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[1]. 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.

Mountains upon mountains  (Jardín, Colombia)

Mountains upon mountains
(Jardín, Colombia)

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.

[1] 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.

The cordillera(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

The cordillera
(Somewhere over Paisalandia)


By Rob Packer

In most of the languages I know, you describe the process of working out where you are on the map or in relation to your surroundings with a variant on orientation: Orientierung in German, orientación in Spanish, ориентация (orientatsia) in Russian and so on and so forth. The word comes from oriens, the Latin word for east, and creates an image in my mind of people lost in a forest or on the steppe bumping about in the dark until the sun rises and the riddle is solved. According to Wikipedia, the actual origin of the word is has an even more metaphysical feel to it, coming from the mediaeval tradition of putting east at the top of the map and Jerusalem at its centre, such as in the Hereford Mappa Mundi. The tradition of setting churches (and Roman temples) on an east-west axis could be an alternative.

The exception is Portuguese, where the word I’ve most commonly seen is nortear, taking its directions as most modern maps do today. This isn’t to say that orientar doesn’t exist in Portuguese (it does) and by the same token, nortear does in Spanish, although I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it used. So why the difference?

I like to think of it as a holdover of the language’s own history embedded within its DNA: according to the Real Academia Española of Spain, the Spanish nortear is mainly used at sea, where mariners have to navigate on the earth’s fixed axis. And the word has its origins in norte, a Germanic word, which (and this is pure speculation) makes me think of it as a word that sprung up from people communicating with each other in the vernacular, which probably dates it later—a more learned Latinate equivalent would be something like boreate or septentrionate. But in Portuguese, you could nortear your way around Rio de Janeiro just as easily as you could mathematics. It may or may not be the case, but I like to imagine the word echoing down from the pre-longitude Age of Discoveries, Vasco da Gama, Henry the Navigator and all the others, whose astrolabes would have orientated them in terms of their latitude, but would not have told them how far east or west they were.

Linguistic Showdown!

By Rob Packer

I was recently confronted and affronted by a friend of a friend. She was from Italy and may have been a plant to ruin my birthday party. It was indeed my party and I could’ve cried if I wanted to, but decided it unseemly for a newly 30-year-old man to blub in a pub in once painfully hip Shoreditch—these days surely merely hip and at some point in the far-off future, just painful. Tears were spared, but teeth were gritted and the anger only subsided when a very good friend I hadn’t seen in six years walked in like a ray of sunshine after the apocalypse.

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