Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When to say no

Late today a rather obvious thought occurred to me: In English, it is "yes;" in Spanish, it is "si." So why in English is it "no," and in Spanish it also is "no?" I mean, English is a Germanic language. Spanish is a romance language. What the hey?

My first though had to do with "n" words. (No, not that one.) After all, "no" in Russian is "nyet." In German it is something like "nein." In French (I think) (at least sometimes) it is "non." I know absolutely no other languages - like how they say "no" in Portuguese or Italian - hell, I don't know any other languages, period - but I grabbed a dictionary and learned that in both Latin and Greek, "no" seems to come from one or another pronunciation of "ne."

Which doesn't help much - except that some root from Proto-Indo-European starting with "n" must be involved - but it reminded me how languages change, often when they brush up against another language. Which in turn reminded me about a book I've just read called "Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language."

For the last nearly 20 years of her life, Emily Dickinson's maid was an immigrant Irish lass named Maggie Maher, and before that there were other Irish servants. Emily may have cloistered herself from much of New England society, and she may have been filled with the New England prejudices against the immigrants that were so much a part of her time, but it was the Irish immigrants' speech she continued to hear as she baked bread and made cakes in her kitchen alongside Maggie. And the sounds of Maggie's language spoke to her. Her "slant" rhymes may well have rhymed perfectly - in an English-as-second-language Irish dialect. Better than anyone in her century, Emily had an ear.

She didn't care what about seemed proper to her fellow New England types. She cared what spoke.

And it turns out that Maggie had guts. The author of "Maid as Muse," Aife Murray, is convinced that both the maid, Maggie, and Emily's sister, Vinnie, had been asked by the poet to burn all her papers upon her death. Vinnie, who had the letters written to Emily by her friends, did so. Maggie, who had kept the poems in her trunk for so many years, did not. She knew better. She had to say no.

In whatever language, I think I love her,

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