September 1, 2013 Leave a comment
My [redacted] is enough for business transactions, for humour: I say what the language wants, not what I want. Her laughter. I am the victim of my small vocabulary.
Homo faber, Max Frisch
Anyone who knows me will know I speak more than a couple of languages. Living as a foreigner in Brazil, this comes up most days and it often doesn’t take long for someone to ask me how it is I speak Portuguese “so well”. It’s a mystery to me, as much as to them. This post might sound from a boastful enumerator, but I hope it doesn’t: I’m far more an embarrassed tallier.
Language is a landscape—and each one is different.
There’s one I used to speak, can no longer understand, that’s like a faded winter leaf: I can remember words, no meanings, but the intricate mathematical grammar hangs in its skeletal lace. Another sits in a jar of formaldehyde.
Another one, Russian, I worked in once and read in sometimes, but never without a dictionary for half the words. It feels like a misty hillside with a plain below where the slow-blown air sometimes clears and sometimes closes in. Or perhaps it’s like that scene towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, staring out over a snowy Breughelian vista.
The ones I feel I speak best, the irony and minor keys of German or arid, intricate, yet lush Spanish, are so much topographical, like a Caspar David Friedrich painting or the early sun over the Colombian cordillera, where ridge upon green ridge stretches to the horizon with the regularity and crunch of collapsing Toblerones.
Portuguese is different: I have a compass and a car, I am a navigator and have travelled far, but I know I’m on a wide savannah, where half my made-good turns were flukes.
Perhaps it’s familiarity and experience, perhaps it’s the mind-bending visions that come from literature, perhaps I have a synesthetic perception of these things. Or maybe it’s the range of lived emotion that spreads these maps of altitude: the most important relationships of my life (family, friends, lovers, partners) have been in English, German, Spanish. These are the languages that have made me ecstatic, made me cry. Will the same happen with Portuguese? Perhaps, or maybe it will always be a language on the flatlands, where words start to fade as soon as they’re touched and turn into gabbling shadows that sound, at a distance, like English, German or Spanish.
 The biggest mystery of all is how some people hear an accent from Portugal, where I’ve not been for 15 years and where I’ve never spoken Portuguese.