My fortune cookie said “You are a lover of words, some day you will write a book.”
I’ve always thought about it, but never followed through on that childhood dream, but all it took was just that little nudge to make me wonder if I had what it took. I had no experience in writing, although I had taken Linguistics and Diction classes in college (ostensibly to see if I could shake my thick Brooklyn accent), but I did love words, and was always fascinated by language, both written and spoken. But could I write? Did I have the skills to tell a story, or did I even have a story to tell?
Before I retired, I was fortunate enough to have traveled to enough of the world to pick up a smattering of foreign languages, and while I was toying with the idea of a book in my future, thanks to the tug of inspiration I owed to that fortune cookie, the fascination with language has never left me.
Growing up in New York, I was exposed to a number of languages, such as Yiddish, German, and Italian. After all, if America is the melting pot of the world, New York is the melting pot of America.
Nothing will give you an appreciation for language faster than traveling to a foreign country. We take our day to day communication for granted, and then we find that we are the foreigners. Consider that most European countries are the size of American states, it is kind of like needing to learn a second language when going from New York to New Jersey.
I remember as young man sitting on a secluded beach at sunset on the Greek island of Crete, with young backpackers from all over Europe and North America. And as the wine was being passed, and conversation flowed someone said “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone spoke the same language?” to which someone else replied “It sure would be great if everybody spoke Italian, pointing out one of Man’s most enduring Achilles’ heels: Pride. After all, which language is the most worthy of being the Universal Language, if there ever is one? Would you give up English? It’s a very timely question in the US of the 21st Century
Just the idea that I can sit here and write something that is now being read and understood by you, is something of a miracle to me. And although we in America assume that we will always be understood, that’s not always the case, even among native speakers of the same language. For example, if I said “Coming around, what do I really mean? There are a number of possibilities. I could mean that a man was unconscious, but now he’s coming around. It could mean that I invited someone over at 10:00 pm, and now that it’s almost 10, he should be coming around; or I could mean that my best friend never agrees with me on anything, but I think he’s finally coming around. I’ve met people from the hills of Kentucky, and from the countryside of Scotland, and I didn’t understand a word they said. How many times have you heard someone speak and didn’t understand at all, until you finally realize that they were speaking English all along?
It is a miracle that people understand each other at all. When you consider differences in language, dialect, regionalisms, and accent, as well as influences like the differences in the language of Science, Technology, Medicine, Business, the colloquially spoken language used with family and friends, and the language of the civil affairs (courts, DMV, Congress, etc.).
And all languages evolve, reflecting the society of the native speakers of a particular language. The Midwestern American English spoken in this country today barely resembles the one spoken in Shakespeare’s time. And Old English is not recognizable as our native tongue at all. With English having been subject to an onslaught of influences down the ages from German, Greek, Latin, French, and borrowings from many others, ours would be completely unrecognizable, to the British ear of the Twelfth Century.
There are some 6,000 languages spoken throughout the world today, some with billions of speakers, and some struggling for existence, with only a few thousand native speakers; languages as diverse and far-flung as Spanish and Guugu Ymithirr, and as different as Aramaic and Kuuk Thayorre.
With such a seeming mess on our hands, we seem to find ways of understanding each other. Or do we? Wouldn’t it be the supreme irony if, years from now, our descendants find that all wars were ultimately caused by “a failure to communicate”?
Just in case you’re wondering, my fortune cookie was right. I did write that book. I am proud to report that Marble Mountain Memoirs was published by Second Wind Publishing of Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 2012.
I’m Glad you stuck around through my ruminations about language. Idle ramblings? Random babbling? More to Come…
Marble Mountain Memoirs is Robert Romaniello’s maiden sojourn into the world of Semiautobiographical War novels.