My beautiful friend Leah once spent a year living and working in Germany. Leah possesses the sort of beauty and poise that makes you sure that you can’t be a total waste of oxygen, simply because you’re near her. It has been almost 15 years since she returned from Germany, dewey-eyed and more enlightening than ever. I remember her return vividly because her very demeanor excited ideas in me about what was out there in the rest of the world. Particularly in the languages of the rest of the world.
Leah sat with me in her backyard and told me about the fascinating differences between her life in Germany and her life in Australia. I asked her that fabulously redundant question of how it felt to be back. She put a beautiful hand to her beautiful brow and said, “You know, the best word to describe how I feel is actually a German one and there isn’t really an English equivalent.” She smiled serenely as she explained that there’s a German word that means both “warm” and “homecoming” and she paused. Then she added, “but it’s an emotion”. As my none-too-nimble mind shuffled around this idea of an emotion that one could have in German but not in English, 2 things happened:
1. I heard a faint crack in the stale perimeters of my mind as it groaned into expansion.
2. I became intoxicated with the idea that words could open up entirely new experiences… I could have an emotion in German that didn’t exist in English!
Aldous Huxley once wrote that “words form the thread on which we string our experiences”. And I believe him. He flung open Doors of Perception, after all. He flung them open to reveal Brave New Worlds what’s more. He would know.
Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words provides a good deal of my brain-candy when it comes to exploring the history of words and phrases [ www.worldwidewords.org ]. Newsweek published a well-written article about current studies on the ability of language to shape thought [ http://www.newsweek.com/id/205985 ]. I’m relatively sure that I’m not alone in feeling a rushing sense of victory when I find just the right word to explain an experience to someone. You know the feeling – when you sift through linguistic options in your mind and find a word that describes perfectly what you’re getting at?! … “It wasn’t poetry, but it was certainly, ummm, poetic. Yes, poetic is exactly what it was.” … It makes me wonder about those people out there who are bilingual (and by this I mean, equally fluent in 2 or more languages) and whether there are experiences that lend themselves to being described more aptly in one language than the other?! And if you have more than one language at your disposal and you’re equally comfortable expressing yourself in more than one, what language do you dream in? Do you think in one language more frequently than the other? And would it still be “poetic” if I knew the Italian word for it?