January 23, 2013

Language Comes Before News

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While it isn’t a unique enough phenomenon fit for proper entry into Linguistopia — where Esperanto skips merrily in a field — it’s worth noting all the same: there’s a phenomenon by which sequential words in foreign language dictionaries suddenly take on the shape of a story, whether it’s “kükürtlu külch” in Turkish (as in, a sulfurous conical hat, as if this were the measure by which students were punished in a ‘Leave It To Beaver’ version of hell), a gèsta gestante in Italian (an army of pregnant women (though ‘gèsta’ is archaic, the phrase is too good to pass up)), or a gilogaideach gliogaire in Gaelic (as in, a skeleton of a creature a little bit clumsy about the knees, which easily calls to mind a skeleton emerging to chase some kids entering a haunted house, but pausing after a moment to grab a cane, double checking to make sure he’s absolutely okay, and then continuing the hunt.)

It’s a kind of exformation, which — if you’ll recall — David Foster Wallace mentioned on his essay on Kafka. (No one’s written about him recently, right?) And though he referenced the term as something to apply to jokes and short stories, it can apply also apply to a word in and of itself. The key phrase: an “explosion of associative connections within the recipient.”

Saudade is the easy one to think of that meets that criteria. The Portuguese word used to express a kind of longing and a kind of loss, it rides the lilting wave of Cesária Évora’s vocalizations, Joao Gilberto’s guitar, and then spirals into the air in an attempt to avoid further definition. “Ask somebody in Portugal [what ‘saudade’ means] and the people start to stummer,” one blogger writes. Dom Duarte tried to define it. Pessoa makes a not-bad half-joke about it.

A Somali Muslim in Manchester, UK told me that one evocative word that came to mind to her was “Nyumbani,” as in, “home,” which brought to mind other words, like “sebuleni” and “jikoni” (as in, kitchen and living room), who picked it because home was an important thing for a diaspora kid to remember. Another Somali spoke to me about the beauty of the language, and cited “Idho jaceyl isma eegaan” as an example (as in, ‘Eyes in love do not dare to stare at each other.’)

Beyond the ever criss-crossing matrix of news stories occupying a certain strata of the narrative landscape — a radio journalist murdered, the United States recognizing the Somali government for the first time in 20 years (Ed Henry accidentally writing that it was the first time the U.S. had recognized the Somali government since 1191), the Somali government arresting 790 people while the President urged ex-pats in Minneapolis to return to the country — there are the building blocks, the thing that builds up to that, and I open the dictionary and read what I see out loud —  waan, waad, wu, way, I, you, he, she — and I think of how I might start to string the words together. Tout ensemble. TC Mark

Evan Fleischer

His work has appeared on The Awl, Global Voices, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. The Guardian and the head …

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