According to academic David Crystal, when a language dies, we lose, “the expression of a unique vision of what it means to be human.”
A few nights later, the lack of sleep took its toll. Sleep claimed me, even as my brain continued to toss around in my head words that I had learned from The Word Graveyard. It was as if an internal projector was displaying these nearly forgotten words behind my eyelids.
Gaminesque: To be mischievous or playfully cheeky.
Librocubularist: A person who reads in their bed.
Terpsichore: Someone who takes great delight in the art of dancing.
Gardyloo: A warning to people passing a home or building that waste is going to be thrown down onto the streets.
The words would not stop. Instead, they began to increase in such numbers, I could no longer read them. Gradually, they formed a tight tunnel, which began to spin, like a vortex, until, much to my horror, I felt myself being sucked in.
Round and round I tumbled, like laundry in a washing machine, until I was spat out onto hardpacked earth. It was dark. The only light came from a full moon. I got up and dusted myself off, and looked about. Tombstones were lined up in organised rows. In the distance was a person, digging a hole.
“Hello,” I called out.
The person stuck their spade into the soil and straightened. “Greetings, stranger,” he said. “Have you come to visit a lonely caretaker?”
“Come, come,” he beckoned, and I slowly made my way towards him.
The man smiled. “I always enjoy a break.”
“Did you know the deceased?” I asked, indicating the newly dug grave.
He smiled. “I try to familiarise myself with all who now dwell here, even if all I can do is learn a word or two.”
I looked at him, confused. “You mean their names?”
He nodded, “Of course, I always know their names. This, you see, is being dug for Tehuelche. It was a language spoken in Patagonia, Argentina. In 2019, however, Dora Manchado died, and with it, the last fluent speaker of Tehuelche. But you see, it always takes a language a little while to make its way here. First, it will try to find a new tongue to sit upon before eventually it accepts its fate, coming here to rest.”
“So,” I said slowly, “this is a graveyard for languages.”
He nodded. “Not always languages. Usually its words. Languages evolve, you see: new words are born, as others die, just like people. It’s only natural, but that doesn’t stop it from being sad, because once a word is gone, you lose that thought, that particular way of seeing things.”
“Oh,” I said.
He nodded. “But yes, it is always a sad day when an entire language is lost. Because languages are like camera angles: we all may be seeing the same thing, but how we view it differs. So some may only see the fuzzy outline of it, others are so close that they notice each and every detail. But once that language is gone, you lose that special je ne sais quoi.”
“You know,” I said, “I never really understood what ‘je ne sais quoi’ meant.”
“Well,” he said, “it technically means, ‘I don’t know what’. But it is used more to express an indescribable feeling, moment, or essence that there is no precise word for in that person’s language.”
“So there may have been a word for it, in some language, but we don’t know it.”
“Somebody might,” he shrugged. “I’m yet to hear of a human that can speak every language out there.”
I gazed around. There were more tombstones out here than I could possibly count in a lifetime. “I had no idea so many languages and words had died.”
The caretaker let out a chuckle. “Few do, my boy, few do. After all, to know something is lost you have to know it existed in the first place.”
Those words reminded me of Tata. Before I could tell this to the caretaker, I found myself being shaken awake. I blinked in the darkness, back in my bed, to see my father looking down at me, concern written all over his face.
“Mavi, are you alright?”
“You were talking in your sleep. At first, I thought you had someone in your room.”
“No, Tata, I am alone. I was only dreaming.”
“What kind of dream caused you to speak like this?”
“I was in the word graveyard,” I told him.
He sighed. “My son, maybe I was wrong. Maybe this task I have given you is too much.”
I shook my head. “No, Tata, I think I am starting to understand. You don’t want me avoiding isiXhosa words and picking English ones that are easier, because if these words are lost, then we lose the Xhosa way of viewing these things. It is a lot like taking a picture: everyone might be looking at the same thing, but if you take that photograph from above the object like a bird’s view, or underneath like a mole’s view, or from the side like how a horse might see, it changes how you see that thing, too.”
In the dim light I saw Tata’s smile grow very wide. “Yes, my son, I think you are beginning to understand me. Just chill, as you say,” he added winking, “Don’t stress… by the way do you know in isiXhosa there are different ways of talking about different kinds of stress… Tata was beginning to lecture me again but inside, my heart began to feel warm.
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