Nov 4, 2017

common language

I’ve spent the last 72 hours in Montreal and in southern Belgium. In these places, every encounter starts with the question of which language we’ll proceed to speak, and always it’s a mishmash: some French, some English, and even a bit of the Flemish/Dutch that I learned some 15 years ago now.

It’s an accelerated intimacy, having these exchanges with good-willed strangers. We’re inevitably amused by our own mix of hits and misses, our fumbling and sounding like children, one to the other. We are discussing the taxi, or the menu, or the direction for the walk. It’s all a hatchet job of communication, and we end our conversation warmly for having had the encounter.

And why? Because the lie of shared language—especially shared language in one’s home (sub)culture—is that we think we both know what we mean. But these encounters in multi-lingual territories readily show the fissures, and so baldly: there is no such thing as easy comprehension, as perfect understanding between people. It’s always a miracle for the mental universe of one human brain to find its way to greet another. That’s why the music of poetry and the transcendence of images does so much speaking for us: these things escape the paltry languages we usually have on offer.

But to be in cultures so at home with the shapeshifting of speech is to have slightly more-human-than-human encounters. We each acknowledge the provisionality of our connections and intended meanings. We’re invited to glimpse the comedy of our existential situation, and so we part as friends.