I’ve been considering this while creating a Qzzr test for a new English speaker. After a half hour or so of playing with cob, cop, cot, cod—locating images for these things, finding as many ways as possible to ask “What is this thing?” with the fewest and the shortest words possible—it dawned on me what a strange place this is for us to begin. “The cop on the cot ate some cod and corn on the cob.” Well, thank goodness we have communicated on that point.
Although I’ve tutored a lot of adults over the years, including many for whom English was a second or third language, I was usually tutoring them in math. Math is a beautiful and universal language, “the language of nature.” While tutoring in this subject, I would pare down my speech to remove the focus from the sound of my voice and place it on the numbers and operations before us. Quite often, the student and I would work through those operations with no words at all—only numbers and symbols, tally marks and little sketches, scratching pencils on scraps of paper.
As I sit in the backyard of my new friend’s fourplex, we cut out words and glue them to index cards. Here are sob, mob, fog. Fog—I swirl my hands in the air and float them down: the cloud on the ground. It’s hard to see through. She nods thoughtfully. This is a practical word, fog. She can use fog.
Her children run back and forth between their porch and the little church next door, where weeknight fellowship is taking place. We try to piece together a conversation, creatively rearranging our extremely limited shared lexicon, neither of us certain we’ve conveyed the story we meant to tell.
We are working on the short O sound, but she does not connect this sound to the assembled letters. We spell “h-o-g,” and she smiles, wrapping her arms around herself: hug. Her little daughter, racing back from the church briefly to see if she’s missed anything, dances on bare toes around our folding chairs, translating that hog is the same as pig. The mother, a farmer by trade, narrows her eyes. “Hog is pig?” The extravagance of such unnecessary duplication seems silly. We move on to the next word: “m-o-p.” She spreads her hands to trace a large rectangle in the air, saying “Of all the United States”: map. I begin to prefer the words she hears to the words I say.
I have lost nearly all the languages I ever studied. While the vanishing of Old English doesn’t leave me much bereft, it occurs to me that the French might have come in handy: I overhear merci beaucoup and eh bien intermingled with Swahili when she takes a quick phone call. There is a lot I want to ask her. Does she have more family in this country? Does she hear from people she knew in the fifteen years she spent in a refugee camp? Is she afraid of what’s happening to this country, or do our troubles seem trivial when compared to a war that killed five and a half million people and deprived her of her home?
I remember that in college Latin, we started with the verb amare: to love. This is a much more useful word than cod or cob. With that verb, we could sit here on these folding chairs as the sun drops below the mulberry trees and just point: amo [the evening], amo [this church], amo [my bicycle]. We could go on and on.