On the baffling being of words.

brick wall

My American interlocutors on occasion find little quirks in my speech, and some of those have to do with seemingly random relationships, concepts of a Russian-speaking mentality that my mind, for some reason, has refused to let go. Mostly, they are funny. I do not know why I’ve transitioned in my thought patterns in a hundred other ways but not in these four or five. I know what’s correct, but I slip anyway.

“Hair” is plural in Russian. Or, rather, one hair is singular, and a head of hair is a head of “hairs.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? There are many hairs on one’s head, after all. The same is true for “money.” And yet I comfortably say “it” when I talk about money but often, without thinking, say “they” when I talk about hair.

In Russian, we don’t use “smell” as a verb. You don’t “smell a smell.” It’s repetitive. In Russia, we “feel” a smell or “hear” a smell, and from time to time, smelling something unexpected, I’ll ask the person next to me, “Do you feel that? Feel that smell?” And she will look at me uncomprehendingly. “Do I what?” At the same time, we have parallel verbs for giving food and giving drink: to feed someone and to…? I routinely run into this wall full speed. I forget there isn’t a word there for me. Next thing I know, my nose is bleeding.

The same happens when I speak Russian to my Russian friends who don’t speak English, and it becomes an awkward turn of phrase, a direct translation from English where there shouldn’t be one.

air and water storm

I am a Russian-English bilingual—a somewhat rare phenomenon in the realm of neuro-linguistics because I learned my second language as an adult. Until I was 19, Russian was my native and only language, and then I was plunged into the stormy waters of American English much like a drowning man blown off the safety of the ship’s deck: paddling furiously and gasping for my next breath.

This terrible time is long over. I am, you might say, now a weird sort of amphibian. Or a hybrid. A bird and a fish—and, filled with the beauty of air and water, I often feel small and inadequate confined only to one. Especially when I am called to explain something of the fish world to my fellow birds. Especially when I am called to explain the bird life to my fellow fishes.

It’s about more than amusing usage or sentence structure. While most of the time I can speak purely in one language—and do—there are aspects of both languages that make it hard because I live two overlapping mentalities, and their cross-section is like a four-dimensional space. It contains more than either component can express by itself, it cannot be reduced to either, and each offers the richness of life my mind refuses to live without.

air and water birds

We perpetually argue for teaching our children languages. We insist that speaking more than one language not only opens access to world literature, peace-making, business relations, and social interaction but greatly develops the brain. I am on the forefront of this argument. And yet, real immersion in another language, another culture is not a simple proposition, and we pay a price for bilinguality. That price is becoming a bridge few of our friends can cross. It’s helplessness.

Russian has no word for “emergency.” It has one for “accident,” for “crash,” a noun phrase can be constructed for “something urgent,” but none really capture the overarching meaning of the English word that embraces every unexpected event that arises from having to pick up one’s wailing child at daycare to a ten-car pile-up on the freeway. The same word we use to explain being late for work and text a friend to make him run out of a restaurant in the middle of dinner. When I speak Russian and want to say “emergency,” I pause. I hesitate. I must get specific and explain what happened, or I must explain the concept. Or I just use the word. In English.

English has no word for a Russian concept that, linguistically, comes from the root equivalent to “kin” but has come to mean much more. Родной, родная. Родина. It speaks of a blood bond that doesn’t have to come from blood—a bond unbreakable and sacred, of most tender, unconditional love. We use it for one’s birthland and for the people in our lives who are—by birth or by choice—rooted in our very hearts. Part of us. Dearest. Kin. There are times when we use this word toward people we don’t know, the times of declaration of some large or global family, and it’s a profound, serious thing. During WWII, when wounded partisans would knock on the doors of village houses and know they’d find care. When any orphan was any adult’s child. When, after the war, a soldier came back to a burned house and a murdered family and became a father to another family, now his.

Speaking English, sometimes I trip over myself when this is what I am trying to say. Because I don’t know how.

But you know what? It’s worth it.

Words are not simple. They carry more than their substantive meanings, denotations. They resonate with their contexts, connotations. One in the air, another in some current of the water, they move and float by and bump into each other. All the reasons why one language-shaping culture came up with a word for this but not for that, together, create the culture itself, and here we come: its creatures and creators, pouring off our lips the very spirit of every bit of our history. Everything that’s made our nations what they are. The cold and heat of it. Its battles and triumph and grief. Its noble aspirations and its bitterest disappointments. Maybe, its genetic mutations. We are the mentality of our languages. The birds and the fishes, breathing in and out the essence of air and water.

I’ve read some stories about a bird and a fish—we really like that image in this culture. We say they could fall in love but have nowhere to build a nest. We say they could gaze upon each other, but they would have nothing to say. And yet, here we are. Reading each other’s writings and talking to each other. And here I am. Bilingual and alive.

air and water fishes

Not everything can be translated. Translation is an issue. A true bilingual may be a good critic of translation but not necessarily a good translator, you see. That’s because, feeling the words to my deepest trembling string, I look at their rendering and know that it isn’t right. It cannot be right—such is the task of translation: to approximate, to substitute, to go around. I have a hard time settling.

And yet, here we are. Kwasi Wiredu in his Cultural Universals and Particulars proposes a test for objectivity of philosophical concepts: because language reflects mentality, we take the terms denoting ideas and translate them into many languages. If many cultures have a word for this concept, it’s a cultural universal, and we can discuss it as an objective philosophical entity. If we realize that we cannot find equivalent terms for this in different languages, then, this is a cultural particular, just a way that our specific culture has conditioned us to think of reality, and in order to pursue the Truth on a more universal level we must adjust our thinking.

Interestingly, the concept of “truth” itself is one that Wiredu takes on. It turns out that in English, there are different words for “truth” and “fact,” and so we often discuss the difference between the two and assign to this difference moral and philosophical significance. In Akan, the African language of Kwasi Wiredu himself, there is no such linguistic distinction. How real is the difference between truth and fact?

This is not a philosophical tractate, I propose no answers, so let me take you further, just for fun. In Russian, the distinction exists, but there is another deviation from the English handling of the terminology of truth. We have two words for “truth”: one is serious and means both accuracy of fact and moral righteousness; the other is really, really serious and stands for the mystical, ontological, world-shattering foundations of truth. The order of things. The former is the opposite of lie and falsehood; the latter is that plus Truth with the capital “T.” The former is human; the latter divine. How does that change the concept?

Let me say one more thing: there is in every language I’ve ever encountered, directly or second-hand, a full-blooded, cherished, and well-delineated word for “Love.”

I like words—you’ve gathered by now—but most of all, I like the words that are loaded. Loaded like sail ships that run along the surface of the sea, between the air and the water, touching both. The winds and the waves play with them, soak them, toss them around, but they are the things that erase Nature’s boundaries, they are the ones that boldly go. And even wrecked and decaying pieces, they are the ones that bridge the gap, serve as perches for the birds who can come down to the water and rest, and gaze upon the fishes.


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