The Corner

Bernard Lewis, ‘Making Noises’

On the homepage today, we have a symposium in honor of Bernard Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East. It’s his 100th birthday today. So, there is plenty to read about him. But I wanted to say something in addition here.

The field of Middle East studies was always divided into two branches: language and history. Lewis said, “Nuts to that.” He liked language and languages, historian or not. Do you know how he got into the field in the first place? I’ll quote from something I once wrote:

He studied Hebrew, in preparation for his bar mitzvah. “I was very fortunate in that my teacher was a real scholar, a man who was able to inspire and guide me.” Even after the bar mitzvah, Lewis studied Hebrew — “and that led on to Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and the rest.”

Here is another excerpt, from another piece of mine:

Bernard has “played with” about 15 languages, as he says: “played with.” He has a gift for “making noises.” That is, he can reproduce sounds in other languages, even when he can’t speak a given language very well, or at all. This can lead to awkward situations.

What do I mean? Well, a native speaker may think you know the language when you don’t. And he may suspect that you’re toying with him somehow.

I tell Bernard about Bill Buckley — who, when a child, learned French. I think he had a French governess. Into adulthood, he pronounced the language very well. But he didn’t speak it equally well. He could ask a question in excellent-sounding French — and not be able to understand the answer.

So, what did he do? Now and then, he put on an American accent, just so as not to mislead anyone (and create trouble). “Où sont les toilettes?” he would ask, in a marked American way. Then the people would be slow with him, indulgent of him.

Bernard understands entirely, of course — and “can relate,” as we used to say (in the Seventies, was it?). …

Something else about language: Lewis says you can buy one and get one free — or two free. To take an easy example, Danish. He learned Danish, owing to a Danish wife. And this language led on to Norwegian and Swedish.

Another contributor to our symposium today is David Pryce-Jones — who was once paid the rarest, highest compliment. Edward Said condemned what he called an “unholy trinity”: consisting of Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedourie, and P-J himself. If you absorb the work of those three, you will understand the Middle East, and more.

P.S. To see an interview I taped with Lewis — an hour’s traversal of important matters — go here.

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