I’m someone who always seems to half-learn a language. I can master the basics for negotiating costs and traveling, as well as the best snippets for intellectual conversation, but there’s a wide gulf of, let’s say “actual” or “useful” language in between. And although I typically turn out as a partial mute, paradoxically, I also typically end up with a pretty advanced reading comprehension (I’m most guilty about this with French: I can’t order a pizza but I can read Merleau-Ponty — not that I’d really want to, though).
I imagine that for all half-mutes like me, it’s a common experience every time we try our hand at another language, we inevitably have weird reactions inside our skulls. Sometimes my brain wants to reply in Dutch or Hebrew, even Spanish; other times, it can’t escape the grip of English, and the words of my conversation partner just seem to slam headlong against a blank concrete wall between my ears. Studying Kyrgyz has provoked yet another kind of reaction: fond recollections for Flemish, but also some regret about the language.
As much as I thought it was a pretty language, the unhappy truth is, I never gave Flemish much of a chance, certainly not like the one I’m giving to Kyrgyz. As a native English-speaker, I definitely could have learned Flemish. The language of the Low Countries is remarkably close to my moeder taal (or as the Kyrgyz would say, ene tili), to the point that the British have a mean joke about Dutch/Flemish being an inebriate hybrid of English and German.
And yet, I stuck to English for the most part. That was partially because it was worth my while pretending not to know anything about Flemish. In my kot or in the university administration buildings, it became to my advantage not to reveal that I knew when they were talking badly about me, and the “dumb foreigner” card worked well in many other situations.
I think this is related to another reason why I didn’t really try to learn Flemish, because despite Flemings’ own protests to the contrary, I was never convinced that learning the language would truly have integrated me into their society. I probably should have tried to take them at their word.
In my (albeit meager) defense, I could hear what they were openly saying about me, an American, an imperial among the provincials. Imagine what they were really thinking about all those vreemdelingen and allochtonen from further afield! The strangers I tended to call friends, the ones who had come to Flanders hoping to forge a new life for themselves and to contribute to their new homeland.
The Flemish rejected the very people who wanted to help them evolve; they despised the very people who wanted to make them new. They were satisfied in their own traditions, in their antiquity; they had adapted to modernity, embraced the free market and all those other half-idiotic, half-brilliant Americanisms; why should they allow for any more change? They had changed enough! It was time for others to change to them. Or so appeared to be their logic, to my mind and the minds of my fellow strangers.
Most of all, though, I think that I just couldn’t shake the idea that Flemish/Dutch was a “useless” language. Its small size, with no more than 30 million speakers globally; its political unimportance outside of the Low Countries; its relative lack of an original literary tradition compared to its neighbors (English, French, German) — these were all the reasons given that my time would be “better spent” on another language, like French or Russian (both of which I tried for a year, and only one of which, French, I walked away having any strength in).
But now, here I am, learning another “useless” language — and loving it. Kyrgyz has no more than five million speakers globally although it does permit one to backdoor into Kazakh, so depending on the statistics, it’s about the same as Flemish/Dutch. It’s politically unimportant outside of Central Asia, and it also has a dearth of native literature (not a total lack, but certainly much smaller compared to even Uzbek). And yet, this time I don’t care about any of this.
Perhaps because Kyrgyz is more wrapped up with my personal and professional ambitions, I feel more rewarded. Perhaps it’s really that I’ve just grown up a bit, and have realized that language is not just about utility. Communication is not only about passing along information, nor even about uniting people; it’s about chiseling out pathways toward the universe, toward the divine, toward the truth, through the marble avalanche of experience.
Still, everywhere I seem to go after leaving the United States, certain patterns seem to follow me, a wheel keeps turning with me upon it. The obvious pattern here is my predilection for small, troubled, fragile, perhaps even ephemeral countries, such as Belgium and Kyrgyzstan. For try as I might, I can’t seem to get myself to a Netherlands or a Kazakhstan, much less a Germany or a China, a “real” country, a “true” civilization, with self-confidence and power, and perhaps most importantly for someone like me, porosity, the capacity to take in wayward souls like mine and give us a place, a purpose. But perhaps I have a different place, a different purpose?
For once more, I feel like a stranger amongst ancients. There are intriguing analogies between the Flemish and the Kyrgyz. A geopolitical example: Kazakhstan is to Kyrgyzstan what the Netherlands is to Flanders: basically speaking the same language, but younger, more dynamic, and also more full of itself. The Flemish and the Kyrgyz are proud and stubborn, democratic and independent to a fault, prone to feeling overwhelmed by powers larger than themselves and anxious about it, often backward-looking and self-defeating.
Yet, the waters run deeper within the two of them. They’re older and wiser than most, which, again, is both their strength and their weakness. They’ve seen many great powers come and go; they’ve seen the wheel of history spin and spin and spin, and the only thing that seems to truly persist are them and their land and their ways.
Linguistically, Flemish and Kyrgyz are both profoundly ancient wings of the Germanic and Turkic families, etymologically going back nigh two millennia. Their languages are rich in a different way than, say, German and Turkish, French or Uzbek. What they lack in abstraction, they make up in viscerality, or to phrase it philosophically, they are connected to the things-in-themselves.
And something else: small, ancient languages like Flemish and Kyrgyz are rich with spreekwoorden and makaldar. Like the best flask of kymys, they’ve fermented for millennia. Their proverbs teem with insights that seem, like the languages themselves, to originate from an era on the dimmest verge of memory.
“Wie het kleine niet eert, is het grote niet weerd.”
“Whoever does not honor the small, is not worthy of the great.”
Yes, I’m very happy to be learning Kyrgyz. It’ll certainly be some time before I can really use the language, since it’s quite different than what I’m used to (although there are some remarkable similarities with Flemish, such as casting the verb to the end of the sentence, and odd etymological resonances like “taal” and “til“). But already, I’m struck by its richness.
To put it another way, in this language, I’m finding what I came looking for: the depth, the spirituality, the continuity with things ancient, the paw prints in the mountain snow left behind by mysteries and shadows of the past. And I’m the hunter, bow and arrow at the ready, stepping softly, cautiously, purposefully, in the soft, cold white. Iz karayyn, toktoy tyrchy…
Recently, I learned a rather remarkable makal:
“Уядан емнени көрсө учканда ошону алат”
“Uyadan emneni körsö, uchkanda oshonu alat.”
literally, “[The bird] learns to fly from what it sees in the nest”
The Kyrgyz use this expression for many different contexts. It’s fundamentally about tutelage, mentorship, parenting. However, it also captures something else. Like many things in Kyrgyz, much of the terminology here has a double meaning. For instance, көр as a verb means “to see”, but as a noun it means “blind”. Moreover, birds are a famous metaphor for the soul in Central Asia. They appear throughout mystical literature of the region, from Iran through to Mongolia, from Farīd ud-Dīn to Abay Qunanbayuli.
Perhaps as a result of these connections, when my tutor taught this proverb to me, I was immediately reminded of a famous passage from Bahá’u’lláh:
Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust.
And upon remembering this quote, my philosophical training from Leuven, my Flemish education, dusty and stilted and rote and severe, rushed back to me with all the force of illumination. For I was struck by a strongly Thomistic sense of the soul as a subsistent, not a substance; that is, as an actuality, a thing of spirit, that can exist independently of potentiality, of matter, but without which it feels itself nonetheless incomplete. Like a man without a woman (or a woman without a man?), we are souls that could have sufficed in eternity, but for some mysterious reason we yearned for, even needed, embodiment.
Our yearning was fulfilled by our Maker, but thereupon, we began to forget who we truly were. Trapped within the uya of time and space — for what else is flesh than the most intimate incarnation of the temporal and the spatial — ensnared within the mesh of our desires, we’re hatchlings that must now struggle to find our way out of the nest, frail and vulnerable upon the gnarled branches of ancient junipers and in the caves of eternal mountains.
Who is God? The silent mother-bird watching over us. And what is free will? Her act of plucking us from the nest, wrenching us from the comforts of matter, and flinging us into the æther. And out there in the sky, we must either learn to fly, or be dashed upon the mountain rocks below. This is for our own good. The ecosystem has no use for falcons that never leave their nest. The universe needs hunters, not hatchlings.
That is the nature of the free will given to us, but for which we condemn God, either loudly with our atheisms, or silently with our doubts. That is the true theodicy, or so I suspect it to be at this moment, as I twirl through the cold, azure void, wondering whether I’m plummeting or soaring, dying or flying…
[The painting is (I think, because I’m still learning Kyrgyz) by Salmoor Dyykanov and is entitled, “Koomdul isher”.]