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Language and Thought: The Search for Understanding

“The immense value of becoming acquainted with a foreign language is that we are thereby led into a new world of tradition and thought and feeling.” -- Havelock Ellis

Some years ago while visiting Scotland, some friends and I found ourselves riding a train with a woman who spoke both English and Scottish Gaelic. In our conversation, she commented that English was such a poor language. She could say so much more in Gaelic. I have thought about that conversation and the difference between languages many times. What would our conversation have been like if my friends and I had spoken Gaelic? What other, possibly deeper thoughts and ideas could we have exchanged? While I am only fluent in English, I do know a smattering of Polish and have found there are ideas and feelings I can express better in Polish than English and vice versa. The problem comes when there is no one who can understand what I am trying to say. It can be a very isolating experience. Here are three books that touch on the subject of language, isolation and the frustration of not being able to fully express oneself or not being understood - and tea for deep thought.

Tea: According to many health sources, cinnamon is very good for the brain. Because one of its many benefits is increased motor function, one education source even suggested chewing cinnamon gum when taking tests for better results. Once when stuck in the airport with a blinding headache, a cup of Hot Cinnamon Spice tea from Harney and Sons cured it within minutes. This is a black tea with cinnamon and other spices such as cloves. While caffeine can help alleviate headaches, it can also trigger them, especially if you regularly drink a lot of coffee or tea. Therefore, for a caffeine free alternative to the delicious Harney and Sons version, The Spice and Tea Exchange sells an herbal tisane: Cinnamon Plum. Besides the two leading ingredients, the tea also contains currants, hibiscus and licorice flavors. I have tried it as an iced tea recently, but prefer it hot with a little bit of honey or sugar to take the edge off of the tart flavor.

Fiction: The Hidden Palace: A Novel of the Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker came out just this June, and I was lucky enough to be one of the first to get a copy of it at my library. Because it is a sequel, and I am usually a stickler for reading book series in order, normally I would be writing about The Golem and the Jinni (published in 2013) first. However, it is really this second book that deals with language, experience and connection. To be clear, I still would recommend you read The Golem and the Jinni before reading The Hidden Palace. Both books follow two mythical characters, a golem and a jinni, Chava and Ahmad, who find themselves in turn of the century New York City. Illustrating the immigrant experience, Chava and Ahmad must learn to navigate and integrate into the human world without exposing their true identities. While both characters, who have formed a relationship, speak and understand many languages, a rift arises in their relationship due to their inability to fully communicate with each other. The lack of a common language and the deeper, communal experience words represent causes a lot of hurt, and is used as an excuse not to even try explaining their thoughts and feelings to each other. These frustrations are specifically seen in Ahmad, who longs to express himself in the language of the jinn without a real hope of ever being able to again.

Nonfiction: Another recently published book that explores language and how it can either isolate or connect people, even within their own families, is Speak, Okinawa: A Memoir by Elizabeth Miki Brina. Brina’s mother, Kyoko, was born in Okinawa just after World War II, and grew up in a family of nine. Kyoko married Brina’s father, an American officer, in 1974, in part to escape the poverty of her youth, however her background, struggle with learning English, and ethnicity made it difficult to adjust to living in the United States. These difficulties affected Kyoko’s relationship with her daughter, Elizabeth. Growing up in the United States with only limited contact with her Okinawan family, the author grew up ashamed of her mother and Asian heritage. A lot of the blame for this is placed on the fact her mother struggled with English, and Brina did not learn Japanese; they could not understand each other. It was not until much later in her life, after she had taken trips to Okinawa, that the author’s relationship with her mother improved.

On a very important side note, the construction of this book is really unique to me because the author interweaves the history of Okinawa with her family’s and her own personal history, using a first person narration throughout the book. It was like changing from a pair of binoculars (history of Okinawa), to glasses (family history), to a microscope (the author’s memoir) while never losing a sense of the personal or a sense of intimacy. Brina justifies this construction at the very outset, “Yet these memories are impossible to forget, regardless of whether we actually lived through them. I believe they stay in our bodies. As sickness, as addiction, as poor posture or a tendency toward apology, as a deepened capacity for sadness or anger. As determination to survive, a relentless tempered optimism. I believe they are inherited, passed on to us like brown eyes or the shape of a nose” (6).

Children’s Book: It is one thing for people to be separated due to the absence of a common language, but it is quite another to have no language at all. The Wild Boy written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein relates the tragic, true story of Victor, the wild boy of France, who was discovered naked and alone in the forest of Aveyron by a hunting party in 1800. At first caged and treated like an animal because he continually tried to run away and did not respond to anything other than food, Victor was finally sent to Paris for further tests and study, and eventually taken in by Dr. Jean-Marc Itard. Under his tutelage and the care of Dr. Itard’s housekeeper, Madame Guerin, Victor learned to read and write some words, but was never able to speak. Thus his background, his innermost thoughts and feelings remain a mystery to this day. One of the saddest passages comes after an incident in which Dr. Itard realizes Victor will never be able to talk: “He will never learn to speak, thought the doctor. He was alone in the woods too long. But he has learned to have feelings, and they can be hurt” (33).

“To transform experience and thought into language and narrative - that is beautiful even if that beauty is in brokenness.-- Alice Sebold

“Language and written language are the only real way we have to see inside another person’s thoughts and to know what makes another person human. Without writing, we just wouldn’t have that kind of access. -- Carol Windley

“To transform experience and thought into language and narrative - that is beautiful even if that beauty is in brokenness.-- Alice Sebold

“Language and written language are the only real way we have to see inside another person’s thoughts and to know what makes another person human. Without writing, we just wouldn’t have that kind of access. -- Carol Windley


Artwork credited to Aurora Draws - contact for more details

All photographs by the author

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