The Mild Mania of Loving Languages

Can one be addicted to learning languages? If you can, aren’t there worse obsessions?

It’s not like I do it thoroughly. I know a fair bit about a number of languages. Most of them aren’t spoken anywhere (hands up if you know anyone who speaks Gothic or Old French?), so there’s no immersion program where I can relocate for six months and come out the other side able to converse with Alaric the Goth.

Mostly it’s about reading. I do like to be able to speak, but my fear of sounding like a jerk or an idiot overcomes my desire to communicate most of the time. It has taken decades to get better at–not over—that. But I really like to read in different languages.

When I was wending my way through graduate school, trying to pin down a field of study, I embarked on a linguistics program. I told my advisor I wanted to focus on historical linguistics. He told me that wasn’t done anymore, that it was just a relic–something non-linguists think of when they think of linguists. What I should have told him was that I wanted the keys to the kingdom—the secret to learning languages. Because the real reason was that I didn’t trust translators. I wanted to read Beowulf and Vǫlsunga Saga and the Romance of the Rose without an intermediary.

That’s pretty close to what I got. I got a chance to study language and language change in the abstract and I got to know a few languages in very concrete, “this text and one other are all we know of this language” terms. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how I learn, and that did me in. I swear it’s addicting. Like Bubble Pop or crosswords, languages feel like puzzle games, and I will be that old, weird little person trying to figure out what dragoncello means in Italian.

Discovering how you think and learn is both empowering and baffling. I know I see words in my head as I hear them, that I parse them, search for cognates, and am genuinely annoyed if I can’t figure out how something is spelled. It makes me good at deducing meaning from words, and good at slipping in to rabbit holes mid-conversation (which is usually not good). In my case it means that I have the same sense of wonder about words as I do about cloud formations, genetics, and how they cram music between the ridges of a record.

It means I recently spent a disconcerting amount of time wondering whether there was a corresponding opposite to the Latinate word “crepuscular,” which means ‘growing dark’ as in twilight or dusk. There was a word in Latin, “clarescere” which meant ‘to grow clearer and brighter’ but English didn’t steal  that one, apparently, and I haven’t found a cognate in other modern Romance languages.

This is all to say that thinking in words is a way of thinking, as is thinking in images or concepts. And as the world continues toward global community, it’s not a bad one to cultivate.

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