Mine are not unique thoughts; linguists, poets, and stoners have long tread this ground, and I’ve gained no more clarity than anyone who has engaged with a dictionary or a toddler probably has; please, weigh in.
Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst who ventured into linguistic theory studied the nature of “the real,” and how language shapes our relationship to it. “It is the world of words that creates the world of things,” Lacan wrote. “The man who is born into existence deals first with language; this is a given. He is even caught in it before his birth.” For many North Americans, this means only English, what Nicole Stellon O’Donnell recently referred to as “the sadness of speaking one language.” (In Buenos Aires, I wrote a ten page paper in Spanish on Lacan’s “mirror stage” in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work; it was a terrible experience for all involved).
Our pre-travel practice mostly involved me speaking, my partner blinking at me until I said the same in English, followed by a bumbling grammar lesson. Driving south to the Anchorage airport, he asked some seemingly simple questions about the use of “que,” “como,” and “cual,” usually translated as “what,” “how,” and “which,” but used in ways that contradict that simplicity. I gazed out the window, contemplating the intrinsic difference between “what” and “how.” What is “what,” exactly?
I learned recently that a prominent mountain visible from the highway, which I had previously thought of as “the knife-edged diagonal ridge,” has an officially designated name: Riley, the same as the creek in the valley below. Knowing the name changed how I might describe it, and some of the visual details—the “hows”—might be lost to the “whats.” We talked about the different answers the question “What is that mountain?” elicits, as opposed to “How is that mountain?”
Craig looked skeptical of my teaching ability as he realized I was momentarily unable to offer a straightforward translation to the question, “What is your name?” as I contemplated the nature of what-ness. ” This was more fundamental than previous moments linguistic paralysis: discussing the very North American notion of “wilderness” with Spanish-speaking Denali tourists, or giving a presentation on Alaska wildlife in college and not sure how to make the word “alce” definitively mean “moose” and not elk (I opted for awkward descriptions of “big hands of bone on its head”).
Some of my favorite passages and creative meanderings come from examination of the not-quite-translatable, or from the opening a word or lack of a word can create. Last year, NPR reported on a cover of Prince’s Purple Rain in the Tamajeq language of Niger, which doesn’t have a word for “purple,” so the filmmakers called their project Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai: "Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It." Ellen Meloy wrote about language and color in The Anthropology of Turquoise: “When a name for a color is absent from a language, it is usually blue…Words for colors enter evolving languages in this order, nearly universally: black, white, and red, then yellow and green, with green covering blue until blue comes into itself.” The non-universality of color could be as paralyzing as realizing you are baffled by the concept of “what,” or it could provide the guiding question for an examination of a color and all it encompasses.
Elizabeth Dodd delves into the language used to describe the geography of rivers in her essay “The Middle Fork.” In Colombia we met a local bilingual guide who spoke to us in English, describing the trail’s ascent to “where the river comes together with” another. Dodd’s questions in mind, I identified yet another gap in my Spanish: Are rivers spoken of using the same words as tree branches or eating utensils, in terms of up or downstream travel? Margaret Noori, one of Dodd’s linguistic consultants, said that, “The water would be described as dividing the same way no matter which direction we came from, but…what one does upon arrival and departure at the river that has endless possibility.” We thanked the guide, and continued towards the fork, he away from the confluence.
Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa wrote of the first time she heard women refer to themselves with the feminine pronoun nosotras: “I was shocked. I had not known the word existed…We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse.” Nosotras gave her a voice.
Language can be male and female and neither; it can be colonial, violent, and liberating, constricting and creative.
Which words, or spaces without words, have caught your imagination?
Erica Watson is an essayist living on the boundary of Denali National Park. She completed her MFA in nonfiction at UAA in 2014. Her work has appeared most recently in Pilgrimage, The Fiction Advocate, and Denali National Park’s Climate Change Anthology, and she is a recipient of a fellowship to Fishtrap’s summer 2016 program. She will eventually update her website at ericawatson.wordpress.com.