Talking up a Storm

We have some dear friends who have a delightful, precocious and beautiful four year old. She has mastered a number of significant skills, not the least of which is fluidity in English and Marathi. She comes by it honestly. Her parents, from India, are exceptionally bright and can converse in a host of languages. They have decided that Marathi is a good meeting language for A and their family and friends from India.

When A talks her beautiful brown eyes bewitch anyone paying attention. Her mom and dad tell us that when she switches into Marathi, she is able to add to her sparkling eyes that graceful, and fetching dance of the head; a kind of swaying back and forth that waltzes with the cadence of the language. Her grandparents – who live in India and visit from time to time – demonstrate the same in their deliciously accented English. But A’s parents never betray this linguistic Bollywood dance in their English, except for the odd occasion in which we see them flipping back and forth from Marathi to English in the company of confreres from their homeland.

A is like her parents. Her English is dance-less. English doesn’t seem to demand the same rhythmic sway that accompanies Marathi, or Hindi, or other languages of the Indian subcontinent. Yet, I suspect English has a host of embodied oddities – some local in character – of which I am unaware because of my proximity to it. Place seems to put its stamp on speech. I remember, for instance, the first time I was in Switzerland and heard the Swiss speaking German. I thought them to be Norwegians speaking German. Both speak in a lilt that echoes the summits and dales of their country side. Could it be that language is shaped by the geography in which it finds itself?

I’m not certain that language always mirrors the contours of its locale. But it does seem that language regularly reminds us that it is thoroughly physical. Here it slowly scans big sky and broad horizon; there it climbs hills and races into valleys. In other locales it crashes against shores’ rocks, while it clips along in short, serious sentences ordered by big city efficiency. I am told that Woodland Cree ripples like the brooks it describes and sings like the birds its names.

It is a delight to see A growing comfortably into two languages. I am quite certain more will come along in due course. And with each language we will see little more of the world in a little one who is talking up a storm as she choreographs consonants and vowels intuitively. What a delight to know that the divine Word sweeps across the world with a range of words reflecting the world’s diversity!

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10 thoughts on “Talking up a Storm

  1. Lovely thoughts And body language is so much a part of all of this.
    It’s funny, you know: the instant I switch to Arabic, certain head and hand gestures just naturally follow. But not all of my Arabic-speaking friends understand them. It turns out that some of them are peculiar to Syria and Lebanon and have roots in ancient local cultures that predate Islam, perhaps even Christianity.
    The semi-imperious head gesture that naturally accompanies the word “no” irritates some, amuses others and feels oddly empowering. It connects me in some miraculous way to the ancient queen who stood up against the Romans.
    Thanks for putting me back in that space

  2. dianerivers says:

    Oh, I love thinking of language that way! I’m in the (U.S.) South this weekend and I wonder if the “drawl” prevalent here somehow arose from the need to move a little slower to compensate for the almost year-round heat and humidity. Something to ponder!

  3. jannatwrites says:

    Some languages do seem almost musical when I hear them spoken, so it makes sense that gestures would be incorporated into speech. How great she is learning multiple languages early.

  4. Chris Edgar says:

    Yes, that is definitely an interesting inquiry — to ask what features of the surrounding landscape may have been the most significant influences on the language. With English, it seems like quite the varied stew, because of the varied Germanic and Romance influences, which in turn result from lots of barbarians invading and fighting each other.

  5. agjorgenson says:

    Thanks for weighing in Chris! English is an interesting case study with its (at least) two founding sources and its broad reach. I don’t know that we can any longer use phrases like “standard English.”

  6. shoreacres says:

    I do think part of the “woodenness” of English is due not to the intrinsic qualities of the language, but to poor teaching, little exposure to its finest literature and the general devaluation of language as anything but a marketing tool.

    I wonder if culture doesn’t have as much to do with language as geography. If so, the degradation of American culture has been contributing to a degradation of our language for a good while. I can understand people being unable to read Chaucer, but people unable to read Melville, Hawthorne or Shakespeare with appreciation is a sad state of affairs.

    Think of what’s happened to political discourse over the past twenty years. And of course, elevated oratory from the pulpit is either ignored or ridiculed, even where it exists.

    Why, I believe I’ll just grump myself out to the kitchen and get a cup of coffee. 😉

  7. agjorgenson says:

    Hey, I think any reason to get a cup of coffee is good, so why not the state of affairs of the English language. I agree that culture clearly impacts how a language is “performed,” and I don’t think English is really wooden, although it can be in certain instances. Technology also impacts the development of a language,and I suspect that Marathi and others will also take a hit. But there are always ways to push back, and i suspect that rhetoric will revive in due course. In fact, I am so certain of that that I am going to get a cup of coffee to celebrate!

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