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Odes

Ode to Languages

“Speaking a language is like a superpower,” or so said a dear friend of mine. They allow you to move more easily through the world. They allow you to have friends in exotic places and foreign bank accounts. They make you feel like a spy, which is exhilarating. They are the most versatile of tools because they are everything. They are the very framework of thought in most people’s minds. They express the banal and the outstanding. There are words to express desires as simple as hunger and as complex as the most profound philosophy. They let us work together to discover more about the universe, and they can bring people together in understanding to build stronger ties. They are a skill feared by the very gods themselves. They are secrets between best friends and siblings, and they are universal truths, accessible to all. There is an infinite variety of ideas and opinions that can be expressed, and each one has variation or commonality as it is translated into different languages. Words can be substituted, mutated, or embellished to modify their meanings. They can be taken at their literal denotation or at a wide variety of connotations. There is simplicity in a single syllable. There is obscurity in the vary stress of polysyllabic words. They can be built as Legos to create the architecture of a sentence, a play in every single utterance. They can express the greatest of emotions in eloquence or barbarism. Speaking a language is one of the greatest tools we have because it lets you get your ideas into the brains of other people. It is a hugely important survival tool for humans, and we have amazing capacity to use, create, and change this tool to whatever situation we might come across.

Languages spread across the world, yet they are the creations of new worlds and a proof that that world has been fleshed out in thought and planning. The power of a single word can be incredible, and a language is full of hundreds of thousands of them. Learning them at first is as natural as growing up. Learning them at second requires hard work, dedication, and patience. It takes years to pick up this skill, but it is well worth the effort and time. Language is a left-brained, analytical skill that can exploit and adorn the right-brain into the most profound of arts. It can make a leader of millions at a pulpit and console a single person in a journal.

Each language has its own characteristics that make it unique. There are the sz and sc sounds of Romanian and the vowels that end practically every Italian word. There is the rapid flow of Spanish and the musical tones of Chinese. There are the regular morphologies of Latin and the vast fields of eccentric English phrases and grammar. Each language bears with it the traditions of thousands of years and the novelties of buzz-phrases. They evolve and interact to influence each other and feed off one another.

There are languages big and small, near and far. When you learn to speak another language it opens a little more of the world up to you. You can go to a new place and get along without resorting to pointing in mute desperation or relying on the locals having learned your own language. You can be a little more courteous. The effort of trying to learn and improve in a person’s language is hugely appreciated. You can know a little more about how the culture works and move through it with fewer mistakes, making life much easier. As you pick up the language, you learn new and amusing things. Old comforts take on a new light. New adventures await around every corner, colored by imperfect understanding and wiser hindsight as you learn profoundly what that key phrase really meant. You are forced to reevaluate your own thoughts and opinions, and your brain changes as you learn another language. You must break down the barriers put up by learning your own grammar and make yourself more flexible and understanding. You must accept a barrage of new information, analyze it, and make use of it. Then you can move forward in your world so much more powerful for the experience. The number of people you can talk to expands exponentially.

I created my own language and a half-dozen scripts because the ultimate act of creation in my imagination was a language. It was the chance to both create the world that languages inherently provide and make it truly novel as no one had ever had that particular language for that particular world. It was the chance to encode a new level of secret meaning to those few friends that I had decided to share the language with, and it brought us closer together as a result. It gained a few hundred words and now sits on a shelf, hidden in a notebook with no use beyond a written farewell to my mother, an expression of love in a language all our own. It was a wonderful project for my imagination. It became an interesting application of my growing linguistic skills, and eventually a nostalgic piece of my youth.

Now there are many real world languages that I am focused on. I have set the goals for myself of Latin and its five main derivative languages plus Chinese and English. This may be more than enough for one lifetime’s adventures. It is still an admirable and worthwhile pursuit in my mind. It gets easier as I have passed beyond the third language, and it is now a defining portion of who I am. I am told I have a talent for learning languages, but I believe it is a product of my memory (which is fortunately good), my upbringing in sciences (which lets me learn, compare, and apply grammar), and my tenacity (which keeps me invested in things far longer than I need to be). Combined, I suppose they may be a talent for language, but I think they are rather application of skills widely common in the human race.

My favorite languages are Latin, Chinese, and Romanian. I like Latin and Chinese for the same reason, but they are opposites of each other. Both are difficult, and I both like a good challenge and feel very rewarded at being able to communicate in them. Chinese is all about word order and has a very complex and beautiful writing system. There is an endless adventure and world of art contained in the characters. The grammar is as simple as you could possibly ask for, and the tones are not as hard as most timorous people believe when starting out. They add a musicality to the language. The culture is strong and has preserved their language and its traditions for thousands of years. Latin likewise is the record of a strong cultural tradition and history. However, it has as simple of a writing system as could be asked for. Twenty-four entirely phonetic letters can be combined in almost limitless ways to create as intricate meaning and art as Chinese. The word order matters not at all while morphology and grammar reign supreme. Some of the greatest thoughts and music of all time have been recorded in this language, and we can still experience them today in all of their splendor thanks to Latin. Romanian just sounds neat. I love the combinations of s and z sounds with others, and Romanian is full of these susurrating consonant clusters. It has voiceless vowels and the relicts of Latin cases. There is a cute aspect to the language as I can see from the Latin perspective that the people of ancient Romania were attempting to learn Latin in earnest but making some delightfully adorable mistakes. It gives me a sense of empathy with the learners of the language and gives me hope that I can improve as I study my own. I am reminded of the beauty and utility that can be found in between languages, which create their own unique, luxurious sounds in the world.