Are Languages Alive?

“Learn a new language and get a new soul.” — Czech proverb

David Abram once described language as something we inhabit — a thing akin to the invisible atmosphere that exists all around us. “Language is less a human possession than it is a property of the animate earth itself, an expressive, telluric power in which we, along with the coyotes and the crickets, all participate.”

The linguist Noam Chomsky said that all humans share one language. For him, language is the universal grammar of our minds. One could say language pretty much is thought itself. His theories don’t delve into the things we lay people call languages: Spanish, English, Tagalog etc. But, other linguists are fascinated by those diverse expressions. To them, languages are a bit like the colours of our thought rainbow. Each colour takes on unique characteristics that reflect specific cultures and environments.

I am learning how to speak Spanish. I am approaching this language with love and respect – as if it were a person. When I was growing up in Canada I was supposed to learn French. It did not go well. Language learning meant memorizing a lot of tables and cramming before a quiz. It was an abstract and mostly meaningless task. Of course I forgot almost everything nearly immediately. I treated the language as if it were a thing or a chore. I realize now I didn’t try to meet it as a person. Je suis désolé, français.

My experience with Spanish has been completely different. I have always seen this language as mysterious and desirable. When I was in kindergarten my family took an extended trip to Mexico. I fell in love with the land, the people, the food and the language. This year, after waiting quietly in the background for far too many years it finally lost patience with me. It grabbed me by the shirt collar and with the voice of Pablo Neruda it said, “Quiero hacer contigo lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos.” (I want to do with you what spring does to the cherry tree.) This got my attention! A chance to blossom? I’ll take it!

What is Spanish? Spanish is a like a tidy but lively home. Or, maybe the adored child that lives there. I don’t know if other languages have something similar but Spanish has a kind of mother/caretaker: the Royal Spanish Academy. Its motto is the charming: “Limpia, fija y da esplendor (Cleans, fixes, and gives splendour). And like a child that has been truly loved, it is confident. Spanish is one of the most popular languages on this planet. It has spread like a beautiful weed across multiple continents. 

For me, the experience of learning this new language has been a bit like falling in love. I want to seize all the words and make them my own but I know that if I am too hurried I will be careless and clumsy; the words will refuse me. So I approach as a lover does. I try to look worthy. I pretend to wear a confidence I do not feel. I straighten my back and push my chin up. Most of all: I open my ears to listen, listen, listen.

I have become aware of the presence of words in my mouth – how they touch my tongue, my lips, my teeth. I watch native speakers intently and find myself copying gestures and tone of voice. Note to self, telenovela role models can be dangerous! I have become perhaps a bit too melodramatic. When Duolingo asks me, ¿Es el gato en la nevera? I rush to the fridge spitting vile curses onto the soul of the imaginary villain who would dare put an imaginary cat into an icebox

Why learn Spanish? Why this particular language?

Honestly, I don’t know why. I just know that Spanish seems to fit. Does the language itself have a personality? Do some languages fit better with certain personalities? Ernest Hemingway had a similar experience. Though he could get around in several languages. Spanish was the one he fell in love with. Joseph Conrad was Polish. He also spoke French and English. Although he made a name for himself in English literature, French was the language where he felt at home. I have heard other polyglots say that they tend to use different languages for different purposes — maybe English for business, French at the café and Italian at home, for example. I’m not sure why I am drawn to Spanish or why I am finding it much easier to learn than French. I just know that is the case.  

Key word: easier. Not easy. Spanish rushes past me like a white water river. As I listen I sometimes despair. The words slide along so rapidly I fear I will never catch any in the wild. Spanish is in fact, one of the fastest spoken languages on earth. Though it is not the easiest language to listen to, when one does grab hold of a word it feels like something precious. And when it comes to words that describe the animist experience, Spanish is un universo de oro.

 

el mundo es un pañuelo    

Spanish has a great animist idiom: el mundo es un pañuelo. Literally, the phrase means the world is a handkerchief but it is typically translated into English as it is a small world. The English expression feels kind of muddy whereas the Spanish expression is a spark to ignite ideas. How small is the world? The world is so small it can be folded and tucked into a pocket. A man might even wear it close to his heart and with some pride.

If the world is a panuelo, it is full of love and comfort. It can touch our tears, wipe our noses or honour the sweat on our brow. A secondary meaning of pañuelo is the scarf. One can fold it, tie it, shape it. In fact, I am pretty sure I once saw a women’s magazine say there were at least 101 ways to tie a scarf.

So when I hear that el mundo es un pañuelo I understand that yes the world is small and presents wonderful coincidences. But, it also is beautiful, ever changing and infinitely complex. The world adorns us and we adorn it. To know that the world is like a bit of fabric is to understand that each thread is connected to every other thread. This is a place of love.

 

 

Sobremesa

Speaking of love and respect, here’s another word I found that I adore: sobremesa. It is a portmanteau of sobre (on, about, concerning) and mesa (table). Sobremesa is that time when people are so relaxed after a nice lunch that they linger at the table sharing jokes, conversation and connection. We all know those moments when time stands still in the service of participating in ordinary life. I love that the Spanish language honours that experience with a word.

 

image courtesy of the artist Farid Rueda

And then there is: Duende

 

From Andalusia and the tradition of flamenco, duende is that “mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.” It describes not the gentle conviviality of sobremesa but those moments when one is possessed by passionate intensity —  when we are aware of the thin edge between life and death or when artistry shines from within. Duende is the soulful expression of what it means to be a fully aware human.

Duende has other meanings depending on where in the world you hear it. Duende is connected to the phrase dueño de casa — or owner of the house. We are always residents, a house or forest is ‘owned’ by its own spirit. In some places the house or forest spirit is considered benevolent. Is duende the being Marie Kondo connects with when she visits a home for the first time? In other places, duende can mean something more sinister or mischievous: a creature akin to the English goblin. Either way, I think I ought to seek out and befriend the duende in my house!

I have so much more to learn about Spanish. I am only beginning this adventure but I seem to have fallen hard for this being. I’d love to know your thoughts about languages. Are languages alive? Do different languages have different personalities? I hope you might share your experience in the comments section.

When mitsubachi isn’t learning how to speak Spanish, she spends a lot of time with bees and flowers. 

25 thoughts on “Are Languages Alive?

  1. I loved reading this playful, joyful meditation on language — thanks for writing it!
    I grew up in a unilingual environment in the US midwest, and studied French in high school and one year in college. No one forced me to do it, and I liked the sound and look of the words, even French grammar I liked … but for me it was like studying Latin in 9th grade. French existed on the page (that I liked) and in the language lab (that I hated). No real person I knew spoke it voluntarily.
    Many years later I fell in love with someone whose mother tongue was French, and that’s when it became associated for me with emotion, to the point that for the 10 years I lived in Montreal, every time I’d get emotional about anything at all, French words would pour out of my mouth and I’d start waving my hands in the air.
    Maybe nobody can express all of who they are if they’re confined to just one language? Or maybe different languages are like doorways to different dimensions of consciousness?
    By the way, thank you for explaining the word “duende” in a way that I can finally begin to understand what it’s pointing toward!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed this essay. I kind of just had to stop because I had so much to say but I know people have limited time to read. I feel some guilt about not appreciating French when I was a kid! It truly is a beautiful language. I wonder if some languages do express emotions better …

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          1. haha, you are the first persons to say that – usually it’s described as harsh and sore-throaty. Though that is mostly true for High German and not the dialects, which are, for the most part, wonderfully versatile, tongue-in-cheek and slurry soft.

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          2. Schmetterling, incidently, means almost the same as butterfly: Schmetter is derived from Schmand, a thick sort of sour cream, and ling, while a ubiquitous suffix, here is derived from lecker… making a Schmetterling a licker of sour cream.
            And you must be the first persons to say that – mostly you hear how harsh and sore-throaty German is. Though that mostly applies to High German, the dialects are, for the most part, wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, slurry and expressive

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  2. What a great and beautiful essay! I definitely think languages are alive and have a particular spirit that, in part, carries the history of the language and experiences of the people with it. I’m not a person who’s a natural at learning languages, and English is my only language, though sometimes I feel trapped in it because it’s not the best at conveying complexity, subtlety, or intangible things. My favorite part of learning at least some words in other languages is that they are powerful vessels of perspective of a culture or collective way of thinking. At a cultural center not many years ago, I learned that the Seneca (Haudenosaunee) word for George Washington is Hanöndaga:nyahs, “Devourer of towns”. That was a poetic and emotional way of opening up a door to a different perspective of the history of my home place, and not what you learn in school or from the collective mainstream ideals. If I would consider myself in love with a particular language, it would be Gaeilge (knowing I’ll never really learn it well) because of the soulfulness of it, the almost intangible complexity of some of the descriptive expressions, how the action is first, and the characteristic of sense of self.

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    1. Thank you! “Devourer of towns” is so powerful. I recently learned he got his start in real estate. That makes so much sense. Good luck with the Gaeilge.

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  3. For me, it is English! I wouldn’t complain if I were to wake up an be able to speak Welsh or Gaelic, but I don’t think I have the stamina to learn (by myself, far from any native speaker). I tried my hand at Spanish three times, but even though I have family in Spain (now Cataluna, though) and the language is so familiar to me that I feel I should be able to just understand, it didn’t really stick. I speak some French, and had half a year of Russian at school.
    As to English, I can heartily recommend Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue and Made in America on the origin of the English language. Those books are brilliant, interesting and funny.

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  4. great essay!!I I have a spanish son in law and love listening to him – perhaps because of where I live I am less interested in human languages and more interested in those around me. not just the birds or the black snake at the kitchen door , but eg our tin roof is so expressive chatting away as it warms up and as it cools down and as it interacts with bird and possum and sticks and wind, a set of chimes on a verandah has different songs , all the time I am learning nuances of communication and will never ever get to understand the entirety but love being part of the orchestra ..

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    1. Thank you. You make a great point. The music/language is all around us and some of the most beautiful, the most urgent is often unheard — the frogs at the creek, the changes in birdsong I’ve been hearing in the morning, … and as you remind me even the air, the water and my house. It is a wonderfully noisy world, isn’t it?

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  5. Gosh, I love Spanish too! Though I admire a few other languages & wish I could learn them too, Spanish just comes easy & learning doesn’t feel like an effort…plus all those songs!

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    1. There are some great songs! Right now I am going through a Cuba from the 50-60s kind of phase. haha. All the languages really are worth knowing and keeping around.

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