9 Oct 2015
I was watching a show the other day, and I was struck when one of the characters said, “I’m working on my Spanish.” Okay, it was Narcos. Because I have a cold. And because it is awesome! It made me think about how we use the possessive for language. My French. My German. My Turkish. I realized that the same possessive construction is used in almost every language with which I have even a passing acquaintance. I started thinking about how our language really does belong to us. And then I started thinking about what a beautiful thing that is.
In all this world, there are probably no two people who have the exact same vocabulary in any one language. Some know all the terms for heart surgery, others the specialized terminology of salmon migration (my friend Leah!), still others the idiom of historiography. Some know the names of all the native wildflowers and prairie grasses in their region, others every type of airplane that ever taken to the sky. Some know all the intricate parts of exploding stars, others the proper vocabulary for corporate litigation. In addition to the language we gather to ourselves through our careers and interests, we all carry words with us that we learned from our parents and grandparents (“nuthammer” is my personal favorite), from our friends, from our colleagues, from books or articles we read (or translated) that sent us running to the dictionary. We all speak the vernacular of the place we’re from (y’all!), the places we have lived and studied and traveled. And, of course, we all have our own private and personal languages–with our parents, with our friends, with our partners. Half the fun of being in love is having a language shared only by two.
In all of this world, there are probably no two people who have the exact same vocabulary in multiple languages. One person may know a smattering of Bulgarian and a few words of French in addition to their native Japanese, while another is fluent in Greek and Spanish, with a bit of Cantonese on the side. Our languages are layered, the more of them we learn. My Spanish, for instance, is buried under my French and German, my Latin deeper still. Every now and then there is an earthquake, though, and a few words from those languages rise from the rubble. Puella (Latin, Girl). Abre la puerta (Spanish, Open the door). C’est la deuxieme fois! (French, That’s the second time!) And then there are the words that drift over from other languages and settle on my little Grand Canyon. Kol hakavod! (Hebrew, Good job!). Dobrze (Polish, Alright). Kamsahamnida (Korean, Thank you). I like to imagine that all these linguistic layers are just as bright and beautiful as our most beloved geological formation. And, of course, we all have our own.
Beyond simple proficiency, though, we make our language(s) our own because we inhabit them. We have our favorite words and pet phrases in each language that we speak. And we have our own personal windows onto the worldview of a culture with every little bit of language we acquire. I used to make my friends in the German department laugh by shouting all my favorite words at their German parties: “Kugelschreiber! Vorgeschichte! Umweltverschmutzung!” (“Pen! Foreword! Pollution!” For the record, I am not a fan of pollution, only of the literal translation of this word: the schmutzing up of the environment). And all of my friends in Russia used to laugh at me for my penchant for the cheery “Vse poluchitsia!” (“It will all work out!”) And also possibly for my great love for the ultimate quotidian joke: “Who’s gonna wash these dishes? [Nineteenth-century poet and national treaure] Pushkin?!” In Istanbul I never tired of saying, “Iyi akshamlar” (“Good evening”) or of waving down a waiter to request, “Hesap, lütfen” (“Check, please”). And is there anything more perfect than “L’esprit de l’escalier?” (French, literally, staircase wit; the clever retort you think of only as you are leaving the place where you were challenged). What are languages but ways of understanding ourselves and the world around us? There is so much to celebrate in each and every one.
We all have our individual love affair with language, down to its nuts and bolts. I have an undying affection for the Russian case system (particularly the instrumental plural), and I am dumbstruck by the elegance of vowel harmony in Turkish, even though I will probably never master it. I also carry a candle for the Turkish plural –lar (or –ler, depending on the vowel harmony). But maybe what I love the most is the melody of a language. Russian intonation patterns are a beautiful roller coaster. I do not speak Romanian, but it sounds to me like the most beautiful marriage between Italian and Polish. I love the lilting notes of Italian and the gentle hushes of German. And who could ever be immune to the charms of French?
I’m reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and one thing she mentions that really resonates with me is the idea that happiness is always tied to growth, and that learning a new skill is a pretty sure path to happiness. Why? Because it enlarges our sense of ourselves–suddenly we can fly fish or sculpt or speak Mandarin. And, I would add, this feeling of capably adding new facets to ourselves also makes the whole rest of the world seem that much more accessible. If we can fly fish, why not learn to waterski? If we can sculpt, why not learn how to grow an herb garden? Learning another language, I think, makes the rest of the world seem smaller, and at the same time, closer. Now we have more ways of understanding and describing emotions and paradoxes, as well as flowers and trees. (It is a particular and hilarious pleasure, I think, to be working a crossword puzzle in one language and to think the answer to every clue is…the same word in a different language). But what I love best about languages are the untranslatable parts of them–the words and phrases and grammatical constructs that express some aspect of our lives in a wholly unique way. Languages give us more ways of understanding and inhabiting this wild and wonderful world.
And then there is the pure magic of watching your child develop his own language. So far Micah has twenty-five words (!!), along with a nice smattering of gleeful shrieks, dissatisfied grunts, and hilarious babble. He strolls through our apartment naming everything he sees (“Ball! Bear! Shoes! Water!”), like Adam in the garden. It’s amazing to watch. And amazing to see him begin to understand our language. He answers, “What’s this?” and “Where’s Daddy?” He definitely understands a playful “Mommy’s gonna get you!” He pretends not to understand “No,” but will sometimes humor me by responding to, “Look at Mommy.” But the thing I most want him to understand is the thing I can never ever say to him enough, “Mommy loves you so much.” I love him in every language, in every untranslatable word.