Language Cowboys

Yesterday I had dinner with a pianist from Moscow.

I sometimes question the reasoning behind learning a second language in higher education. Historically, no doubt, it was to become acquainted with one or more of the ancient civilizations in continental Europe. These days as the world becomes more and more interconnected, it's a prudent measure. But selfish as I am, I tend to bring it back to the fact that the more you learn about another language, the more you learn about the limitations of your own. Such is my weltanschauung.

There is another aspect that I think is significant though--as important as it is to learn another language, I think it's equally important to have a conversation with one or more people for whom English is not their first language. (At no point does an institute of higher learning say, "You should hold conversations with people who don't think like you do on a language based level." The hope is there, and it's certainly implied, but how can such a thing be enforced?)

So this pianist from Moscow--over the course of dinner I asked him more and more about growing up in Russia:


Me: You're a fantastic storyteller.

Him: Thank you, but my English is not so good.

Me: No, no it's fine. Being a good storyteller is not dependent on language. 

Him: I know a lot of funny stories about Moscow. I could start now and finish tomorrow morning. 


It was the word "funny" that had caught my ear. He used it on more than one occasion, to mean that biting, not-actually-humorous way. And I found myself wondering if there was a word in Russian for it, or if the appropriation of words is was strictly an English thing: "That's gay," "How...interesting," "Oh, cool!" How complicated are we?

And, there was another turn of phrase that both of us were at a loss for. He went about describing a lover with whom he is now close friends with, and he paused to say, "There should be a word for this type of relationship." While I'm sure that the Modern Language Association debates each year over which words gain entry into the dictionary and become, officially, a part of our collective language, I would find it very curious to see the statistics on how many of these words were brand new--utterly made up--versus words that had already existed and that we're only adding another dimension to. We credit Shakespeare for adding volumes to the English language, but who are our frontrunners today; the painters of letters, the engineers of dialogue? Not to discredit the MLA, but can we really just leave it in their hands and their hands alone?

Are we doing this era of language justice?