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Mr. Palomar’s Blackbirds: How couples’ private language is both more cryptic and more elaborate than is reasonable

So I’m a closet linguist. I’m interested in language—how it changes, how it works, how it feels in my mouth, and how it paints pictures without your standard art supplies. I’ve probably spent more time on how it changes from a historical perspective, but I’m no less intrigued by how it changes in contemporary slang or in my own usage. Today I’m thinking about the language my partner and I use to communicate.

The catalyst for today’s ruminations is Calvino’s Mr. Palomar. In the chapter entitled “The Blackbird’s Whistle,” Mr. Palomar is sitting on his terrace, working , while his wife waters plants, and they both remark on the presence of the blackbird couple who visits. The chapter opens:

“Mr. Palomar is lucky in one respect: he spends the summer in a place where many birds sing. As he sits in a deck chair and “works” (in fact, he is lucky also in another respect: he can say that he is working in places and attitudes that would suggest complete repose; or rather, he suffers this handicap: he feels obliged never to stop working, even when lying under the trees on an August morning)…” (22)

…and we’re done. I’m in. I prepare for class on my patio, listening to bird songs and trying not to get distracted by the wind in the peach tree and the light on the mountains. And to a teacher, every book you read, every movie you watch, every place you go might someday be worked in to a class, so you’re always sort of working.

But that’s just why I love and identify with Mr. Palomar. This is a blog about language.

As he sits on the patio, Mr. Palomar listens to the birds. They seem to him to be communicating, and as Mrs. Palomar bustles about commenting on them, the human couple’s communication mimics the blackbirds.’ She comments absently that the flower bed is dry again, and:

“…from these remarks Mr. Palomar derives a general picture of tranquility, and he is grateful to his wife for it, because if she confirms the fact that for the moment there is nothing more serious for him to bother about, then he can remain absorbed in his work (or pseudowork or hyperwork). He allows a minute to pass; then he also tries to send a reassuring message, to inform his wife that his work (or infrawork or ultrawork) is proceeding as usual: to this end he emits a series of sighs and grumbles—’…crooked… for all that… repeat… yes, my foot…’—utterances that, taken all together, transmit the message ‘I am very busy,’ in the event that his wife’s last remark contained a veiled reproach on the order of ‘You could also assume some responsibility for watering the garden.'” (26)

When I teach this book, this is the point where some sweet, sensitive student worries about him. Why is he not communicating well with his wife? He must be so lonely, isolated even from those who love him. He’s not communicating. She’s talking, and he’s not listening.

I have to explain that this is just a conversation between two people who have been married a long time. They don’t need very many words, just like the blackbirds don’t need many sounds. They are enjoying a summer morning together, companionably parallel-playing, my husband and I would say. He’s doing his thing; she’s doing hers. They’re not interrupting each other, but they’re keeping one another on their radar. He’s alert to potential guilt about never watering the flowers; she’s aware that he’s working and trying to preserve his time while still being present. It’s a delicate dance. But it’s not loneliness.

As we approach our 28th anniversary, Rob and I have begun making jokes about what kind of eccentric old people we’re going to be. I’m certain no one will have any idea what we’re talking about. We talk in movie quotes (“Inconceivable!”) and expressions our children coined when they were little (“Put it in the fridge and save it forever,” which my son said about a train-shaped Jell-O jiggler when he was three and gets hauled out whenever anyone wants to hold on to something long past its prime). We use more Monty Python lines than any ten people should, and we refer to new people with old names, grafting names with personalities—some of people we knew, but others of characters from books or movies we’ve seen together. We have developed our own language.

Our kids understand most references, since we’ve spent years repeating the same stories. (They’re teenagers, so they’re quick to point out when we repeat ourselves. I hope as we age, their patience increases with our propensity to repeat ourselves.)

But to a stranger, I’ll bet we already don’t make much sense.

I’m ok with that. We communicate just fine. We understand each other. Our words carry more meaning because of our shared history. This kind of thing happens whenever two or more people share experiences, inside jokes, and adequate time together. We use language to communicate, but also to reassure, to comfort, to cheer, to share, to love. The birds may do all of that with their series of chirps and trills and silences too, but they’ll never understand the importance of knowing that “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”

A group of blackbirds isn’t a murder, right? Maybe a manslaughter? A misdemeanor?