Sunday, July 12, 2015

Linguistic immigrants and semantic holes

I am always on holiday. Not physically, but mentally. The explanation: I live in three languages at the same time: Dutch (my native language), French and English. I created this situation almost 20 years ago by moving from the Netherlands to Paris. By moving into the French language I became a permanent “linguistic immigrant”. When I met my wife, whose native language is English, it felt like moving into another language again. Another linguistic immigration, but without leaving the city. As she doesn’t speak Dutch, I constantly have to do what people do who are on holiday: find my words in other languages. That is how it feels to me: I’m always on holiday.

Is it frustrating not to be able to express myself in my first language? No. On the contrary. It gives my mind new alleys, new paths to new meanings. It keeps my mind in shape. When you constantly have to go look for something it stimulates your creativity. Think of the Nietzschean image of the river that develops its power thanks to the obstacles it encounters. I always feel like that river, because the words that are available to me often don’t feel good enough. I have to jump obstacles to express what I mean: “there must be a better word”. I enjoy that feeling because it means I have to try out other words and test new meanings. No, it’s not frustrating to be permanently limited to a foreign language. 

A part of my dictionaries. They are like friends to me. They permanently live on my desk. They're like countries, different linguistic landscapes I can travel in.

Living in a foreign language is like living with a second skin. There’s a sort of distance between you and the words. To me this distance does not cause frustration. On the contrary it causes passion: the passion to find the right word. I’m so used to the feeling that “there must be a better word” that I’m always in the mood for a linguistic trip to find it. Even if that word doesn’t exist; it drives my wife crazy sometimes.

The distance between me and my foreign languages also causes something else: esthetic appreciation. It’s like reading poetry in your native language: you don’t understand it 100% but it sounds and feels so new and nice! I have that feeling especially with Italian which I speak a little. Reading out a manual in Italian is like reciting an opera. It’s just beautiful. It’s so wonderfully different from my own, down-to-earth, “first-skin” native language. It’s like a “trip to meaning” that’s a bit longer than in Dutch but that’s worth the detour.

The pleasure of living in other languages is not only that you discover new meanings. You also discover that other languages lack meanings you have in your own language. I recently discovered for example that both English and French don’t have the equivalent of the Dutch word “contactgestoord”. It literally means “contact disturbed” and refers to a person that has trouble communicating with other people; a socially handicapped person. My French dictionary gave me this: “a person subject to relational inhibitions”, clearly not a satisfactory equivalent. I call this a “semantic hole”. Even though “socially handicapped” is a pretty good translation for “contactgestoord”, it doesn’t seem to express the same idea. My wife would argue that it is the same, but to me that would make things too easy. It would deprive me of a trip to new linguistic horizons. I don’t want to return from holiday, not yet.

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