View this article in Icelandic | bilingual

The Sound Words Have

Once there was a town where no two people spoke the same language. No one used the same words for anything. And yet everyone understood everyone else and they all lived together in peace and harmony. Until recently, the locals were cheerful, cordial, and— though it’s hard to believe—talkative. The town was in a nameless region deep in central Europe. The place had no name because it was so remote that it was usually represented on maps as a black hole. That is, if it was represented at all.

Even after the outside world caught up with this peculiar state of affairs, not even the ablest linguists trusted themselves to explain matters. The townspeople were even less able to comment on the situation. For their part, it was so natural, so self-evident, that each person would speak her own individual language that no one gave it a second—or first—thought.

The explanation usually offered for this phenomenon was partly geographical and partly political. The town in question had existed for a long time and was surrounded by numerous renowned countries. As time went by, the merry-go-round of history paid a visit to all these countries, sometimes for longer, sometimes for shorter periods, and sometimes more than once. There had been a striking number of conflicts—more than in any other part of the world—between the existing and emergent nations and states, those various major sets and subsets, multi-sets, part-sets, and exclusive sets, those innumerable political entities, some grander and some pettier, which had arisen and subsided during the centuries: dukedoms, superpowers, empires, millennial reigns, republics, free states, utopias, every kind of state coalition, sacred and secular, from the olden days until today.

A lone historian who specialized in the composition of historical atlases once attempted the hopeless task of drawing a map that traced the evolution of the region’s internal borders. After many years’ work he was stuck with an insoluble tangle of maps that closely resembled the Burda pattern sheets for sewing winterwear. Indeed, his wife accidentally picked up the maps and managed to sew a pantsuit, a sweater, and two party dresses without any difficulty before the mistake came to light.

The townspeople had many centuries of experience in the nuances of the most common forms of government. They’d known dictatorships, totalitarianism, arbitrary coups, republics, and anarchy, to name but a few. Each upheaval was followed by a sputtering indecision, as happens with oppression and liberation, protests and rebellions, and the locals had early on grown tired of the constant need to change language according to who determined the hows and the whys each time. They came to realize that it was more dependable if each person had his own language which no one could take away. It was, in other words, a psychological defense mechanism: each person, faced with an unstable world, would hold on for dear life to his own essence; he would instinctively seek to cultivate his own personal language, a language even more familiar to him than his mother tongue: the language, that is, in which he thought. How could anyone ban that or kill it off?

That, at least, is the received wisdom. Maybe it was something else, maybe there was no reason. The locals didn’t know and, like I say, didn’t know there was something to know. Children learned their language painlessly, just like everyone everywhere else does: children pick up the language of those around them. It would slowly dawn on a young child that she was a distinct individual, and she would come to understand that her mother spoke one language and her father another. Her older sisters were each speaking their own language. Grandfather was talking one language, Grandmother another. Babysitters came and went, saying shush or bye in a new tongue. Out of this babble each child developed his or her own idiosyncratic language, innately understanding that it needed to be distinct from all others. The bonds of kinship were based on this.

No one understood words, therefore, in a “literal” or “by the book” fashion; instead, meaning passed between people through a complicated interplay of glances, facial expressions, gesticulations, and nuanced tones of voice; each cluster of phonemes had a given meaning only for the person talking. These goings-on so naturally informed the behavior of the locals that they were able to convey everything that mattered just as smoothly as anyone else. At the same time, it meant they needed to live by exploring deep within themselves and within others. At first glance, such an arrangement might seem to keep people apart, to increase their selfishness, but the opposite proved to be the case: the mutual “incomprehension” resulted in greater understanding and accord.

There were no dictionaries and definitely no books or literature of the kind that gets recorded and catalogued. The townspeople were, naturally, illiterate, since a person couldn’t write for anyone but herself. Nevertheless, they didn’t lack for stories, poems, and plays. People wouldn’t have been able to get by without those. The creative arts were held in high esteem, but publication had to be oral, physical, and practical. As with verbal performances in any language, behavior, deportment, and different habits of expression were full of meaning. For even though words had no particular semantic value (except for the poet herself), the sound of the words was highly important to everyone. People’s ears were particularly attuned to certain individuals, including all the best poets, who talked individually beautiful languages—i.e., their self-language had especially beautiful-sounding units, and they recited in more enchanting and enjoyable ways than others.

And so the townspeople happily wended their way along until well into the last century. They were industrious and frugal and quite self-sufficient, subsisting primarily by agriculture, which was cultivated on the outskirts of town. For most of the century, they’d heard that the superpower’s actions in that region weren’t exactly coterminous with the interests of freedom and democracy, but they were left in peace: they looked only to themselves and didn’t cause trouble. In keeping with this, there wasn’t a particularly developed national consciousness among the locals. The superpower was thus able to breathe easy and didn’t ever feel like it needed to stamp out their language, or the townspeople themselves.

The few inspectors who were sent to the place, the few travelers who stumbled across it, noticed that it seemed as though these handsome, healthy people were all illiterate. That definitely wasn’t consistent with the ideology of the superpower, which attached great importance (at least rhetorically) to the education of its citizens. But it kept quiet because it wasn’t able to find any specialists in the alleged language of the townspeople. Before long, visitors, not understanding a single word they had heard anywhere in town, were firmly of the belief that just one language was being used. This conclusion was understandable, given that they’d seen firsthand the clear understanding and harmony which prevailed among the locals, and witnessed their lively “book” culture.

Various travel books from past centuries attest to this. In them, the authors lament time and again how they weren’t able to get any grasp at all of the local language (there!), which was clearly very unpredictable and very complicated and very hard to pick up, not least because of a lack of written sources. At the same time, they all note how they have been marvelously successful getting folk to understand them by simply speaking their own language. “For some reason, it appeared that the locals understood all my wishes surprisingly well; I was speaking clearly and slowly, using explanatory gesticulations alongside my mother tongue, which I knew to be the purest and best in the whole of Breiðafjörður,” writes Reverend Ketill Þorkelsson, who travelled in Arabia, and who wrote a travel narrative about the place in the seventeenth century (first published much later, in Copenhagen, in 1907-8).  

The people lived beautiful lives. At night, the locals would sit in the coffee shop and chat, each in his own language. A boy and a girl looked into each other’s eyes. He said, “I love you,” in his own language, which might, for example, be “lanas na vifríó.” She understood right away and gave a matching answer in her own language, perhaps “sangran sprjú aðver”—and the sound and their expressions meant nothing was misunderstood.

But it came to pass that, one day early in the last decade of last century, a linguist came to town and sat down in a little bar. Great changes had recently occurred in the continent’s political landscape, not for the first time. The superpower had suddenly broken up and was just about gone for good. New groups had sprung up and created a new world. Old borders were erased and others older still resurfaced afresh, in part or completely. The town, which had long been isolated from the outside world, suddenly (as in former times) was now isolated in a totally different way. What’s more, alongside the political upheavals, there had been a major information technology revolution all across the world. The linguist was there on the frontline, and one evening when he was hunting about the Internet for a desirable doctoral project, he’d stumbled on an article about this mysterious and unwieldy language. His interest was piqued, and he saw a real opportunity when he understood that the region had recently become accessible again, for the first time in many decades. A real possibility, a Eureka moment.

A few days later he arrived at the place and began his research. When he started gathering samples of people’s speech he came to realize, little by little and with growing astonishment, the way of things here in this melting pot. After overcoming his initial lack of confidence, he changed his mission: it was now no longer a discovery expedition, but instead he took it upon himself to be the savior of the place. He wanted to help these people cope with modern life. He soon got some really fat grants from many places around the world to help him take down phrases from every one of the locals, and then he set up a computer program which quickly and efficiently delivered accurate translations from person to person. In the wake of this written language, or, more accurately, word-processing language, all the locals learned to read and got laptops.

Wasn’t that a good thing? No, far from it. No one trusted the sound of words any longer, just the markings. Things opened up in new ways. Words which had fallen away were once again brought to mind and turned out in hindsight to have been misunderstood. “Lanas na vifríó” didn’t always translate to “I love you” but rather “I like you fairly well perhaps sometimes” or something similar. And the reply “sangran sprjú aðver” turned out to be totally absurd when the meaning of each part was scrutinized. Families were separated and enduring ties were severed. An old disagreement could, in retrospect, turn out not to have been justified in the first place, and so rise from the embers all over again.

The linguist became the mayor, and what’s more he was in charge of caring for all the knowledge. He was also, at the same time, the director of the Word Bank, which intervened in any controversial issues. There’s no longer any uncertainty about languages, he said. But it was obvious that the atmosphere in the town was totally different, much worse than before. Now, all the joy has disappeared, there are no twinkles in the eyes of the townspeople nor delicate creases in the top corners of their mouths. The coffee shop has closed down. Everyone keeps to himself, poker-faced, skeptical about anything anyone else says. Actually, there is no longer a town. Only some houses, occupied by a sparse assortment of solipsistic folk who insist that they—and only they—know the meaning of words. Most of them have finished their language study and are ready to leave.

Translation of “Orðanna hljóðan.” © Þórarinn Eldjárn. By arrangement with Forlagið Publishers. Translation copyright 2011 by Lytton Smith. All rights reserved.