Author: mmmmmmmm PM
It's stunning, how quickly people's use of language devolves when confronted with animals.Rated: Fiction K - English - Words: 700 - Reviews: 1 - Published: 06-16-09 - Status: Complete - id: 2686100
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When I was young, I thought that the other languages- the ones that sounded like hot tin or murmurs in the back of your throat- always meant something.
I would pass children in a grocery aisle, seeing only the stripe of tanned skin between their socks and the cuff of their jeans as I glided along, sitting hunched on the bottom of the grocery cart. They would be clutching some prize-- cookies, maybe, or the brand name junk food that their mother couldn't afford, but claimed was just too unhealthy-- and whispering Spanish to each other. Planning, I can guess now-- how to sneak it onto the checkout or plead to have a treat, just this once. The same things children whisper about in English, the same trivialities.
But then, it was unthinkable, that this banality-- the "um"s and "well"s that plant themselves like roadblocks in our speech-- was not unique to people I understood. Everything that I didn't understand, I believed, had to mean something special. Every word had weight. There was no small talk, no children making mistakes or politicians creating a maze of obscure words. Those languages were pure. They had some nobility, some pride that English did not-- English with its gracelessness, its inefficiency.
The misperception didn't last. It was gone by the time I took Spanish in high school and learned how badly any language could be mangled, but there was no death blow-- just the slow incursion of reason.
My family took a vacation this spring to the San Diego Zoo, which was crowded with young parents and their children. It's stunning, how fast people's use of language devolves when confronted with animals. It's almost like the urge to speak nonsense to a baby, because it feels futile to make sense, like the effort would be wasted.
"Look at it!" is the battle cry of a zoo patron, who will brandish with his index finger at a polar bear, at a zebra who looks like a horse covered in modern art. Everyone, across ages and languages, sounds like a child. The mask of maturity and experience is wiped off; people let their mouths hang open. They let their eyes go wide.
It's a little simplistic, maybe, to say it's one of the happiest places I've ever been. More thought reveals it to be ridiculous-- how far removed humans are from other living things, that we only see them behind shatterproof glass partitions.
But while I stood in the aquarium and watched turtles bob through the water, the room cool and dark, I was happy in a way I'd thought I'd lost. A turtle swam past with a neck that looked five times too long, and everyone started talking at once. In three languages people talked about this creature that looked like the unholy offspring of a turtle and a snake, all pressing their palms to the glass, all yelling-- with the uselessness I once couldn't even imagine-- "Look at it! Look at it!"
Standing next to me was an elderly Asian man, wearing a pair of thick bifocals that reminded me of the unwieldy glasses that my grandmother keeps on a chain around her neck. Whitened hairs wavered like cotton fluff atop his head, the last survivors of a lifetime, as he gazed up at the water-filled tank. There were children clinging to his legs, tugging at the starched fabric, prodding his polished leather shoes.
He took a moment to smile down at them, but otherwise seemed transfixed by the sight of the turtles, the slow-moving creatures that seem so bumbling and clumsy when on land. Underwater they are transformed into paragons of grace, pirouetting and gliding through the blue. I wondered if the man was thinking of those wishes that all children have, the desire to breathe underwater, to move with the elegance of dolphins or mermaids. I wondered if those wishes did not ever die completely, but rather lingered in the dimly lit fringes of our minds, settled to the bottom of consciousness like leaves and stones settle to the bottom of a lake.