Okay, grab your thinking caps, kiddies, because it’s time for our language lesson. Today our lesson comes from the picturesque, pastoral and puny little Himalayan ex-Kingdom of Nepal. In Nepali, as in a number of other Asian languages, no one ever wants a thing. If a speaker of one of these languages feels a liking for a thing – say chocolate, or, perhaps, as is the case with the mountain-dwellers in Nepal, rancid butter – when they say so, they don’t say “I like rancid butter.” Instead they say, “rancid butter falls to my heart.” When they are hungry for rancid butter or any other thing, it is not the speaker who is the source of said hunger, it is hunger that attaches itself to the speaker. They say “Hunger has attached itself to me.” Or they might say that “love” has attached itself to them, or, if the situation calls for it, hatred, chilliness, confusion, awe, nausea, tickles, sorrow or even indifference. They aren’t things you have, they are things that have you.
That linguistic peculiarity might seem like nothing more than a footnote, but if you think about it for a minute, you might notice that a person who says “I hate you” is a lot different from one who says “Hate for you has attached itself to me.” In the latter case, there is a big space available for the speaker to change, be forgiven and grow. On the other hand, you might be excused for preferring the person who says “I promise” over one who says “Obligation has attached itself to me.”
They say that communication is the architecture of civilization, and by “they” I mean whoever it was that professor was talking about in that lecture I attended all those years ago at some university or another, and after you get over the fact that it sounds pretty pretentious, you might notice that “they” are pretty spot-on. Think for a minute of Doric columns and how they express the flavor of ancient Greek civilization. Think of the arabesque (in all the definitions of that word…) ornamentation of mosques, Moscow’s Red Square, and, of course, the Golden Arches of the good ol’ US and A. Likewise, consider the Nepali reluctance to admit volition, the Turkic languages’ love of “vowel harmony” in which words which butt up against each other in a sentence can’t have clashing vowels, and the famed Inuit languages many words for the different types of snow. They are the Doric columns of communication.
From that point of view it becomes clear that the way that we use language is more important than even our mothers knew when they pounded into us the need to say please and thank you. “They” also say that diplomacy is the art of letting other people have it your way, and they might well have been talking about Barack Obama. He’s so refreshingly diplomatic, political cartoonists around the globe are tearing their hair out. Their eight year field day is over. But fear not! There’s plenty of raw material over in the Czech Republic, whose president, Vaclav Klaus is soon to assume the rotating presidency of the EU, relieving Nicolas Sarkozy of center stage. Mr. Klaus just might turn out to be a godsend for the snarky set.
Not long ago Klaus called global warming a “myth” and Al Gore an “apostle of arrogance.” In Europe there is a palpable fear that Klaus will embarrass the world’s largest trading bloc and complicate its efforts to solve the economic crisis, which he asserts is a result of too much regulation in the financial markets. In the 80s a communist secret policeman infiltrated Klaus’ clandestine economics seminars, looking for evidence of his support of free-market heresy. Instead, he found the “his behavior and attitudes reveal that he feels like a rejected genius. He shows that whomever does not agree with his views is stupid and incompetent.” Get that man a pair of cowboy boots! And to think he took over the Czech presidency from that other Vaclav, the dreamy, poetic and visionary diplomat, Vaclav Havel. Hang on: I just need to run and get my textbook on the Czech language to find out what all this means.