Words and Worlds

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by Richard Nilsen

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When I was so young that I was just entering the tunnel of adolescence, I sent a joke into the Reader’s Digest. The Digest was the primary reading material in our house, and they had a regular feature with funny definitions of words. Mine was a definition for “euphemism,” which I said was “synonym and sugar.”
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I never heard back from the august publishers. Perhaps they rejected me out of hand, perhaps they never got my letter, or perhaps they just smelled the anti-acne cream on the paper.
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Even at that age, I knew that I had an abnormal interest in the English language, and language in general. From the second grade onward, when we had weekly lists of vocabulary words to memorize and use in sentences, I habitually attempted to use all 10 words in a single sentence, just to be a smartass.
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So, it is hardly surprising that eventually, I became a writer. And a smartass — at the newspaper where I earned my crust, I enjoyed making up words to sneak past the editors. In one six month period, I made a game of inventing some word in each and every story I submitted, and to my surprise, and great pleasure, got them all through the checkpoints and safeguards. I never knew whether the editors assumed the words must be real, or if they just thought, well, that’s Nilsen, whatcha gonna do?
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But, back to synonyms. Part of the captivating magic of words for me was always their various halos, or nimbuses of meaning. No word stands alone, naked and singular, but rather, each is a spinning molecule composed of a cluster of atoms, each a different connotation, so that I became early convinced that there really is no such thing in the English language as a synonym. Not really.
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English is a promiscuous language. It lets anyone have its way, and it permits all kinds of immigrants take up residence. A fluent or native speaker of Spanish has a vocabulary estimated at about 10,000 words while the Oxford English dictionary contains 228,132 words either defined or as subentries. That does include a good number of words no longer in current usage (words I often like to attempt to resuscitate), but even so, there are about 170,000 of the little squiggles that are commonly in use, although no one uses all of them. The average is 10,000 words in an ordinary person’s word-hoard (the Old-English kenning for vocabulary).
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Shakespeare, admittedly an outlier, had a personal vocabulary of about 66,000 words. Some of those, he seems to have coined himself.
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The reason is that so many of our words have companions from Germanic and Romance languages, so, we have hogs, pigs, pork, or cows, steers and beef. To be called hoggish is different from being called swinish or piggish or porcine. Shades of meaning.
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Each word traces its family history to another region of the globe, including China (ketchup), India (pajamas, or if you are British, pyjamas), Aztec Mexico (tomato), Africa (okra) or the Middle East (candy).
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And so, there are many words that have overlapping meanings. But a sensitive ear ferrets out the subtle differences. Take “flammable” and “inflammable.” On the surface, they seem like they should be antonyms, but they mean the same thing. Or almost.
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“Flammable” implies burnable while “inflammable” implies something able to be set on fire. A subtle difference, but there, nonetheless.
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“Quiet” is a good thing in the bustle of a city, but when things go “silent,” you should start worrying.
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A “writer” sends letters or publishes in a newspaper; and “author” produces books.
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Each synonym has a slightly different shade of meaning, and a good writer (or author) used those differences to his or her advantage. It is an issue of awareness.
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“Sad” and “unhappy” are interesting, because “unhappy” is both more ephemeral than “sad” — if you are “unhappy” about an outcome, you aren’t necessarily feeling “sad” and get over it quickly— but also permanent — an “unhappy” marriage is longer lasting than a sad mood.
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So wrapped up in language am I that I have imagined languages other than those actually spoken. I once invented a language — not the language itself, not like a secret “twin language,” but rather the grammar and rules of an imaginary language spoken by imaginary peoples.
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It helps me think about the possibilities and limits of language.
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The language was spoken by a tribal group on an island in the Indian Ocean, recognizable to anyone who watched old movies on TV. So, there is a joke in the description. See if you get it.
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The story is presented in the form of a fictional “translator’s note” for a fictional book about this fictional island, which bears the name which is a synonym of “cranium.”
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To wit:
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Translator’s Note
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All the translations in this book are by the author, save only those in passages by books cited in the bibliography.
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A few notes about the difficulty of translating the native language of the Kandeni Islands might be in order. Those tiny islands in the Indian Ocean (approximately 2 degrees South and 90 degrees East), and their primary island, Kandei, were undiscovered until 1933 (vide Cooper and Schoedsack, 1933), and so remote are they that their language and customs seemingly grew in isolation for centuries, if not millennia. A few relics in their language suggest they had contact with cultures in the South Andaman Sea in earlier eras, perhaps related to the extinct Jangil peoples, but in the main, their language is unique.
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By far, the primary difficulty in their language is the fact that it has only two verbs, which might best be described as the verb to be and the verb to do, one active, one passive. Every usage is intelligible only in context. The language has nouns with cases, adjectives that mirror those cases and a few prepositions and a few vestigial conjunctions. There are no articles.
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This bifurcation of verb is essential to their organization of the world. Things — whatever they are — either be or do. They exist as essences or they exist as agents. Every act is merely a morph of the simple act of doing. Running, speaking, sleeping, eating — they are all seen as variants of a single act.
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For the elders who spoke to me, this is taken as obvious: Their mythology (see Chapter 3) revolves around the dichotomy of being and doing, and their gods, if you can call them that (they may also be seen as ancestors), fall into two categories, the “be-ers” and the “do-ers.” These supernatural beings (I use our terminology — they do not make the distinction between natural and supernatural) are at odds, if not at war (the stories vary from family to family).
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On first approach, it may appear that the language is simple to the point of being rudimentary, but in fact, with these few elements, it has grown into a language of immense complexity, requiring of its speaker — and listener — not only great subtlety but awareness of its context. The same sentence in the morning may mean something different after the sun begins its descent.
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As one might expect, that although there are only two verbs, there are many nouns. The Kandeian people have words for the things of their world, but not static words. A certain plant, for instance, will have a different noun for its seedling, for its fruiting or for its use by native animals. Linguistically, they are different things, even if our Linnean system sees them as merely phases of the same plant. This is true as it is for us, for instance, who think of a boy as different from a man, a puppy as different from a dog. For them, the manioc plant is a different plant before it grows a sufficient tuber. For us, these distinctions are vestigial, for them, they are applied to almost everything in their ecosystem.
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The prepositions come in five varieties, describing being above something, under something, around something or in something and finally away from something. There is no before or after: That is expressed by saying something like “I here (to be), he here (to be), and the listener infers from context that the one happened before the other.
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Adjectives and adverbs are undifferentiated; they are universal modifiers and no distinction is made between a fast runner and running fast (or in the language “active verb fast.”
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A few examples might help.
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A standard statement might include first a subject, like the personal pronoun, “I,” followed by the object of the sentence followed by one of the two verbs. If you were to express a simple idea, such as “I throw the ball,” the sentence would be constructed as “I ball (active verb).” Or “I ball do.” The “I” is in the nominative case, the “ball” in the objective. The “do” or “act” is understood as something you do with the ball — which in context would most likely be understood as “throw.” The speaker might mimic the act of throwing, but this is not necessary. If you needed to express something else, such as “I sat on the ball,” you would have to express this with not only the sentence, but with gesture. “I ball (do)” and a short squatting gesture. Why you might want to sit on a ball, I don’t know.
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The other verb expresses both condition and essence — both the concepts that in Spanish are divided by “ser” and “estar.” To say “I am here,” the sentence would be built as “I here (to be).” “Here” is in the locative case. Other places would likewise be in the locative. “I river (to be).” There is no tense expressed. Again, tense is implied by context or by extension: “I river yesterday (to be).”
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Naturally, such a language can only be meaningful in a face-to-face encounter. The many gestural inflections cannot be captured in print or over a telephone. Neither of which, I hardly need to say, the Kandeian peoples do not have.
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When they were discovered by a passing tramp steamer in 1933, it is estimated there were perhaps 400 Kandeian speakers on the island. In the intervening time that number has dropped precipitously; there are now estimated to be under a hundred left, although a precise census has never been taken, in part because the Kandeians resist outside visitors, and in part because the island is so wild and overgrown, cross-country travel is extremely hazardous (ibid, Cooper and Schoedsack).
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I spent two years on the island in the late 1980s, studying the language and customs. I spoke with several family leaders — a position gained not by force or vote, but by assent — and they told me their stories and the stories of their ancestors. This raises another distinct quality of their language. When discussing everyday events, they speak in an ordinary pitch and volume, as you or I might. But when relating myth, they speak in a high pitch and with little inflection. They can revert back and forth with seemingly no difficulty as they interweave the mythic with the quotidian.
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This way of speaking also functions as a kind of subjunctive mood, as it is also used to express things that might not be, or might occur in the future. So, for the Kandeian, linguistically at least, the past — other than a personal past — and the future are equally mythic. In the middle, there is the lifetime remembrance of the speaker, which is taken as indicative rather than subjunctive; all else is relegated to myth, or a time that may have been or might become.
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The problems of rendering such a language in English should be manifest. When I translate the words of Ruthentay, leader of his family, I must interpret his meaning into English rather than literally translate. Certainly this is the case when translating from any language to another; the problems of turning Tolstoy into readable English is well known. But with the Kandeian Islander, this is raised to an exponential degree. I cannot just give the words Ruthentay speaks, but must render them as if they had been spoken in English. This distorts them in ways that break my heart, but it cannot be otherwise.
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In those cases where no English equivalent exists, as for certain food items of the Kandeian diet, I must use transliterations of the native words. I am sorry if this causes confusion but again, there seems no way around it.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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