A Window into the World
Mongolian is not the most popular of languages.
Not as in wahheyy look who’s popular, just statistically speaking. I think something like 5 million people can speak it. Despite being in the mils, that’s not actually a particularly large amount of people. To put it on the scale appropriately, 1.5 billion speak English and roughly 1.2 billion speak Chinese. Mongolian was largely just a spoken language until maybe the last 800 odd years or so.
Why am I going on about these boring facts? Well, I’m trying to find a way in which to describe the fear of not being able to communicate properly with our hosts.
It was such a special thing to be allowed to live with them, to be a part of their daily life. Maybe to them we were just a fleeting part of their tourist income, but these interactions needed some attention.
There have been a few times in Mongolia when I came close to offending without meaning to. Nomadic Tenses explained a few of the traditions that we had to adhere to, but they were not so much a shouting and pushing offense but accidental muscle memory actions.
We were a little lost sometimes when it came to traditions, demonstrations, things we should be doing and would never have got ANYWHERE if it weren’t for our translator Egi. Milking cows, making cream, distilling vodka to name a few.
Parallels can be drawn with the short story: Swimmer Among The Stars by Kanishk Tharoor. I have already mentioned this book in my book list, but this story was too powerful to bung together with the rest. It resonated.
The story is about a woman who is the last of her kind to speak her language. The pages discuss the recording of the last language as she speaks. They keep on referring to it as a ‘lost’ language: people have forgotten it, it has not been passed on.
I am not saying Mongolian is a lost language, but rather I am lost without a common language. I am unable to communicate freely with the locals. Jagged gestures and thankful smiles are all I have. The vowel formations in my mouth were giggled at by the kids.
After a cheeky swim in the lake one afternoon, I put my cozzie out to dry in the sun. A few minutes later I came back to a goat who was happily chewing his way through it. He was super friendly and looking rather pleased with himself. You didn’t need language to explain this sort of thing, especially not with kids.
Bumbling Brit Abroad is possibly my worst nightmare. I am particularly aware of coming across harsh and abrasive – even trying to repeat yourself won’t get anyone to understand, no matter how loud. I find it one of the most infuriating things – my inability to have and truly understand all languages.
On a side note – in one of Ai Wei Wei’s interviews with Hans Ulrich, Ai Wei Wei said one of the most annoying things he finds in the world was when you needed a wee and there was nowhere to go. I related this to the fam and Dad obviously then chirped in saying, ‘More like Ai Wee Wee, amirite??’ Mega eye-roll emoji.
Anyway, it was particularly interesting in interpreting the kids – there was no need to have lengthy conversations with them. Most of them were eager for us to just jump about and kick a ball around.
New friends are hard to come by when you live a substantial distance on horseback. The connection with them was a lot more sibling-like so the physicality of the relationship didn’t really need words.
This guy showed me how to drink water from the lake without cupping your hands. He did a sort of downward-dog move and balanced on the edge of the stream. Super impressive.
The Mongolian language has borrowed words from many others, including Uyghur, Tibetan, Chinese, Russian, and English. The government has also commissioned new words to be created based on native elements to fill gaps in vocabulary. Language evolves. Our thinking evolves. We tend to have moments when we are unable to find the right word to express how we truly feel. That’s where art sort of fits in too. We’re expressing and relating feelings we're creating a window.
Swimmer Among The Stars elaborates:
‘In my language, she tells the ethnographers, words for gratitude are much different than in the common speech. We have many kinds. This, for instance, is used to express a very dark kind of gratitude, to be thankful for the loss of something. This means to be grateful despite yourself, with a hint of bitterness. This is used to describe a sudden, overwhelming feeling of gratitude. This is the feeling children have when they receive small treats, like sweets, or when they are lifted by an adult and spun and spun.’
I very much enjoyed the parallels that came with these words. Words are unruly. Meanings tend to control us, or restrict us. They will limit our understanding too, unless you really study something. Like different kinds of affection, or gratefulness.
There are some nice words I have found with a few browsing hours on the web.
The Scots, for instance, have a word for the panic when you forget someone’s name just before you’re supposed to – Tartle. Backpfeifengesicht is the German word for ‘a face in need of a fist’. Or maybe more tenderly, Cafuné is Portuguese for ‘lovingly running your fingers through your lover’s hair’.
I have been reading about post-structuralism recently. I bought a short book on Amazon, thinking I’d treat myself after a particularly sad week. Post-structuralism names a theory, or a group of theories concerning the relationship between human beings, the world, and the practice of making and reproducing meanings. We tend to use old words in unfamiliar ways, or coin terms to say what cannot be said otherwise.
It's like trying to explain an artistic practice but going round and around in circles because you cannot determine it – words will almost always fail you.
Post-structuralism believes that there is no such thing as a private language. You have to translate everything before you can communicate it. Although words seem to be handy in demonstrations, they are also useful when you are describing how you feel about something, a true passion or experience.
‘They will never know that in her language there were more than a dozen ways of indicating and describing gratitude. Here are a few more: the gratitude of natural things for one another, like the hive for the branch, the tree for the bees, the cloud for the sun; collective gratitude, the thanks of a family or a town or a people; gratitude - directed to the cosmos - for superiority, for knowing that one is better than everybody else; the gratitude of one saved from death by starvation.’
When there is so much to feel in the nomadic realm, there should be a vocabularly that comes along with it. What is the word for when a host takes you into their ger and you are so strange, your customs so different that they make you very aware you are a stranger? These words would only exist for the people which understand the meaning.
“In later years, they will say that her term “swimmer among the stars” means astronaut”. They will never say that “Astronaut” means “swimmer among the stars”.”
Speech can be added to, particularly in this day and age. I’m always teaching m&d new words. Granted they’re not always nice ones. You can build words from what we do have. Mongolians must have words for those things that we maybe would have little use for.
‘For example, this means to be afraid of seeing time pass. This means to tell stories in the depths of winter. This is the action of stirring a kind of gravy in a pot; this also denotes the motion of a pig rooting around in the mud. This refers to the way light splinters against a range of mountains at dusk. This describes in one word how mountains gain mass and shape at dawn. This means to feel strange in an unfamiliar place. This means to be patient for spring. As does this. And this.’
After food and shelter, our language is the most crucial determination in our social relations, our thought processes, and our understanding of who and what we are. Language exists to connect human beings and our world. It is a window into the world of things. If we do not have the words to express something, do we feel it first? Or do we feel it once we know how to describe it?
Poetry, for example. Do we feel poetry because we have finally found someone that is describing our exact emotions? It brings us to the point where imagination and language can be most exposed and at the same time most biting.
How are we able to communicate with so much gratitude and gratefulness? Through actions - or at least that was what I stuck to. Words and different art forms only seem more appropriate to me because that’s how I’ve developed into expressing myself most accurately, or so I’d like to think.