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.



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.

mitsubachi is a writer, photographer and editor at Anima Monday. When she isn’t learning how to speak Spanish, she spends a lot of time with bees and flowers.