Monday, August 08, 2011

Fragments of Language

Rotterdam, August 2011

Aaron Siskind, Abstract Expressionist photographer extraordinaire, published a collection of his works called Fragmentation of Language in 1997. In it, he explores what it is to receive seeming messages from the visual world of cluttered ads and graffiti, sometimes even torn or ripped non-verbal messages, or rust in calligraphic form. It is one of my favorite collections, as I am drawn to photographing this stuff myself.

I am in Rotterdam right now. It's a city that lives under the shadow of Amsterdam, the far more famous coffee shop and canal-ridden other big Netherlands city. I've been to Amsterdam before - it's quaint and enjoyable. But we have friends in Rotterdam, and Dylan and I are both fascinated by modern architecture. Rotterdam got flattened by a fire stemmed from a 15 minute German bombing in WWII, so the whole center of town is new. Brand new. New like a lot of Eastern Berlin is. Cranes everywhere, still in progress. Old and new right next to one another, and the new here is very powerful to look at - cubed buildings, special skyscrapers with nicknames like "The Apple" and "The Pencil." Photos will follow on Flickr (herspiral) of course.

What's even more fascinating, though, to this former-linguistics-cum-forever-language-nerd student, however, is language itself. Gabi lives her life in at least three languages - native German, Dutch and English with her wife, our other friend, Joey. Joey is living in English and learning Dutch. On the train ride here, we hopped on in England, which, as you know, purportedly speaks English - but if they do, then I speak American, for it is not the same language at all. We rode through France to Belgium, where we lay over to get to the Netherlands. In Belgium, we transferred in Brussels (Bruxelles to me, as I lived in France and speak French), in the French portion of Belgium (Walloon), and then passed through the Dutch part of Belgium. In other words, there have been a lot of words in many languages in my ears the last few days.

I have read research (which I can't seem to find to link to right now) that we often reply to a new language with whatever language came second to us (not for those raised in two languages).  I was raised in English then learned French later. Whenever I hear a new language, I reply in French. The odd thing is that Dutch sounds like a combination of German (which Dylan speaks), English and French. Little bells go off as if I should be understanding it, since I understand, or would seem to, 2/3 of what is being said. Only I don't. Reading Dutch, especially signs without the verb-last construction that I don't grasp, is pretty easy - Dutch seems like English with many vowels.

Yet, it is as good as Esperanto. Which is to say - I get it and I don't. Plus, even from Dutch to German (much less Dutch to English), as Gabi has pointed out, there are many "faux amis" as the French call them - false cognates. What it sounds like to us is not how it translates at all. The meaning didn't last though the phonetics did. The example Gabi gave us at dinner the other night was the Dutch verb "bellen." In German, the exact same verb means "to bark" - in Dutch it means "to ring" (ala "bell" in English) but it also means "to ring up (on the phone)." When Gabi first moved here, someone told her they were going to "bellen" her - ring her up. But she thought "you are going to bark at me? I must have missed something."

It's a bit exhausting to think you know what is going on when you don't, always. I find traveling in the Netherlands (as well as I have in other countries where I definitely don't speak the language - Hungary, Sweden, rural Guatemala) to be more liberating. England is hard, actually, because it is there I find the most fragmentation of language. The most fragmentation of my mind - trying so hard to hold to what it knows, finding so many footholds that turn out to be false: cultural as well as linguistic. The Netherlands is somewhere between England and Sweden - I do get some of it. Or do I?

PS. It's Dylan's and my third wedding anniversary today. Yay!


  1. Such a fascinating look at language, and at beginner's mind, from a different perspective. :)

    Thank you, as always, for sharing.

    Happy Anniversary!