- In Thai, one word (tam), suffices for both “make” and “do.” The same is true for the Tajik kardan and the Spanish hacer. English is the only language I’ve yet learned that separates the idea of action from that of creation.
- When Thais say they are eating, they say they are eating rice. When they say they are hungry, they say they are hungry for rice, whether they plan to eat rice or not. Rice is food. The real food. This linguistic association of the staple with the very concept of food is common. Congolese will often say they have not eaten today if they have not yet eaten manioc.
- The Tajiks call their national dish osh, shorthand for oshi-palav. Osh means food, or meal. Oshi-palav can be taken to mean the meal that is pilaf (to use a more familiar spelling). Pilaf/pilau/palav/plov can be found across Central Asia, from Turkey to India. It means, more or less, a pile of rice and vegetables topped with meat. The dish itself can hardly be claimed by any one ethnicity, but the word is Persian, leaving evidence of the breadth of their empire to this day.
- The Tajik word for “book” is kitab. This is also the word in Hindi, Turkish and Swahili. Its origin is Arabic. The word Tajiks use for ice cream is the Russian morozhna. The word they use for computer is, of course, computer.
- Peel back the accumulated loan-words and you’ll see the traces power leaves on language.
- Every year, during the festival of Loy Krathong, when the rainy season is ending and the rivers and canals are full, Thais make (tam) floating votaries out of banana leaves and shove them off into the waterways as prayers for good fortune and forgiveness. Not coincidentally, the Thai word, mae, for mother is the same as the word for river.
- The English word “deity” comes from the Latin word for god: deus, a cognate with the Greek theos, and the name of the sky-god Zeus. This cluster of words originates in the Proto-Indo-European word for the sky or sun god div, preserved as deva in Hindu worship. The association between the sky and God persists all the way to English. “Deity” comes from the same root as “day.”
- The word “god” comes to us via the German gott, which was first applied to the Christian God when the Bible was translated into Gothic in the 4th century. The Gothic guda or gud itself has Proto-Indo-European origins. Scholarly consensus is that it comes from a verb: the word for to pour/to libate. Conjugated, it would have meant the one to whom libations were made, i.e. the idol.
- All names are borrowed.
- Tajik is a dialect of Western Persian, though the territory of modern Tajikistan lies near the eastern edge of the old Persian empire. The various splintered dialects of the empire were reunited after the Arab conquest, which first subdued the western territory of Fars then used its people as administrators and puppet rulers across Central Asia.
This process spread Farsi across the continent, making it the foundation of Modern Persian—of which Tajik is one branch of three. But still, in the Yaghnob valley, an isolated backwater in Northern Tajikistan, a group of subsistence farmers preserves a dialect of Eastern Persian little changed since Cyrus the Great.
- The dialect which has best preserved the elements of Old Castilian is Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish; which means that linguists who wish to hear the language of Ferdinand and Isabella currently travel to Israel. The Sephardic Jews achieved this feet of linguistic preservation primarily because they were expelled from Spain in the 14th Century. Forced to form enclaves in other countries, they passed down, with few changes, the Spanish of a more tolerant time.
- According to Czeslaw Milosz the modern language which hews closest to Sanskrit—and therefore closest to its roots in Proto-Indo-European—is Lithuanian. This means, strangely enough, that in the racially charged and wildly inaccurate terminology of the Nazis, Lithuanian is the most Aryan language in Europe. That this earned the Lithuanians no gratitude or respect from Nazi Germany indicates to what degree totalitarian states treat language as an object of manipulation rather than a subject for study.
- Preservation happens at the margins. The center, the metropolis, is always subject to influence, recombination, reinvention.
- In Santo Domingo in the summer of 2008 I took communion in a storefront church just above the floodplain, where many families had lost all their possessions to the river more than once. Every week after taking the bread and wine the priest would start the song: “la paz de Dios con nosotros.” The peace of God with us. And we would go from person to person, clasping hands, then kissing on both cheeks, saying, “la paz, la paz,” to each. Kiss, kiss, “la paz, la paz.” Peace, peace.
- In a region called Mostcho in Northern Tajikistan, populated by forced migration during the Soviet era, young people greeted each other, “tinjai?” “Are you peaceful?” and responded, “tinj, hamma tinj.” “Yes, peaceful. Everything is peaceful.” Elsewhere, government forces used a prison break as an excuse for martial law in the country’s mountainous center. Beards were outlawed for fear that bearded men were Islamic extremists. In the Pamirs to the East, ethnic minorities talked openly of revolt. But in Mostcho—where the elderly still spoke of “Old Mostcho,” their home before Stalin deported them to the cotton-bearing plains—hamma tinj.
- That summer in Santo Domingo people told me, “tranquilo” in response to the question, “¿como estas?”
2008 was an election year in the Dominican Republic, as it was in the United States, and the streets were filled with partisans waving white or purple flags. TVs blared slogans, people chanted, neighborhoods were bused en masse to the polls. But then the election came, the incumbent won as expected, and things settled down. After that people only burned tires in the streets to protest power outages. Tranquilo.
- Some words stand more for hope than for reality.
- The Thai word for Christmas is the transliteration, “Krisama.” For Krisama we slaughtered a pig. I brought my notebook along for a vocabulary lesson.
I learned “to cut” first, and then “knife” and “kill.” As they bathed the carcass in boiling water and scraped away the bristles, I learned “to shave.” It was white and soft, roughness removed, its body clean and smooth. They ripped open its chest. I learned “bone” and “heart” and “blood.”
It is a bloody act, to force the thing itself down on a bamboo mat and take whatever understanding, whatever sustenance you can.
The body’s quarters dripped on the grass as we carried them to the baskets. I learned “heavy.”
- Language holds us. Gives us place and purpose. Makes fixed what is in motion. Voices our ambitions and identities. Confronts our ambiguities.
Language leaves evidence of force, overlays of empires. Language is what we do (tam, kardan, hacer) to the world, what we make of it (tam, kardan, hacer). God forgive us.