As an “Author”, words are my tools. I love words, the way they fit together like a puzzle, creating meanings and emotions. The best tools have more than one edge, and the best words have more than one meaning.
I’ve spoken a few different languages in my life, I almost became a translator in the Air Force, but they wanted me to study Arabic in San Antonio and I wanted to study Russian in Monterey. It was Summer, so we compromised and I studied operations analysis in Denver. I studied French for a few years in my early teens, taught myself Russian, and picked up more Spanish living in California than my father learned in a Berlitz course (I had to serve as translator in Mexico). My wife is from Belgium, her native tongue is Flemish, so I decided to learn to speak her language.
Flemish is almost identical to Dutch, different enough for natives to not be able to understand the differences, but close enough that I could take the Rosetta Stone Dutch course. There is no Flemish course, fewer people speak Flemish than live in Wisconsin. Like most Germanic languages, it looked easy. So many words were the same, or similar. I could hear the common roots with English in some words, “bloem” is “flower”, it sounds like “bloom” (an interesting word I’ll get back to). I detest the abbreviations used in texting. Imagine my shock when I found that the polite form of you (je, jou in familiar form) is spelled u. I thought they were just using text language, and they’re actually being formal.
It was important for me to know how to say “I love you” for our wedding, and I incorporated it into the ceremony. “Ik hou van jou mijn lieveling” translates to “I love you my darling”, and another thing I like about Vlaams (Flemish) is that my wife’s name means “dear” and is used often. I was sure I’d be fluent in a few months. It’s now over two years later and I’m still working on it. The more you get into speaking the language, the less the words (and grammar) relate to English. I do have the consolation that her first husband didn’t pick up any words outside of “Lekker”, or “Tasty”, a compliment helpful at meals.
The word that set me off in this direction today is douche. In English, we associate this word with vaginal cleansing, in Flemish it means to shower (kind of odd the first time my mother in law asked if I had showered). In English, it has become something of an insult, i.e. “douchebag”, so this morning, when someone was referred to as a douche and another person used the word “doucher” to describe “more of a douche”, the idea of discussing etymology seemed destined.
Back to bloem. A few weeks ago I decided to get serious about making curry. I asked my wife if she had a recipe, and she pulls out Vegetarisch Koken, her vegetarian cookbook (see how easy it looks?). I’m reading through the recipe for curry van rode bonen (curry with red beans), translating ingredients (measures took some guesswork on both our parts). Laurierblad is bay leaf, okay, bay laurel. Chilipoeder, kurkuma, koriander, komijn, kardamomen, I’m doing fine. Teentjes knoflook required some help, cloves of garlic, but once you understand that a clove of galic looks like a little toe it makes some sense. I was stuck on bloem. What kind of flower? Then I had the most delightful discovery. There are homophones in Flemish (I knew her and hair were both haar) that are the same as English. Bloem is both flower and flour. How cool.
The world of puns in Flemish has thrown its doors open to me. Last week, my nephew posted a photo of a group of his colleagues. They study archeology, and call their group Alfa. The women had just put out a calender (Alfa’s Naaktkalender, figure that one out) so this photo was of the guys, sitting at a bar, naked. He called them the Alpha males (alpha mannen), so I said “graven die”, as I often say “dig that” in English. It worked, humour translated properly.
The sounds of the spoken word are fascinating, I know people who honestly cannot understand a person speaking with an accent (my last wife couldn’t follow BBC, friends in California can’t understand Brooklynites) but I love them. When I hear about the various accents in Belgium I find it amusing, you would think that geography and population density would homogenize the language of such a small group.
It’s difficult communicating on the internet at times, with no source of inflection or facial expression. Sometimes people take things the wrong way, and when it’s something they’re sensitive about (the most likely items to be taken the wrong way) tempers can flare. I try to remember that we each have different sensibilities, but I pop in with information so often that I manage to offend someone every week. I also tend towards dry humour, which only adds to the problem.
Words that are repeated too often can lose their meaning, but if I have offended anyone, I mean it quite sincerely when I say “I’m sorry”.