Excerpts: Foreign Words

Last week, World Literature Today named the AHB book Foreign Words one of “25 Books that Inspired the World.” The novel by Vassilis Alexakis was translated by Alyson Waters, who we interviewed in the latest issue of M-Dash.

It’s a beautiful novel, filled with smart, insightful ruminations on language and on the small eureka moments that come sometimes when learning a new one. Much of the book is excerpt-able, but we’ll settle for the following short passage. Enjoy.

 


 

I try to play my two roles—professor and student—to the best of my abilities. As soon as I learn a word, I hasten to teach it to myself:

“Do you know how to say ‘tomorrow’ in Sango”

“How?’

When I was in school I never asked my teachers questions. I was bored in class. Just the sight of the blackboard was enough to depress me.

“How?” I ask again.

I make myself wait for my answer in order to pique my curiosity.

Kekereke!” I declare at long last.

“Why, it’s an onomatopoeia!”

“Precisely. You will notice that one says cocorico in French and koukourikou in Greek. Is this because the rooster’s cry varies slightly from one country to the next? Well, it doesn’t matter. In Sango, this onomatopoeia was used to form a noun that means ‘tomorrow.’”

Sometimes the affected manner I take on in my role as teacher makes me want to laugh.

“And how do you say ‘today’?” I ask slyly.

“We’ll look at that later.”

“Kekereke?” I suggest.

“Kekereke.”

How many words have I retained in six weeks of work? Not many. I learned more quickly when I was younger. My mind is slow to cross the distance that separates words. It lingers on the blank spaces as if they too were part of the language. Will I have the strength to make it to the end of the task I have set for myself? I realized just how huge it was as I was leafing through W. J. Reed’s textbook. Had I underestimated Sango, as one does so easily when one doesn’t know a language? But it would be even more painful to go backwards and forget the little I’ve learned. This is because one becomes attached to words, like one does to people and things. I was sensitive to the quaint charm of the metaphor ngu ti Nzapa, “the water of God.” In ancient Greek there was an equivalent: Zeus is raining, they said. I imagine that my father, who was very devout, would have appreciated this metaphor, and that he would have been happy to depart on a rainy day. I hadn’t expected to find a term as biting as de, “cold,” in the vocabulary of a tropical country. It renders perfectly the sensation I had when I touched my father’s forehead. He passed away on the seventh of March: browsing through the short chapter that W. J. Reed devotes to numbers, it was fated that I stop on that number. It has a seriousness, a weight in Sango that neither Greek nor French give it: mbasambara, that’s how you say “seven” in Sango. On the other hand, the two high notes that go with kua, “death” (I should really write kúá), make me feel uncomfortable. They ring false in my ears, they mock the word, they lack respect for its meaning. Kekereke delighted me, and so did kutukutu, “automobile.” The noun that I prefer, however, is the one given to fickle women and prostitutes. They are called “butterflies,” which in itself is rather common, but the word for them is delicious: pupulenge. Marcel Alingbindo says it is an insult. I never tire of savoring it.

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