Words – spoken, written, sung, used in a text or a blog. They are my daily bread and water, the air I breathe, the work I love.
So imagine my surprise – horror! – at arriving in my Peace Corps village in Brazil with almost no words. Me. The young writer and champion talker (just ask my friends) suddenly had the vocabulary of a 2-year-old. I could demand things like food, drinks, the bathroom. I could say, “No, No, No.” I couldn’t say “Thank you” or “Happy to meet you,” much less “tristeza” (sadness) or “esperanҫa” (hope).
But filled with vast amounts of esperanҫa and the confidence of every 22-year-old, I strode out into the dirt streets of my little town sure that I could easily pick up the words of this new language I was hearing. And I did. Or came very close. And coming close had hilarious consequences.
One morning, one of my neighbors, attempting to talk to me, asked me what Americans eat for breakfast. I told her I had oatmeal (aveia) every morning Only I said “areia.” A long pause, then she asked, “How do you prepare it?” I went into rhapsodies of description – with milk, not water, with raisins and brown sugar. I strolled away happy with my lengthy conversation, then realized, walking into my house, that I had told her I eat sand! Every morning, yes, with milk and….
Not too long after, I passed another neighbor standing in front of his house, enjoying the morning sun. I waved cheerily and called out my version of “Bom dia” – good morning. He bowed slightly and gravely, then staggered into his house where I could hear him laughing helplessly. The new American had just yelled “little rear end” at him.
Eventually, I made friends with a woman who became the Brazilian mother I needed. Like every good mother, she gently corrected me. After a while, she felt comfortable enough to laugh first, explain – sometimes with a red face – what I had just said, then give me the oh-so-close right word. Eventually, I learned enough Portuguese (and my Brazilian friends learned enough of my version of their language), that we could laugh and cry together, make silly jokes and share secret sorrows.
Among many other treasures I carried back to the U.S., I brought a new and profound appreciation for language, for the words we speak and write and take for granted.
Without our words, our world would be complete chaos. Without language, we would be dust.
Use these phrases to start a piece of your own writing. Today’s prompts come from an excellent Word reading at The Cabin with poets Keri Webster and Danny Stewart and playwright Heidi Kraay.
“Did I mention?…Did I mention?”
“Some nights call for hooves.”