While walking in a park yesterday, a friend and I spotted a bird with a long blue/black fan tail. My friend wasn’t sure what it was called in the local language. Apparently, it doesn’t show itself very often in the city. I shared with him that it reminded me of a bird we had in Melanesia called the Willy Wagtail. As I explained to him what wag means in English, and how we use it for the tail of a dog, he exclaimed, “Oh! That’s what we call tail cracking! Like when you crack your knuckles. We use the same verb for both situations because it’s like the animal is cracking it’s tail.”
One of the great joys of language learning is stumbling onto new ways in which to describe reality and connect its different parts. I never would have seen a connection before between the wagging of a dog’s tail and a person cracking their neck or their knuckles. But my Central Asian friends have seen it and reflected it in their language. I guess when a happy dog is next to a door, there is a rhythmic crack crack crack as his tail repeatedly hits the surface. Perhaps this is where it came from. Or just the swaying action looks similar to a human trying to stretch back and forth in search of a refreshing series of pops. This crack/pop verb is also the same one used for the firing of a gun and related to the word used for the explosion of a bomb. Indeed, the more you chew on it, the more you can see the common thread tying these things together.
Later in the afternoon we had a language lesson. As we studied a regional folktale together, our tutor pointed out the phrase used when a character suddenly fell in love – her heart was roasted. The same verb used to roast something in the oven, which is also used in adjective form for a rotisserie chicken. Not too distant from certain poetic ways the English language speaks of love, such as being inflamed or burning with desire. But roasted? What an interesting way to conceptualize having a serious crush on someone. It carries with it a certain completeness in the effect of the emotion upon the heart, deeper than you might get from the mere idea of a flickering flame.
As we discussed folktales and oral tradition, we learned that the phrase used to describe how a story is passed from father to son is that it has come from chest to chest. This is because the historic understanding here was that memory was located in the chest, the core of the person. So, naturally, something which is memorized by one generation and then passed on to be memorized by the next is understood as passing from chest to chest. I really like this one. It reminds me of 2nd Timothy 2:2, “and what you have heard from me, entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Pass it on from chest to chest, dear Timothy.
Speaking of entrusted, the very name of this blog comes from discovering a new way to speak of death in our local language, that a person is entrusted to the dirt. A dear friend told me last week that the name of this blog sounds to him like Lamentations, like a “face in the dust.” While my title does certainly reference death and its connection to the dirt, I actually chose it because of the subtle hint of resurrection implied by the word entrusted. When something is entrusted, it has not been lost or abandoned. There is a certain stewardship implied, a certain aim, perhaps even a return. Like 2 Tim 2:2, that aim might be faithful preservation and multiplication of a body of teaching. In the case of believers’ bodies and the soil, it is a trust given anticipating a glorious return. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). We entrust our dear ones to the soil and we eventually entrust ourselves, knowing by faith that glory and resurrection will be the sure and unstoppable outcome. It’s still dirt, it is still death, it’s still not the way things are supposed to be. But that’s not the end of the story. The dirt holds a mighty secret. All of creation whispers that resurrection is coming. And so our tears are mingled with a certain flicker of joy.
Each language is like a unique form of poetry, all of them attempting to describe creation as God has allowed us to experience it. As such, there is fascination and even delight to be found in the ways other tongues speak of things like tails wagging, hearts burning, stories passed on – and even of death itself. Take heart, weary language learners out there. There is more wonder in the end than there is drudgery. One of the things I’m looking forward to in the New Heavens and New Earth? Being with believers speaking thousands of complex and poetic languages – and all the time we need to learn each and every one of them.
Plus a resurrected brain with which to learn them. Let’s not forget about that part.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons