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TODAY

Saturday, July 21

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Detour

I am not a linguist.

Somewhere in the second booze-soaked semester of my junior year in college however, I entertained the notion of becoming Really Good at Language. I was in the midst of a B.A. in Theatre Arts, but my hopes of a career on Broadway were all but dashed by a spring break trip to New York City. I returned home starry-eyed after seeing Bernadette Peters in a brilliant turn as Mama Rose in "Gypsy," and proceeded to announce, loudly, to anyone who would listen that I was wasting my time and that in spite of a 24 year old, deep-seated belief that I had "what it took," I was nothing but a fake, a phony, a living definition of someone with delusions of grandeur and I vowed to excommunicate myself from theatre altogether.

The thought of being a living definition of something was profoundly interesting to me, however, and so I decided, beer in hand, that I would dedicate my life's work to my new love: linguistics. While schmoozing at a birthday party at a groovy lounge on the Upper West Side, you see, I used the word "terpsicora" to a smattering of applause and several approving looks from people I wanted to meet. I found the approbation satisfying in a new and seductive way. I would become a living dictionary, commencing at once my PhD. in Language Studies, flirting with anthropology and sociology because weren't they all the same goddamned thing anyway?

I didn't last long. You can take the girl out of the theatre, but you can't take the need for total strangers' approval out of the girl. I was rehearsing two plays and a staged reading eight days later, but not before I had holed myself up in my apartment for a solid week with a bottle of bourbon, a pack of cigarettes and a dictionary, thinking, really thinking, about the English language. The six-day departure and intense mediation on linguistics taught me two things: bourbon and smoke alarms are effective instruments of torture and we should live in fear of them. Those hermetic days with the dictionary gave me an anecdotal education, sure, but all they taught me about my new love of language was something I already knew: reading the dictionary blows compared to blaring Patty Smith on my stereo and singing along loudly to "Gloria" in my underwear.

It just so happened, however, that there was a German exchange student living across the dank hallway from me. Hans was newly gay and had an unfortunate complexion, so there was no shred of romance in the air, thank goodness, but we became friendly immediately, progressed to chummy and eventually became bonafide buddies. I helped him with his rhetoric homework and he did my Italian reports -� Europeans being in cahoots, of course, he knew Italian.

Aside from helping me pass my second semester with Professora Grigli, Hans was integral in helping me put together what I was searching for during the Great Lingusitics Phase. For this, Hans, sweetie, I am forever indebted. I knew I was looking for something, anything, but what? Why was I drawn to such a dry, withered field? Why was I dissatisfied with my native tongue and why did I feel compelled to do something about it? I had always acted selfishly. All of a sudden, I was concerned with English speakers the world over and I credit Hans with much of my discovery. Hans helped me define what bothered me about my language through active comparison of mine to his. After talking for hours one night over beers and great reefer, I began to realize that the Germans (like so many others) cultivate a luxurious language and we English speakers are linguistically impoverished, so to speak. While I was content with words like "suck" and expressions such as "fuck that shit," Hans would whip out words like "der Quark," which means both "curdled cheese" and "a trifling detail," and actively used phrases such "es ist mir wurst," which tidily translates to "it is but sausage to me." Hans broke that one out one night after we tried to score blow for six straight hours to no avail. I didn't get what he was saying, but I knew it was said dryly and that he didn't really mean it.

What I was discovering did not settle well.

Hans' language afforded him the luxury of stringing all sorts of words together to define vague feelings and experiences, i.e., schadenfreude and blitzkrieg and kindergarten. What did Americans have but "whatever" and "nonplussed?" These words simply weren't good enough. I knew that the Eskimos had at least 50 words that define varying degrees of "snow," and I felt I was rightfully obsessed with the fact that what I spoke was a limited language. I was deeply dissatisfied with the hand dealt me and wanted to improve it, even if I was the only soldier in what I suddenly felt was a Holy War.

If you've visited a 6th grade classroom in Chicago's Humbolt Park recently, you know that language changes at the speed of light, particularly in the inner city. I am aware that jargon is a vibrant and essential part of any culture's language and that as a young, white woman, I represent a limited view of all this. (Words like "shiznit" and expressions such as "on the DL" are still new to me. I use them and make no apologies.) That said, I arrived at the theory that we as English speakers need a push in the right direction. Thinking of sweet Hans, who I think is now selling shoes in Berlin, I offer a suggestion: let us be more German-like in our language. Let's take the Germans' lead. When the Germanfolk don't have a word for something, they create one. Who cares if the word is 40 letters long? I offer the following German noun as a delightful example of what I mean: "Gesundheitswiederherstellungszusammenmischungsverhaeltniskundiger," which basically means "one who knows the mixture ratio of a concoction sure to restore health." Super!

Our language seems so rudimentary in contrast, does it not? I began to search my soul and the souls of others for feelings that had no English definition but begged to be explained succinctly.

Take, for example, the feeling one gets when one hears a song one hasn't heard in, say, two years or more. The song reminds one acutely of a time spent with a person who is now absent from one's life. The person in question might be a lover, a friend, a roommate. When one hears this particular song, one is thrown back into that relationship, back into the moment that is most likely an amalgam of the entire experience with the person in question. I'm quite confident that everyone has had or will have such an experience and feel frustrated that there's no one word -- in English, anyway -- that describes such an event. It takes too much breath to explain aloud, too much space on the page to write and too much precious mental to develop a way to articulate such a feeling in the first place. There ought to be a word that sums it all up and saves everyone several minutes of precious American time. May I suggest something such as "Postamourtunage?" (Rhymes with "fromage.") Or perhaps "Formerluvmusiknostaliosa?"

And what word might be created to define the sort of fight one has with one's significant other during the holiday season? You know the type of argument. Arguments are usually over the smallest things, but during the holidays (e.g., Christmas and Thanksgiving) they carry more weight, more drama and, if you're lucky, the sexiest make-up sessions. When there are cookies afoot and mistletoe hangs over everyone's heads, tensions run high and both love and hate are in the air. Such arguments are singular in their dramatic quality and doesn't a word like "Tenenbaumargumentalisia" just nail it? Your computer's spellcheck won't get it, but your lover will. Does "Holiangerluvenstate" roll more easily off the tongue? Use it! We should embrace the possibilities.

Finally, there is a feeling I know all too well that is singular in nature and one that I know for a fact has no definition. This particular emotion would benefit greatly from a specific word. Have you ever had a conversation with someone wherein the other person refrences something you said to them weeks ago in a separate conversation and you realize upon their reference that you were absolutely, 100 percent misunderstood at the time and that you now have the fortunate opportunity to correct the problem? It happens to me at least once a month. For this, I have little to offer in the way of suggestions. The feeling is so specific and difficult to explain I don't know where to begin, linguistically speaking.

This is why I went back to the theatre, where men and women can cry, rant, laugh and pretend to feel things instead of having to try to explain them. This is also why I believe we, as Americans, speaking American (we must all agree we don't really speak English anymore) must find a way to expand our vocabulary beyond the King's English and into a new, post-postmodern lexicon. I will gladly offer my email address and Friendster screenname to anyone who might be able to help me put a book on this cover.

 

About the Author(s)

Mary Fons is an actor and writer living in Chicago.

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