It probably wouldn’t surprise you if I confessed that I love languages. I can read about and talk about and think about languages forever; I’ve spent so many hours of my life transfixed to a wikipedia page describing the morphology of [insert name of language here] that it’s a little embarrassing. But that nerdy kind of love, the love that is really just a fascination with an intellectual object, sometimes gives way to full, helpless, head-over-heels love.
I feel safe to finally admit that I sometimes fall in love with a language, because recently I came across the blog of august British linguist David Crystal, and he has a post describing this very phenomenon. It’s not just me! It’s a little thrilling to read someone I admire admit to “falling in love with nasalized vowels” in a French class as a child. It takes me back to the afternoon when I was seven or eight, sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ house, and I discovered their collection of old Berlitz textbooks. Seeing those foreign words dance across the page, knowing they said something but I couldn’t yet divine just what…I was enchanted. I’ve been enchanted ever since.
Sometimes I do feel like I’m being a little fickle, picking up a new language every so often while the ones I’ve learned years ago slowly fade in my memory. But the truth is that those earlier ones don’t ever lose that affection. In my case, whenever I’m really struggling with a new language, I turn back to Russian, that oldest and best-known friend, for comfort. That’s how I think of it – just adding new, dear friends to your acquaintance. David Crystal says “it’s more like the love of a parent towards a child. Somehow, new additions to the linguistic family don’t diminish the affection already felt towards the other members.” That’s a good analogy too.
So, having said that, please forgive me, dear old language friends, but I have lost my heart to a new love. Oh Arabic, where have you been all my life? I am such a beginner, I can barely read and say hello, but I really have fallen for this language. I love this post on the blog The Polyglot Dream, where the guest blogger talks about a language resonating with you. There really is something about the sounds of Arabic that resonate with me differently than others I’ve learned. I love what the guest blogger, Susanna, says: “Guttural sounds in Arabic and Hebrew make your throat vibrate differently than when you speak in English. Your body is not the same in Arabic as it is in English.” She also talks about “giving up your throat” to Arabic. I love that. Is that the sense I’m getting? Do I feel different with Arabic?
Last week I took a much-needed day off and ended up spending a rainy afternoon at a Middle Eastern restaurant in my neighborhood. The interior is dark and cool like a courtyard in some old medina, complete with a tranquil water feature, plants, carpets and silks on the walls, and arabesques around the windows. I was transported. The waiter, a Palestinian, came to take my order, and I said “I’d like the bamia bil lahmeh“, really pronouncing that guttural h there in the middle of that word, almost without thinking, feeling the language from the room reverberating through me. The waiter wrote down my order, took my menu, and said “You have beautiful pronunciation.”
I swear I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.