Language Wanders

“Keel rändab kuni teda vajatakse.”
Language wanders until it is needed.

This might come across as sentimental drivel, but since I tend to toe the line between writing what I’m thinking and writing what I’m feeling, I consider it a success when I manage to do both simultaneously, and then an even greater success when I find the heart to place it in a public medium.

As you may have surmised, the above quote spurred me to write this post.

I get asked a lot (by Estonians, mostly) why an American would move to Estonia, and more specifically, why an American would bother to learn Estonian. It’s always an awkward question for me to answer, because the answer doesn’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t absolutely love words. But to make a long story short:

Four years ago, I read a poem by the Estonian poet Betti Alver. I stumbled across it by chance, more or less, but it is was love at first sight (reading?).  And I knew then, intuitively, that Estonia was where I was supposed to be, that I wanted nothing more than to learn Estonian just so I could read the poem in the original language. And now, here I am.

902858_10151414552172157_1054747438_oIn truth, the basis for this eventual conclusion has roots in an earlier habit. Several years ago, I started memorizing lines of poetry, quotes, or any other memorable forms of language. Whether the lines made me feel a specific emotion or I associated them with an event or a person, the second I heard a line of language — no matter the language — and it moved me, I committed myself to remembering it.

I still do this, of course. Usually they are simple lines (like the above quote); sometimes they’re entire poems. Sometimes I remember them with little trouble; more often, I must spend hours getting them perfect. The payoff for my effort, however, is worth all the time spent learning. Because no matter where I am, I have countless words at my disposal. I get to carry the heart of language with me wherever I go. And in doing so, I get to carry the memories of myself.

Remembering the lines, quotes, and words I love has become one of the ways that I associate time and place with people and things. Always, within the carrying murmur of words, no matter the distance or the time that has passed me by, rests the memory of all that I’ve done, the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, the life I’ve lived.

And often when I least expect it — when I’m walking down the street, staring at the walls, in the middle of exams, wherever — the words whirr through my mind like a train passing, call out to me, and wake me from my musings. Remember? they seem to ask. And I’ll smile.

Language wanders until it is needed.

Words wander until they return to me when I need them most.  When I need them to remind me of where I’m going and why I’m going and everything in between. They push me onwards to new places: give me reasons to travel and to learn, to break out of my comfort zone, to be fearless.

Words have power, they say — for ill or for good.

So, perhaps, in the end, it is better to say that Estonia chose me. That the words did.

And it all started with a child’s desire to remember all the beautiful words in the world.

“Of course the tempest strikes you,
hews the row of iron-bound words.
But you,
you thinking reed,
you are more
than tempest,
word
and stone.”
– Betti Alver, from Elu on alles uus  ‘Life is still new’
(This is my translation)

Do you guys make an effort to remember lines from poems or quotes that appeal to you? Are there quotes that you associate with an important time in your life? 

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10 thoughts on “Language Wanders

  1. Words wander until they return to me when I need them most. I love that! It’s also true for memorizing scripture. It always comes back when you need it. 🙂

    • Scripture is a good comparison. Although not applicable for me, I have seen the way people remember certain lines of scripture and then use it to work through whatever is going on in their lives. It definitely has a similar effect!

  2. Beautiful insight into the power of words, spoken and written. I think each person has their own special relationship with words, some more passionate than others. Personally, I feel a surge of energy when I am able to allow my thoughts and feelings spill onto the page through my fingertips. It is sometimes a wicked battle between mind and heart. But, when they play nice with each other, the dance they perform is magical.

    I might be considered a quotation junkie, but there are two quotes that always seem to resonate with me and facilitate my creed of “inspire and be inspired”:

    “It is never too late to be who you might have been.” ~George Eliot

    “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~Howard Thurman

    • Thank you for the quotes! I especially like the last one. A person who seems truly alive — in every sense of the word — inspires other people to come alive too, I think. And it’s very true: the individual relationship with words will certainly vary. I suppose it’s a matter of seeing how they manifest themselves in our everyday lives. It’s always interesting to get outside perspectives. Thanks for sharing!

  3. So that’s who is from Estonia when I check stats. Good to meet you. 😉 Also, what does the original poem look like? Is it possible to post that as well? I’m an etymology geek and my lack of knowing any spoken languages aside from English hurts on a fairly regular basis.

    • Yes, alas, my identity is forfeit! I can no longer creep around covertly on other blogs. 🙂

      Estonian isn’t an Indo-European language (closest/most spoken relations in Europe are Finnish and Hungarian), so I’ve had a lot of trouble learning and remembering vocabulary words. At the very least, because of the way Estonia was conquered throughout the centuries, there are many loan words with older Germanic roots. But my knowledge of German is minimal, so that doesn’t help me personally.

      I won’t even go into my lexical choices for the poem in terms of translation. You’d end up with ten pages of text on linguistics and poetics and would probably never speak to me again. 🙂 Anyway, what I posted was just an excerpt of the original poem, but here’s the Estonian part of what I posted above (hopefully the formatting will be okay):

      Küll ründab sind rajuhoog,
      raiub rautatud sõnade rivi.
      Kuid sina,
      sa mõtlev pilliroog,
      oled rohkem
      kui raju,
      sõna
      ja kivi.

  4. One that’s always stuck for me is from Kipling’s ‘If’, when he challenges the reader to ‘meet with triumph and disaster / And treat these two imposters just the same’. It’s helped me through some tough times, and grounded me in some of the better ones.

    • Thank you for sharing! It always makes my day when someone shares poetry I haven’t yet read. Those are a great couple lines indeed.

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