Tuesday, October 13, 2009

i love language, and this is why

I love it when one word has two different meanings in one language, and that word's equivalent in another language means those same two things. Example:

So in English, two meanings for the word band are band like a band of robbers, and band like rubberband. In Spanish, liga. It means league, like a football league. It also means band, like a rubberband. Liga = league = band.

And it makes perfect sense--the verb ligar means to bind, and you can be bound by both rope and friendship, or purpose. Of course, there are so many words that do this, but I love how you can see how it's mirrored in other languages. I bet if I tried I could find a Romanian word--one not even from a Latin root, mind you--that meant a few totally separate things, and then find out that the English translation had the same separate meanings. And really it's just one of those intuitive things, word meaning and all the connections between things, and meaning runs deeper than language anyway, so of course this would happen.

"We worried over nzolo--it means dearly beloved; or a white grub used for fish bait; or a special fetish against dysentery; or little potatoes. Nzole is the double-sized pagne that wraps around two people at once. Finally I see how these things are related. In a marriage ceremony, husband and wife stand tightly bound by their nzole and hold one another to be the most precious: nzolani. As precious as the first potatoes of the season, small and sweet like Georgia peanuts. Precious as the fattest grubs turned up from the soil, which catch the largest fish. And the fetish most treasured by mothers, against dysentery, contains a particle of all the things invoked by the word nzolo: you must dig and dry the grub and potatoes, bind them with a thread from your wedding cloth, and have them blessed in a fire by the nganga doctor."
--The Poisonwood Bible

Cola means line, like waiting in line--and it also means tail, like the tail of an animal. From above they look the same. Pegar means to hit, and it also means to glue, to stick. But here in the south, you might hear someone say they stuck someone in the face when they punched him. Derecho means right, as in someone's rights, and derecha means right, directionally. If something is right or just, it's good--and your right hand man is the one in whom you're most confided. It goes on and on.

I wrote this paper once about word meaning, words as carriers of meaning--as opposed to words having inherent meaning. The whole, I could call this table a fish and it would still be something I sit at to eat, and fish would just mean where dinner was had. The word could be anything, but I love words, and I don't think that because they could be anything that they're irrelevant. The meaning is most important, of course, but all you'd have is empty space and intention without the word to shape it. And look at nzolo, how it carries so much, how it connects things like grubs and wedding garments to talk about what we value and how what's dear to us permeates everything.

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