Monday, November 3, 2008


Multiple sclerosis, writing, family, work, etc. Life in general. I guess that leaves a lot of room to write about things other than MS. It does, after all, get old. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. MS gets old.

Just now I’d like to talk about language—specifically the dueling tongues that are presently battling for the upper hand in my home. We have me speaking English, Sant Louis speaking Bahasa Indonesia, Albert speaking both, and Mamdouh speaking Arabic. If you count in the dogs, we also have Labradorian and Chihuahuan.

I believe that the dogs are showing the surest grasp of communication in this multilingual environment. They seem to know when they have done well or done badly, whether they are to come or to go, whether they are to sleep or play, no matter what language is being spoken at any given moment. They know when to eat. They know when to come inside. They know when it is time for a walk. The only thing they don’t know is when to be quiet.

Now, if Albert speaks to Sant Louis in Indonesian, only the two of them (and the dogs, of course) know what is being said. This is because they speak very rapidly and almost completely in a sublanguage of slang.

If I say something to Sant Louis in Indonesian, only I, Albert, and Sant Louis (and the dogs) know what I am saying. Of course, much of my Indonesian is so bad that it may as well be Martian, in which case I am on my own, shared meaning being a prerequisite to communication. I may as well be speaking in tongues, which only God Himself will understand, assuming He has the time to sort it out. Who knows, maybe my tongues are just as bad as my Indonesian.

Now, if we, any of us, speak English in addressing Mamdouh, he both understands and does not understand. Here is where he and I are similar, both of us able to receive some portion, able to impart some fragment of personal intent, yet forever lurking at the hazy edges of useful comprehension.

If Mamdouh speaks Arabic, he and the dogs are on their own. Only they among all in our household know what he is saying. It may be that he is complaining (to a friend on the phone, for instance) about the lousy dinner we served him last night. It may be that he is expressing his awe at my intelligence and wisdom. It may be that he and his mates are addressing the fine details of a plan to blow up some city structure of high profile.

It is all a challenge, all interesting, all perplexing. We move about in a world of noises, a world of whispers and shouts and everything in between, a world of endless conflict and resolution. And words are not enough. Even if two and three people speak the same language, words are still not enough. We rely more on a sort of poetry than we like to imagine or admit.

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