Thursday, June 17, 2010

An ancient art and an ancient language

I've spent this past year learning to knit and learning to read Classical Greek. These things (along with wedding plan) certainly keep me occupied.

I'm kind of obsessed with languages, and I can't remember a time when I wasn't. When I was in the 5th grade I found a book in my school's library, some sort of Teach Yourself Italian for small people, with lots and lots of pictures. I taught myself sentences which were probably grammatically horrifying, because what 10-year-old has a firm grasp on noun-verb agreement in foreign languages? But I was in love. My grandparents had a set of those old, old Berlitz books, one each in German, Russian, French, and Italian, and that's how I would spend my time when we visited.

It is true that having learned a language before makes learning another language that much easier. When my professor introduced concepts such as "adjective declension" in Greek, I sympathized with the glazed-eyed 18-year-olds, but having already learned Russian I thought nothing could scare me.

That being said, every time I learn a new language I have to re-discover just how rich and varied (and challenging) they really are. I've learned Russian well enough that it just seems simple(ish), but of course it's not. You learn a few key words in a language and then you feel like you're off to the races, but then your teacher or textbook starts dropping words like "participles" and "progressive aspect" and you realize just how little you actually know.

I've found knitting to be like this too. I've crocheted and crocheted and crocheted, to the extent that nothing scares me any more. There are a few techniques I haven't used but I know I can learn them. Knitting is starting all over again. And I had forgotten just how rich and varied (and challenging) it can be to learn a new craft.

But of course that would be the case. A language isn't only capable of expressing ideas like "I like to read in my free time" (the Italian sentence I taught myself in elementary school); it encompasses everything, every thought possible. And the fiber arts have been around for millenia; it was only recently that any type of cloth or garment wasn't made by hand by skilled women (and a handful of men), using techniques they learned from untold generations, able to create any shape or texture or weight or function.

It takes a lot of patience, something I am occasionally short of. I'm jealous of those generations of scholars who grew up reading Greek and Latin, fluent in both, composing dissertations in each, no longer having to slog through verb paradigms and declension charts. I'm jealous of my friends who have been knitting as long or longer than I've been crocheting, who can breeze through a lace shawl or a fair-isle sweater without needing to look down at their work. Sometimes I don't want to have to learn, I just want to be able to do it.

But then again, for me, learning is how I participate. And it really is lovely to get to participate. One verb form and one yarn over at a time.

Greek vase detail of women weaving