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!