Saturday, August 31, 2013

Some Delights of Language

I’m thinking a lot about language lately, specifically about the sheer richness of words in the English language, and about how much I love the color, vivacity, sound and texture of each individual word. School is back in session, and my tenth grade students have completed a list of 25 words (defining them) in preparation for their first vocabulary quiz next week. Last Wednesday, before we embarked on our in-class review of the definitions, I gave the students my I-love-words speech:

            “Aren’t we lucky to have so many words that can refine, shade, and precisely communicate exactly the things we want to express?” I exclaim, as I open my word list on the computer. “For instance, I don’t want to just say I’m “happy;” I want to say I’m ecstatic, exhilarated, rhapsodic!  And our language allows us each new dimension.”  I’m practically singing at them and grin foolishly: “Do you see how each one of those words amps up the volume on merely “happy”?  
My students stare at me, slightly skeptical, mildly bemused.
            “Listen to the sounds of some of these words. If you had not defined them yet, and somebody had called you “unctuous” or “overweening” or “gauche,” would you think that person was complimenting you?”


A girl in the front row states matter-of-factly, “Of course not.”

            “And why not?”

            “Because they sound bad. “unc” isn’t a very nice sound. And if you’re “over,” it’s usually not good…”

            I nod in agreement, though I caution, “It’s not always the case that the sound of the word signals the connotation of the word. But it is fun to pay attention to how a word sounds as well as to how it’s spelled and defined.”

            Today, in school, a colleague is talking about learning a second language. As she speaks, my mind trips into memory. I am eight years old, visiting my beloved Grandparents, Maurice and Florence Roche, on 88th Street in Jackson Heights, New York. My sisters and I, along with our cousin Katie, stay with my mother’s parents for a week each summer. And our special week has come around again!
           Visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Jackson Heights comes with its own set of rules, but I love these rules, partly because they draw a demarcation between my boring, everyday life in the suburbs of Colonia, NJ an exciting, surprising life in New York City. One of the rules is that we girls have to wear our Sunday best for the entire week, when visiting Grandma and Grandpa. We're not allowed to wear blue jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, or shorts. We wear summer dresses and frilly white anklets and patent leather shoes. Sometimes, we even wear white gloves. We are in the Big City now, and we dress the part. 
Grandpa and Grandma Roche
            My grandparents, who both grew up in Manhattan, never learned to drive a car, so we walk everywhere, or we ride in one of those big old black and yellow checkered cabs. On some summer evenings, we walk the city blocks to one of my Grandparents’ favorite restaurants, the Continental or the Cavalier, where a piano player croons songs from the 1930’s and 40’s (and sometimes we join in singing!), and the waiters and waitresses all know and cater affectionately to Maurice and Florence Roche. This particular summer, as we stroll our way up 88th street in our finery, and turn onto the more crowded sidewalks, where pedestrians hasten swiftly past, I decide to walk ahead of my sisters, my Grandparents, and my cousin Katie. At eight, I am the youngest of the group. And perhaps it is the giddiness of being in the Big Apple again for the week or the fact that I wearing pretty clothes and hats and shoes. Or perhaps it is my secret joy at once more being in a city where I can hear Spanish-speaking men and women rapid fire their beautiful syllables into the air around me, on subways and in grocery stores. (As a girl, I am drawn to people who speak Spanish. Part of the fascination is that I am excluded from their communication. I imagine their syllables, as they flow from a speaker’s mouth, dancing around my head like the notes in Disney’s Fantasia. ) Whatever the reason, all I know is that I want to continue my transformation this week and hold onto this exhilarating sense of being able to be someone else for a while.
            So, as we walk the city blocks toward the restaurant, I suddenly want the approaching strangers on the sidewalk to think that I am a foreign child, a girl who is special and glamorously different from her American counterparts. Of course, the challenge is that English is the only language I know—and American English with a Jersey accent is not exactly  pretty (though, to some, those dropped r’s and words like dawg may appear foreign!) But in my happy dazzle of being back in New York and with summer in full leaf along the walks, I don’t let the fact that I’m not bilingual stop me.
Grandpa Roche 
            I walk proudly, a few feet ahead of my family, fiddling with the clasp on my patent leather purse, and I speak louder than normal in a convincing (or so I imagine) stream of gibberish, as if I am answering a question that my sister had posed moments before.  Of course, I do not turn to look at my sisters’ reactions to my foreign language, because I can already hear their disapproval and giggling behind me, “Sharon, what are you doing? Stop it!” They try to coax me back to walk with the group, where they might exercise control over my cheerful prattling of nonsense syllables. “No,” I say, “they (I nod at the strangers walking by) think I’m from Europe!”
            I’m having fun, though in my own mind, I have not decided what nationality I want to be mistaken for, nor do I know enough accents to even try to imitate one well. On and on, I speak my gibberish, its mélange of mixed-up nouns, verbs, and parsed conjugations littered throughout, and I blunder from “accent” to “accent:" a sort of French, a kind of German, a hint of Spanish. I’m sure, those within true earshot, if they bother to tune into me at all, probably pity the poor confused girl, who cannot speak correctly, walking by in her pretty party dress. But in my own mind, I am exotic, original, a girl with new words at her disposal. And new words mean new stories to tell. A new me with new secrets. And if a single person, passing by, pauses, even for a split second to look my way, I feel validated. “See!” I sing out. “They know I’m not from here!” 
(“That’s for sure!” my sisters retort in unison.) 
Grandpa and Grandma with the 12 Fagan children in NYC
Grandma and Grandpa Roch on their 50th Wedding Anniversary
On the streets of Jackson Heights, I am aware enough to know that language is power. And, in my mind, as I walk the streets of Queens, New York, grounded by my loving family, feeling grown up in my ivory dress with its hem of rainbow colors, I can also soar and take a chance to see where wrapping myself in a “new language” might take me (if only in my imagination.)
Sharon Reading to brother Terry
My “foreign 

tongue" elevated me from just a third-grader at St. John Vianney School, to a lass, who housed a world perspective and who could reveal her stories in a stream of music.I was naming my own bright landscape and carving out my own words beneath the streetlights' glow on 88th street and its sturdy, beloved rows of brownstones.
                                                                                    August 31. 2013