Language, revisited


I was reminded by my friend about language. Native language, to be precise.

You see, there was a party today. An immigrant party at the end, an island in time with yummy food and drink and teasing and joking and merry-making. Then there was the catch up about people and relationships and illnesses and deaths and other serious stuff. Then there was the bad music that you can dance on all day and night if you have to, just because you need it after the heavy stuff before. All the above required specific words that would have been difficult to find in normal life, when some of us don’t use our native language every day.

And so we talked. And gesticulated. And exclaimed in ways that made sense in the context but translate very badly. Some don’t translate at all except in metaphor. Sometimes when I talk to people back home it is difficult to translate as well because some of the experiences I’ve had have been here only, and I wouldn’t have used the words there so the translation is choppy and rough and the words don’t flow smoothly in either language.

But my friend recognized that native language has that ease about it, the lack of formality that even swearing doesn’t obtain in a foreign language, no matter how well you speak it. I find I use swearing in English just as I would recite poetry, appropriately, but with the usual coda that it doesn’t quite fit. You know, like reciting poetry in the supermarket doesn’t fit, even if you’re saying it beautifully. Perhaps because you say it beautifully.

I could have had the same conversation in English today. I dream in English and have done so for years, it’s the first language in every day life as my husband and child don’t speak my native language. I write poetry in English although I have despaired of ever rhyming in it. I read more in English and most of the music I listen to is in English as well, if said music has words. But even if talk about insurance and mortgage and work is easier in English my native language remains the one I am most happy to joke in, to express feelings, to say names, yes and no.

It is even funny when it comes to plants. I would know or read the name of a plant in my language. I would then have to research (internet or books, it matters not) the Latin name for it, then go and find it in English. It works the same way vice-versa. Wikipedia is good at this because it sometimes has both languages. And then I would be able to compare the sources, another quirk of mine 🙂

My little one has asked to learn my native language. She already knows some words but not at the putting-into-sentences level, so she doesn’t use them unless encouraged. But we have decided we’ll try. So now I have to find a way. She is not a baby who will absorb whatever it is that her mother says. I will have to teach my child my native language as if it were a foreign one.

How in the world would that work?




Such a simple construction… a few sounds, the associated letters, an agreed-upon meaning… suddenly, you’re in the business of communicating! People use so much of who they are to work with such a simple thing: they hear it, they speak it, they understand and remember it, occasionally they write it, they use it sometimes every day. If they don’t know the word, they may still understand it from the context and children learn full languages from scratch to perfection in just a few short years.

Truly words are amazing, and people use them in so many situations that I am not even going to attempt describing it. Originally, ancient people who have coined names for the naming may have meant something else, but for the Latin and the Slavs the meaning is that of understanding, meeting, gathering. Maybe the unity formed by the sound and sense is what brought the actual word into being.

For me, words are both slaves and masters. I can gather them, and use them, and play with them as time goes and I read more, talk more, write more. There are maybe for you a few people with whom you talk differently, who manage to kick-start your language ability in ways you never use at work or in the family. It is exhilarating to banter and quip with those people, and sometimes I feel as if a wall is coming down. Most of the time I “translate” words, not from my native language to English, but from solemn English to practical English. Translation is, however, by definition measured, reasoned, slow. When that wall is coming down, words flow fast, spontaneous, almost withought thought, like champagne overflowing the cup in sparkling abandon.

But the words as slaves multiply and rebel. When too many are crammed into the little time I have for reflection, they lay siege to the very fortresses of thought and these revolutionaries demand to be heard, to be written, to be spoken. Guerillas of words, organized and efficient, come out in poems and metaphor. There is no resistance that I can mount, all I can do sometimes is delay the inevitable grabbing of paper and pen. They are assuaged then for a while, and tensions that I was never aware of dissipate as if a pressure valve has been opened.

So if I have no powers over the words then they are masters, are they not? I do not feel as if I have much choice, and especially when it comes to writing. And yet they will submit to the sentences I craft, they obediently line up in the verse I mutilate in the modern fashion. Then they are slaves? Or just demanding pets?

Eh, humanizing words (aren’t they human? Stories are ambivalent on this subject) doesn’t seem to work. What to do? Much as I sometimes feel like rebellion, the easiest way for me is adjusting, giving and taking as seems appropriate at that time. There will be times when I speak them and times when I will write them, times when they hold sway and times when I ignore them, times when they help and times when I hinder their flow.

There is a story in my language where all the sounds and words utered by humans go to a land beyond mortality, where they live forever. Someone journeyed there to find a spell and was almost crushed under the weight of memories those words were carrying.

Should we not make sure that the words we utter are worth being crushed under?



Disclaimer: languages come easy for me. I like them and they like me 🙂 It comes, I guess, from being sure of who I am. I have never been in a position where my native language put me at a disadvantage, so I did not have to cleave to it as a defence. That, and opportunity plus whatever natural ability I had made languages easy. Attitude also plays a part. I love playing with language and can retain a sort of fascination for years to come if a language allows play. Say, for example, English (no, really? 😛 ). I still remember the first time it struck me as beautiful: it was my first year learning it, with a teacher whose first language was mine and whose second language was not English 🙂 But she used appropriately the phrases and one of them stuck in my mind: to learn something by heart. Far from the common meaning of memorising, I remember being amazed at a language where memory is associated with the heart, with feelings and ultimately, with love. So it pleased me to learn it, and I did.

If that sounds just a tad idealistic, well, it is 🙂 It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Pronouncing English is a minefield (my stumbling block was “comfortable” – hint: a “table” was involved), I still count better and faster in my language, as for spelling, writing is good, saying it not so much.

My language is Latin where it needs to be, Russian where it had to be, French where it wants to be and English where people were too busy to invent another word or adapt an existing one. This explains the trouble with spelling – my language doesn’t even have the word, it doesn’t need it as it’s phonetic, so what you hear is what you write. And yet if I had to choose a favourite it would be Victorian English with its extravagantly direct compliments and barbed subtle insults.

The way language evolves, how it borrows words from other languages and adapts them over time… this can keep me occupied for days! For example, you might want to check the difference between “to sack” and “to fire”. We use them almost as synonyms but as you may suspect, originally they were very, very different.

I even describe my profession as translating bureaucratese into common language… and a lot of the time it is!

Yet for all that I don’t like jargon and big words. I do use them, and try to use them appropriately, but they make me uneasy so I tend to avoid them when I can. I go all anti-snob and deliberately try to dumb them down (mostly) in my head and sometimes the results are hilarious, sometimes the perceived problem goes away when you put it like that and sometimes they just roll off my tongue with an ease that gets me even more determined to rein them in 🙂

For language is a world of its own, and people have spent time, nerves, money and occasionally sacrificed lives to get to the bottom of it all (try to look for perfect language/original language experiments when you have some time). Gods and first-made people are said to have created the things and life around them (in what language, one wonders?) by making words to name them and saying certain names has always been dangerous to life, soul and country.

And still, with dictionaries bulging at the seams, with new words accepted every year and very few becoming obsolete, still we play…

Anyone for charades? 🙂



Yep, I have been avoiding the subject for a while, for obvious reasons. I may also have to revisit it at a later date, for the same obvious reasons. 🙂

“I love you” is possibly the most common English phrase, probably slightly behind another expression using a four letter word, “F*** off”. It is endlessly discussed, debated, analyzed, sung about and reams of paper have been used to describe various contextual narratives. It does not mean the same thing to two people, it does not exist/cannot be translated as such in all languages and is blunt and non-specific compared with the subtlety of other words it is translated as.

Yes, I know, I am still avoiding the subject. Whingeing, you could say 🙂 Lucky for me, I am not in the business of saying new things, just maybe put together some old ones in a slightly unusual way.

Let’s start with 1:13 Corinthians. Not because of any religious preference, rather from a personal preference, as I believe whoever wrote it was on to it… just maybe not in English. Modern English, that is. The Corinthians passage found in any inspirational setting is commonly known as talking about love. A short search on the internet shows this to be a very novel idea, less than half a century old. I filtered it for the languages I knew the word “love” in and the result was a bit surprising. Modern versions of the Bible talk indeed of love. Older versions of the same Bible talk about charity. This seems to hold true for Romance languages and English (compare King James with New English Standard). German uses the same word, Maori uses the same word, Russian seems to use the same word. Which just proves that what we call love means different things for different people at different times doing very different things.

It would be interesting if speakers of other languages (Asian and African especially) who know English well could check their versions.

I tend to use the older version for that particular passage for one simple reason: I am a child of my age and what I call love was not what 1:13 Corinthians is all about.

I call love the most selfish of all feelings humans are capable of.

Take the love of any God/dess. Take the love of people (parents, children, lovers, friends, neighbours, general population). Take the love of objects or animals or activities.

Now have those “objects” do unspeakable things to you. Ignore you, maim you, kill you.

Tell me, did it change any single iota of your feeling? Can you do anything to change that feeling? For me, the answer is no. They cannot change anything. I cannot change anything. Love remains. Selfish.

And yet if this love is not, the most benevolent deity, the best of people, the cutest of animals and the most useful of activities will not be able to move you. Selfish.

You want to shout it to the world, even if that world is limited to your inner one.

Justice and rule, custom and tradition, principle and wellbeing, all fall by the wayside. Love is the only , incongruous, possibility.