Slippy Words and Waiting Silence

My apologies to all wearers of high heels in snowy climates… Estonian friends tell me that high heels are as good as crampons in getting a grip on the ice, and tell me that I should consider a pair of strappy stilettos for my next visit. This would go rather well with my serious fur hat.

My writing group at Tallinn University convened, and we spent the first session paddling in the shallows of each others’ languages. Can you think of a word, I asked them, which says something possibly untranslatable in any other language, something that catches a glimpse of the unique language-soul of the place? As a sidestep out of standard RP English I offered the Cornish word wisht — ‘you’re looking a bit wisht today,’ my grandmother would say — a word which combines the sense of pale and poorly with something rather supernatural, rather see-through at the edges, like a ghost with a cold.

Several of the Estonians chose words with the allegedly unique vowel sound õ, which I have heard said is much easier to make when feeling slightly sick. A friend, herself a writer and translator, said that it’s difficult to feel positive about going to bed in a language where the word for night is õõ, so we practised saying it in a variety of ways from soothing to downright sexy. With limited success, I must say… but then again, it was nine o’ clock in the morning.

Another Estonian chose the phrase Ma ei viitsi which expresses something of the French Ça ne fait rien with the colloquial English Can’t be arsed, while being more intensely noncommittal than either. I can really warm to a culture that is prepared to compete, rather fiercely, for the title of world leader in indifference. And at the same time Estonian poets get praised for being ‘passionate’ and ‘ardent’. I’ve a feeling I have much to learn.

* * *

If you have sometimes trouble looking up Welsh words in the dictionary, when they slip away and hide in soft mutations, try Estonian — the noun has fourteen possible case endings, which frequently transform the word almost beyond recognition. On the other hand, this means Estonian words don’t depend on their place in the sentence to tell you what their functions are, so you can change the word order to your heart’s content. That’s good for poets, though logical thinkers from other languages might feel as if they’ve entered a kind of swirling mist.

And silence? Much talk about it in the class yesterday, and again among groups of writers in the afternoon and evening. About fourteen hours of non-stop talk about it, in fact. (Paradoxes spring up like weeds all over the place here. Healthy weeds. )

And outside in the streets as I go to walk home, the particular soft-but-pin-drop-sharp silence of new snow falling. All the slush has gone white again. Tiny sounds echoing off the banks of snow, high as my head, on either side of the street, and from the new snow hanging in the trees of Kadriorg Park above my head. A silence I recognise as the one someone in the class referred to earlier as the sound of a deep well where you’ve dropped a stone and you lean over, listening, waiting…

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One Response to Slippy Words and Waiting Silence

  1. jo says:

    Nice post, but night in Estonian is öö, not õõ — not a bad sound to fall asleep to, if you ask me!

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