Giochi di Parole
December 12, 2006
There are, perhaps, not so many people who play with words in their mother tongue. Not many dance through the savannas of language, dropping chosen words like spoor through the paragraphs. Even those few who do can rarely rise to that in a new language.
If you struggle to express nearly unreachable thoughts and feelings, sometimes you can cobble together a phrase that may sound almost poetic to a listener, but it happens rarely and in near-desperation.
When you speak your own language, you know instinctively that silence also speaks. When you speak another tongue, you fear a little that silences say that you are ignorant. You talk too much, you say too many words. Even the non-words like eh! and boh!
are unsure and sound a little wrong.
As you learn a new language, you learn how to say something, that way to say it imprints itself, and even if you later learn another way to say it, you will likely always use the first term. Often that is the simplest expression of all those available. A child could (and does) do it.
I remember in early days hearing a flurry of proprios and asking a linguist, “What does it mean?” She told me a list of meanings. “But then I heard…?” “Yes, it can mean that, too.” Oh gee, a multipurpose word, I thought. So I used it a lot, and when I heard other more accurate adverbs, they didn’t stick like proprio.
When my linguist friend left, she invited me to ask again when I might be puzzled, and she closed with “Mi raccomando!” which never, ever has made a lot of sense to me.
Sometimes, describing the weather sounds like a medical bulletin. I have cold; I am colded. It can be inexpressibly difficult to explain what is so difficult to express. You know how to describe the way a cloud sails through a sky as blue as the sea, but what are the words that say that in Italian that will not confound an Italian?
Words like frail, guilt-ridden, rambunctious seem beyond a lifetime of study. A skin of velvet, a lowering brow—however could you say that? When you have a gut feeling, is that a sentimento intestinale?
Was there ever a town crier in Italy? And if there was, what was he called?
Day to day, you do life’s business. You shop, you bank, you learn to tell the doctor with a fine accuracy just how something hurts. The more you are taken up with talking to the plumber, explaining to phone companies why you don’t want their services, and trying to get the window man to compare the merits of different sorts instead of just selling you what he has, the less the rest of language troubles you.
It’s when you are being most yourself that the words you know sometimes don’t stretch to cover the world you see, what you feel, the wishes you harbor or the things that you wonder about. Your jokes are seldom funny. Wry comments come out sounding mean. You can feel just one step or one word from truth.
All you can do is try and keep on trying, and for the rest, “Non ho le parole.”