dialect. A standard of written English that is known by most English citizens, in the broader picture of history, is a new thing. This all just goes to show that native speakers of any language can maintain, impress and cultivate a language solely through dialect, and without knowledge or at least proper knowledge of its written forms or linguistics.
This idea might be a contributing factor as to why authors such as Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) penetrated the canon of English literature with such ease as they did. Learning a language through linguistics and lexical semantics, primarily through text and not speech, yields a far deeper and more robust knowledge of the language, evidently, than its native speakers tend to hold. Reading Nabokov has been a mammoth task that I’m not sure why, in retrospect, I ever felt compelled to undertake, and reading Conrad for my AS and A2 Level English exams has been a similarly bewildering experience with less of the reward of reading Nabokov. If I’m expressing a sense of frustration it’s only because a dictionary will need to be referred to every 2 minutes reading either Conrad or Nabokov.
Conrad, Polish, only learned English in his twenties and famously said of writing in that acquired language: “Ah… to write French you have to know it. English is so plastic—if you haven’t got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist like Anatole France”. As well as the ease of neologism which Conrad outlines, it seems that Conrad is suggesting complete knowledge of the English language isn’t necessary in order to convey ideas. I’ve already kind of looked at why this is true above but actually reading Conrad demonstrably exposes the truth of his statement just by the sheer range and depth of his vocabulary compared to his native English writers who are still successful. He has an aptitude only bettered by Nabokov (in my experience) to summon up descriptors so unpredictably creative and apt in his prose, his writing is not a stream of consciousness but a holistic manipulation of a language he has braved to adopt.
Reading Nabokov, a Russian author, is much the same, with a greater intensity of the above retention of vocabulary but also with a perpetual talent for, in his terms, “logodaedaly and logomancy”. Nabokov himself said in the afterword of Lolita:
“After Olympia Press, in Paris, published the book, an American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel. The substitution “English language” for “romantic novel” would make this elegant formula more correct”
The text itself is a brilliant manifestation of Nabokov’s linguistic verve. I have read no other writer with such an ability to manipulate the English lexis, to dissect and rearrange words and subvert the native English reader’s knowledge with unparalleled sleight of hand. I do not think we will see another English linguist as skilled as Nabokov again. What surprises me, then, is that the magnum opus of the 20th Century’s most talented linguist, an explicit exercise in exploring the English language as seen above, a book sealed with Nabokov’s own words “Lolita has no moral in tow”, has been the source of so much conjecture.
I picked up Lolita on the basis that it is one of the 20th Century’s most controversial novels alongside Lady Chatterly’s Lover et al, and I came out of the experience having satisfied none of my original expectations but instead many others previously unknown. It was gripping, fantastic, a torrent of linguistic intelligence, but it was nothing of what I expected. I arrived with certain expectations I had gained from speaking with my friends and from seeing the novel mentioned in popular culture. It was suggested as many things, including an erotic novel. It is not an erotic novel, far from it, it is an awkward fictional memoir of a man who acknowledges his sordid hebephilia and is beside himself, constantly bombarding the reader with solipsistic regret, constantly in-between admiring and confounding his deviant “priap”. There is nothing erotic in protagonist Humbert Humbert’s self-destructive but inescapable desire, and the pitiful compromises it inspires, the “haggled-over handjobs” to give Craig Raine’s example in the Penguin Modern Classics afterword. To superimpose any meaning onto Lolita other than that which Nabokov has suggested, including speculations of allegory about Stalin and tyranny and deception, seems defeating.
I just think it’s interesting that the 20th Century’s greatest English linguist, immortalised in the intelligence and clarity of his prose, can be so wildly misinterpreted. With Conrad’s comments in mind, it calls into question the success of the English language as a communicative tool. If what is delivered by the author cannot be retrieved by the reader even in the case of Nabokov, perhaps the English language is “plastic” as Conrad suggests.