I lay in bed last night, thinking. I was thinking about people who are fluent in more than one language. Actually, I was imagining being a polyglot — a person who is fluent in multiple languages. I love to think about reading, writing, and speaking several languages; I would want to read the great classics in their original forms and travel the world and talk to people everywhere! I could sit in a theater and watch any foreign-language film without subtitles. I would understand the bits and pieces of conversations around me wherever I went.
English has borrowed elements of many other languages, expressing ideas or concepts that we have no words for, or that seem better said in their native tongue. We all know some of them: schadenfreude, pleasure derived from others’ misfortunes; bona fide, authentic; carte blanche, unrestricted power to act on one’s own; and hoi polloi, the common folk, just to name a few. I’ve browsed the net looking for that kind of word, and I’ve found a few more that perhaps should be borrowed:
- Yuputka, from the Honduran/Nicaraguan Ulwa language, is the false sensation of something crawling on your skin. Eww.
- Pana Po’o, which comes to us from the Hawaiian language, describes the act of scratching your head while trying to remember something.
- Zeg is the word the Georgians use for ‘the day after tomorrow.’ We need this word!
- Boketto, according to the Japanese, is staring vacantly into the distance; I do this a lot.
- Kummerspeck, literally, grief bacon, describes the extra pounds you gain from emotional eating. Leave it to the Germans to have a word for this!
But it’s not just a word game; each language has its own syntax, cadence, tonality, and structure; while there is overlap with many languages, there are also areas where there are no commonalities. For example, certain African languages incorporate clicks; the first time I had ever heard of that was when I saw The Gods Must Be Crazy. (Fun movie, by the way.) The people of Kuskoy, a village in Turkey, still communicate by whistling, as do the inhabitants of La Gomera in the Canary Islands. These sounds are so foreign to my ears.
I don’t really have a point to make here; I just find multilingualism quite fascinating. I took a couple years of French in high school and another year of it in college, but I’m in no way fluent. I was glad to be able to remember some of it when I was in Paris, enough to find my way in the Metro and be able to ask the time and where the bathrooms were.
But I did have a bit of difficulty trying to ask the waiter if they had pickles for my son’s hamburger. (I later asked our tour guide, Franc, the word for pickle, and he had to think about it awhile, then came up with “cornichon.”)
photo credit: woodleywonderworks