Saturday, September 20, 2008

Is it possible to speak a salad?

I am comfortable saying butterfly in four languages: papillon, farfalla, mariposa, and… butterfly. [Crowd cheers] I learned the Italian word, farfalla, last. While muttering it to myself as memorization technique, it occurred to me how the word is anonomopeaic in each of those languages. Try it: whisper each of the words softly and see if you can place the wing motions of the insect. I was pretty shocked. I cannot say whether this trend holds true for any other languages—my best guess is that Russian will be an instant counterexample, but I am still surprised.

It is hard to identify a favorite word: they all have a role and are all pretty interesting. The bit on "Inside the Actors Studio" where James Lipton asks a celebrity her favorite curse word is excellent, maybe because of the experience in hearing and seeing a word, if only partly, in context. I admit that I find it incredibly satisfying to deliver the line with a blank face: shut the fuck up. It is hard to keep serious after delivery. The multi-tiered significance of a word in the context of language seems to have a parallel with the sense of smell and its ability to overstep into adjacent senses. Diane Ackerman has a really interesting discussion of this in her book.

Naming things, such as cars, boats, et cetera, has never really interested me. The whole butterfly thing, though, made me reconsider that position. I found that I could identify at least one instance where I did have a name, or at least an association, for something without realizing it. About ten years ago, I drove to San Antonio to see a friend who was there giving a presentation on primate behavior. When traveling, I like to find and explore music stores. I stopped into Alamo Music downtown and came across a Taylor Leo Kottke 12-string guitar. Other than seeing Kottke play one himself, I had never encountered one in person. (As an aside, I was at a show in Columbia, Missouri where said guitar was stolen between the end of the show and the encore). The one at Alamo was great. I left it there and made it late to meet my friend. I ended up driving back to San Antonio the next day to buy the instrument. Willie Nelson named his guitar Trigger; my guitar named itself “lechuga”. At least that is how it occurs to me. I am not exactly sure how the tactile experience of playing a 12-string translates to lettuce, but it does. It could be the number of strings being similar to a section cut of an Iceberg head or possibly the sensation of muting chords that seems like chopping through said head. In my mind there is also a very “clean” sensation in playing that particular guitar that reminds me both of eating a salad, as well as audibly pronouncing the word: leh-choo-guh—saying “lettuce” has a similar, though less pronounced effect. I love that guitar for many reasons, one of which is its capacity for saving me from the bother of convention in deciding a name; I wish other things, such as meals, would take similar initiative in removing me from the decision-making process.

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