POST CARDS FROM THE MUSE
By Nandy Ekle
Several years ago (ten? fifteen?) We watched a movie called The 13th Warrior. Made from a book by Michael Crichton, it’s the story of an Arabian man who was exiled for having an affair with the wife of an influential noble. He is sentenced to be an ambassador to Northern Barbarians and through a series of events, he is banded with a tribe of Norse Warriors.
In the beginning of the story language is a curious barrier. He wants to understand the culture, but without understanding the language he cannot learn about their way of life.
He tells of traveling with these strangers and paying close attention to the sounds they make until their language begins to make sense to him. Today we call that immersion learning. As he begins to learn their tongue, they are also learning about him. Finally all the fog is cleared and they can then understand each other.
The main character is an educated man, while the Norsemen, one of them a king in waiting, are not. So once they are able to cross the language barrier, they all become friends and the young king in waiting asks a very interesting question.
“Can you draw sounds?”
Of course, he is asking if the ambassador can write. The Norseman wants to learn to read and write.
All these years later I still remember that question. Can you draw sounds.
If you think about it deeply enough you realize that all a spoken language is is sounds that we have assigned ideas to. Each sound is part of a bigger sound we call a word. When we write words we are writing symbols assigned to those sounds. Learning a new language is simply reassigning those symbols to different sounds.
As a student of court reporting and shorthand, I had to learn, in a sense, a different language. Well, it was the same sounds representing the same ideas, but the written symbols were different. And actually, the type of shorthand I learned was the same symbols, just in different orders.
Then I make myself even dizzier by wondering who decided which symbol would represent which sound? This line of thinking can go on and on and on . . .
This is one of the things I love about words.
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