Thursday, December 1, 2016

Benjy with a J?


This is my language post.

I began this post during my second week here, and then decided against posting it. I realized that I was utterly fascinated by the power for language to connect and (in the case of my early days in a new country) divide people. Yet my thoughts were still too raw, and I needed to experience and reflect a little more on the subject.

To explain the title of the post, from what I understand, "Y" isn't really its own letter in Hungarian, but is just used in conjunction with other letters to modify their sounds. But the "Y" sound we know in English comes from the letter "J" here. So the nuance of my blog title gets sort of lost in translation, which is perhaps the perfect introduction to my encounter with language so far.

When I started this post back in September, I was tempted to give the basic living abroad synopsis of language hurdles, and teach you the few Hungarian words I have picked up (unfortunately, my December level of Hungarian is not so much stronger than my September level... I still haven't officially started language lessons, but hopefully I will start soon). I was going to tell you what it feels like to be a native English speaker, and what it feels like to have this selfish feeling inside me that everyone else really ought to speak English. As it turns out, my Hungarian counterparts frequently have far better familiarity with foreign languages. Many study and travel abroad, and teenage students actually devote a year of school to picking up foreign language/s. As Europe has tried to come together in many ways over the last few decades, language remains a basic barrier. Some have even suggested the creation of a "Euro" for language. Oftentimes English seems to be the default common denominator. It doesn't seem uncommon to have a European couple from different countries who communicate in English, even though it is neither of their mother tongue.

In terms of my comfort with being in a country where Hungarian, a language notorious for its complexity and linguistic anomalousness, is the official language, it has definitely been a story with many chapters. I was at first entirely freaked out by the language barrier, but I now understand that it is ok for communication to have hurdles, and to rely extra heavily on non-verbal communication. I actually bought a new bed the other day using gestures and a translation iPhone app (not the first transaction to happen that way), and I often follow along in conversations that sound like total gibberish to me by offering what seems to be appropriate feedback (chuckles, facial expressions). What's funny is that my feedback does not feel fabricated or insincere; rather, it is simply the most I can offer given the information I understand (essentially a purely non-verbal interaction).

When I was first going to write this post, I crafted the following paragraph:
"With the high holidays around the corner (#TBT, am I right??), I am reminded of one of our family's favorite stories, The Hardest Word. The book tells the story of the Ziz, a massive bird who means well, and is tasked by God to find the hardest word. The Ziz comes up with all sorts of crazy words (I think 'spaghetti' is the only one I can think of off the top of my head) and ultimately realizes that the hardest word is in fact (SPOILER ALERT) "Sorry." I think the message is strong, however, I would encourage the Ziz to visit Hungary, and find that in fact, 'Viszontlátásra' (a more formal way of simply saying 'goodbye') is much harder than 'sorry.'"

Now, I am picking up my thinking about language once more, because it is 1:00 AM as I type and I just came home from seeing the movie The Arrival. I won't spoil the movie, but the language thing is HUGE. A funny anecdote, however, is that during a crucial moment of foreign communication, the regular English subtitles were ONLY offered in Hungarian!! Sam (my roommate) and I exchanged an "oh no" look, and I quickly pulled out my translate app. I managed to only translate a few words, and immediately called my dad after the movie to ask what the communication meant. For those of you who have seen the movie, please feel free to follow up with me because I'd love to talk further about how cool that movie was.

To maintain my self-described tendency to extrapolate even more broadly, hopefully not to the point of pontification, I will mention that language has opened up the Tower of Babel can of worms for me. While well known, this Bible story hardly merits much attention at all in the text. It occupies a mere few sentences, and we learn of no individual protagonists or antagonists, probably because humans (literally) rose and fell in unison. That's the whole point, right? People all spoke the same language, and essentially grew pompous enough to believe that their grand unity could encroach upon the glory of God. Seemingly appropriately, God punishes them with a dispersion that confuses their tongues into the thousands of languages spoken around the world. The punishment seems to meet the crime, yet here I am in Hungary suffering for the sins of those anonymous masses, written just a few columns into the book of Genesis (meaning the story of the world has hardly just started, and they've already complicated my year abroad)!?? Not only that, but I'm led to believe that if my life were to become much easier and language barriers could magically disappear overnight (and the climactic scene of The Arrival would have never been ruined for me), collective humanity would risk the threat of mass unified pompousness and sin! Oy vey.

I need to wrap my head around these thoughts a little more, but I will say that perhaps the lesson gleaned here is that while we still may, and perhaps even should, seek to bridge the gaps between the different peoples of the world, the language barriers keep us humble during those attempts. We never risk feeling as high and mighty as God, because nothing feels more human than drawing upon all of our resources (body language, gestures, facial expression, tone, posture, etc) to desperately bridge a gap to connect with another human being. The feeling forces us to feel our limits as people, and to really grasp the importance of our unique background and story, as well as that of our counterpart.

My Facebook cover photo defines a made up word called Sonder, which describes the realization that every other person on Earth, those people who seem like nameless and faceless extras in the grand drama of our lives, actually have as infinitely complex lives as our own. When I hear someone speaking a foreign language, I understand that this person's history, lineage, and upbringing took place under entirely different circumstances than my own, and our parallel universe have someone touched. Language does not entirely bridge that gap, but it illuminates the uniqueness of each person and demarcates the opportunities and limitations of interpersonal relationships.

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