Surely one of humankind’s seminal achievements was the invention of uniform symbols to record words and sounds. From mundane transactions to all the knowledge in the world – all accessible through symbols and the way letters are arranged to form words. Do you remember learning to read and write? Did it thrill you? I have a couple of childhood memories that thrill me still; of sitting with Ma, learning to recognise letters as we read together, and the realisation, one day at proper school, that understanding words was like a door to understanding other things. There was a special thrill in that, like working out how to do Sudoku.
I love words, how they dance through my mind, creating stories, and making ideas tangible. Regrettably my facility with language is confined to my own. I do have a knack of intuiting what beginners are trying to convey, when they’re learning English, but as to speaking their languages … Even after years of studying it at school, French words only become intelligible after I’ve been in France for a while. Then, like a diviner, I somehow dredge up some of those words I tortured myself repeating and repeating – if I’m lucky, enough to begin a halting conversation. My efforts at the Dante Alighieri in Venice … well, I did try, really, and sometimes, in my little stone studio just back from the Grand Canal, I would dream in Italian, but other than the shopping (oh, and the night at La Fenice, when an elegant old gentleman doffed his hat to say “Complimenti, Signora.”), I never conducted a live conversation. I blame the water sprites, they lured me away from my homework, to wander, or sit by a canal, fascinated by the way the winter sun shot crystal sparks off the water.
I’ve always admired Japanese characters, quite unreasonably moved by the beauty of shapes that mean absolutely nothing to me. My friend’s Koran does likewise, so, as you can imagine, I was beguiled by the simplest renditions of Sinhala and Tamil script I saw on my first visit to Paradise.
My first Sinhala teacher was unable to get anything much to stick – my mnemonic attempts at remembering words with no similarities to anything I’d ever heard simply confused me more! But then came Michael Meyler, at the British Council, who insisted we learn to read and write. His theory is that learning the sounds of the letters in their original form (rather than phonetic approximations of English), would bring the language alive. And so, reluctantly I began to learn the 36 Sinhala Akuru (12 vowels and 24 consonants) in modern-day usage.
This post was inspired by “Letters“, this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge.