Friday, October 30, 2009

Loving Language

Today's post is about language. It is written in a language (English), and it (hopefully) will do the job of language: communicate. My husband said to me the other day, (when I told him to stop "kvetching"), that I loved words so much, it didn't even matter what language they were in. He then asked for the meaning of "kvetch" to see if he should be insulted or not. Kvetch is a Yiddish word that means to complain, so of course I Americanized it by adding -ing. He was not insulted as indeed, he was complaining.

I thought on that for a moment and realized how true it was. I LOVE words. I love how they sound, I love how they look. I have a rather eclectic background when it comes to language, so I'll share a little bit about it. Then maybe you will all know why I'm fascinated, but only speak ONE language (I think it's an American failing).

My dad is descended from the Pilgrims. Really. That makes him English. My mother was fully German, but since she died when I was two, I have no real recollections of her family. I do know her parents spoke German.

My first wicked step-mother was Polish and she and all her family spoke - um, Polish. I remember them speaking and that I didn't understand anything for awhile. I was very young then, three or four, but I distinctly remember going to visit her grandmother in a nursing home one day. When we got back to the house, one of the ladies there (no idea who she was), asked what we talked about and I told her everything. Dad just looked at me funny because the entire visit was in Polish. He looked at my step-mother and she nodded that yes, I had gotten it right.

In high school, I got interested in classical music and of course, most of the songs are in German, French, Italian, and Latin. I liked Latin a lot. I used to spend inordinate amounts of time grounded in my room by my second wicked step-mother. So, I translated a bunch of the Latin texts. They lined up with the Mass (as almost all of the songs were sacred Latin as opposed to secular). By the time I was 16, I could say the entire Mass in Latin. This was a very useful thing to learn.

It made my Presbyterian father a bit verklemmt that I continued in my first step-mother's religion of Roman Catholicism, but he liked it better than if I had followed the second step-mother's Jack Mormonism. Are you still following?

At that time in my life, the choice was all about the words. Prayer just sounded cooler in Latin. It still does to me. Now my son is learning Latin too, and my poor husband does not yet realize that there is a gene for this kind of odd language fascination. My writer friends get it.

The weird thing is, I never learned to speak any language other than English. I'm around Spanish a lot, as I live in California. I understand just enough to get me into trouble. I can ask questions in Spanish, but my eyes glaze over when the answer comes. I have not put all the components together. I think doing that requires immersing yourself in the language for awhile.

Last year, we had a wonderful foreign exchange student stay with us for ten months. His English was fabulous. He spoke a total of nine languages. OMGosh! Where he lived, and the family and business he came from, required him to be able to communicate with many different cultures.

Sometimes it is not just the desire, but the opportunity that makes a difference as to whether or not we can pick up this skill or that one. If I had to go live somewhere and no one spoke English, I would be MOTIVATED to learn whatever language surrounded me. That is where I think the American culture fails it's people. We are not surrounded by anyone, except US! In reality, we are, but most of us could live our entire lives without ever needing to speak any other language. I find that sad.

And yet, when in my life, because I love words and language, have I forced myself to learn a language other than my own? A little Latin here (um, dead language Jo, pick another one), a little Spanish there, a bit of Danish, some German, oh yeah, and Gaelic. Gaelic (and maybe Welsh) has to have the hardest spellings. I can say the words, I cannot read them. And that's about it. The ability to say words in all those different languages, but not really communicate.

Here, after writing those words, it hit me. I am not really fascinated by language at all. I am, as my sweet husband said, fascinated by WORDS. To the point where I don't care what they mean. Just how they sound, and look, in ANY language.

I'm free! I now know why I want to hear people speak in different languages. I love the sound of words. Music. Words. It makes sense that I frequently read my writing out loud and change things by how they sound. I wonder how many other writers have this aural component to their creative process? Perhaps they all should?

You would think that with all this musical and language background, that I would write music. You would be wrong. I've tried it. I suck. It is weird that musicality and the ability to write do not converge in the ability to write music. I wish it did.

Someday, when I am very old (and wealthy), I will sit in different cities around the world, at small tables in sidewalk cafes, sipping tea and eating whatever I want, and listening to the language that surrounds me, whatever it is, loving the words.


Jo Taylor


  1. I'm right there with you and I had 4 years of Latin in High school and 4 semesters in college.

  2. Hi Travis -

    Oh you ARE my hero! Thanks for reading.