I should be finishing my lesson. In theory, that’s why I’ve stolen this hour, left my office on the Case Western Reserve University quad and crossed Euclid Avenue for the anonymity of the student center.
I’m supposed to be prepping some illuminating remarks on Paul Muldoon’s “Quoof,” a poem about a word — “our family word for the hot water bottle” — and about the familial and tribal idiosyncrasies of the supposedly common language we speak.
There is so much to say.
But my mind is elsewhere. The language of the poem drowns in the wash of the languages around me. I recognize the tenor of the conversations — staccato laughter, gossipy whispers and gasps — but their meaning I cannot parse. I am at sea, in waves of Chinese and Arabic, perhaps a swell of Hebrew. I close my eyes. Maybe I didn’t come here to write after all. I think I came to listen.
It’s a good place for a poet to be adrift: to be reminded of the strangeness of these lovely sounds we make, the miracle that those sounds can mean anything at all. As in “Quoof,” where that single awkward syllable falls between two near-strangers about to share a bed for the first time. “I have taken it into so many lovely heads,” the poem’s speaker says, “or laid it between us like a sword.”
How often a sword, rather than the liquid images I prefer, is the appropriate metaphor. Language is politics too. I scroll through Facebook and find a story of a train passenger in Wales who scolds a hijab-garbed woman for not speaking English. Another passenger scolds him back: “We’re in Wales, and she’s speaking Welsh.”
Maybe the story is apocryphal, cooked up to confirm certain ideas about immigration and tolerance, identity and decency. Maybe. But the questions raised are real: Which English? Whose?
I speak a mongrel of Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin, a word-hoard that also offers the Arabic loans coffee and algebra, the Mandarin gung-ho, and catsup and kowtow from Cantonese.
We speak the history of those places and this place, histories of cross-pollination and colonization, marriage and blood. Blood, from the Old English blo-d, kith of the Old High German bluot.
How brusque and plosive this English must have sounded to my great-grandparents, Italian immigrants who settled in a neighborhood not too far from University Circle but who never settled into the consonant-thick speech they heard all around them. My grandfather and his siblings translated the New World for them as best they could, but they could not keep the old tongue for themselves, other than a few stray words to curse or bless.
I don’t know much about the languages I overhear from my place in the food court, but I do know that the language I speak reinvents itself constantly, without permission or apology. I know how much I love those places — here and at the West Side Market, La Mexicana in Painesville and Unger’s in Cleveland Heights — where the waters of English meet the waters of other tongues and flow together into something else. I know my own language is reinventing itself as we — as we all — speak.
Sometimes I cringe at these changes. I have given up on literally meaning “literally” and not “figuratively.” That ship has literally sailed. I have ended my long resistance to the emoji. If 😂 is a contemporary Rosetta Stone that helps us understand each other, it will survive despite my Luddite skepticism. No alphabet stays fixed forever, as well the Old English thorn (þ) might attest.
But back to my lesson. I think I’ll pair “Quoof” with Walt Whitman’s essay “Slang in America,” in which he reminds us that language “is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but … has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea.” Yesterday’s slang and misusage is tomorrow’s Standard English.
Sometimes my students scoff at “Quoof.” The word itself is too bizarre or the phenomenon of the hot water bottle so unfamiliar that they’ve never needed a word for it. Sometimes they say they have no “family words,” nothing so absurd as that. So I ask them what they call the remote control in their households. Then my own language must expand to accommodate their “clickers,” their “thingamabobs,” “doodads” and “doohickeys.”
Meanwhile, the work of language goes on, in the student center and elsewhere. Even now someone new to Cleveland is sitting in another alcove of the student center, arguing that pop is “soda,” that you stand “on,” not in, line. Across Euclid Avenue, others are translating abstract ideas into the language of mathematics, with its Arabic numerals and Greek variables and constants. Down the street, the strings section practices to match their individual senses of allegro into a musical lingua franca.
Even now, someone is asking directions to the student center, to the Tinkham Veale University Center. But at Case, we call it “the Tink.” The word lies like that metaphorical sword between us and the rest of the world.
My hour is up, and I still haven’t finished my lesson. Or at least not the one I’d planned. I pack up for class; my head swims. There is so much to say, and so many ways to say it. What can we do but listen, what can we do but try to understand?