There are many great tragedies in history. The human ones are overwhelming and ongoing. Those are the ones we pay attention to, as we most certainly should, but there are tragedies of other kinds, equally human if not nearly as tangible.
The first of these great tragedies to come to mind is the burning of the library of Alexandria. It makes me feel impotent to learn about a play read by some great philosopher, quoted even, and to know that I have missed out. There is something soulless about burning a book, whether in that century or in the great book burnings of the Nazis.
Another of history’s tragedies is the loss of languages and the perspectives that come with them. Untranslatable words like the Brazilian saudade or Korean han go unknown, unreachable for those who need them, who might be able to understand or even fix themselves if they did. Even more telling is when certain words don’t exist–“artist” in Balinesian, for example, because it is assumed that everyone already is one. Perhaps the way that we feel so sad sometimes is because the thing we are looking for is unnameable, and so we think that is does not exist. I think I would be much happier if we had different words for different kinds of love, and better ways of expressing it than a few commercialized gift-giving ceremonies every year.
People love to hate Confucius, and understandably, considering how his work has been used, but he was right about ritual. He believed in ritual as a unifying force–a set of universal conventions that allow people to communicate. Among those conventions, he considered language the most important to society. When asked what he would do if given control of a country, he even said his very first act would be to “rectify the names,” to correct the country’s language.
Flaws in language can certainly hurt people or paint them in an ugly light. The “hyst” in hysteria means uterus in Latin, because as we know, all women are crazy. The lack of a gender neutral third person singular pronoun in English leads people to use “he” as a replacement, which sends the message that people are, by default, male, not to mention the fact that ships, the sea, cars, and just about anything else described with gendered pronouns that is a thing rather than a person is called she. Spanish does the same thing with its plurals, making una amiga y un amigo into los amigos rather than something neutral or all-inclusive. Languages are often as flawed as they are beautiful, but I think in the quest for truth, more perspectives are better. I know some anthropologists like to say that we study other cultures so that we can learn more about ourselves, and I think the same is true of languages. How can we know our flaws if we don’t even have words for them?
In George Orwell’s 1984, the government decides to limit what people are capable of thinking by limiting language itself. Without the words for the ideas, the ideas themselves will disappear, the language simplifying to the point where humans lose all resemblance, or at least awareness, of themselves.
Perhaps this is why I am upset when I learn that the English language is dwindling, that we have many less words than we did before, that people are speaking less and more simply. (And yes, I do know we have quite a few more words than most languages. The richness of our language reassures me, but only a little.) It makes me wish I could go back in time, if only to listen to people speak, to see if knowing the words would help me to understand. It is easy to look back at the people who came before us and say that they were less sophisticated, that they died earlier, that they treated women poorly and left the poor to rot. But they knew words we do not anymore, and stories that have been burned. I think every person who has ever lived has probably known something I didn’t, whether it’s how to kindle fire without a whetstone (how? seriously, how?), how to convey sympathy for someone in a way that is both sincere, warm, and not vaguely pitying (there’s not a lot of options between “I’m sorry” and “You have my condolences”, is there?), a better name for a second cousin twice removed. You must admit it is an awful way to relate a relation. It makes you wonder what she was removed for, and why twice. How awful can the woman be?
Words, words, words. What to do with them? Use them, I suppose, and listen when you can. Perhaps I’ll start a collection, or some kind of charity service. “Words for Ravaged Souls,” that sort of thing. I wonder if there is a word for a feeling like waiting, as though stuck between two homes, hoping and itching for a change that may or may not come and unsure which way you’ll go when it does. Like liminality, but with more teenage angst. College? Should we just call it “getting older”?
Coming of age musings aside, I love words. From now on, I’ll try to put a new one at the beginning of each of my blog posts, whether from this language or another. The word today will be saudade, which has been described as a deep emotion somewhere between nostalgia and sorrow. My favorite description of it is “the love that remains when the loved thing leaves,” but I think it’s also important that it can be felt in the presence of the loved who is soon to leave, or who has left in the past. I understand missing someone while still being in their presence, and I am grateful that there is a word for it.