Bulletin Board, excerpt

Brain Waves?

Posted to (St. Paul Pioneer Press) Bulletin Board, October 5, 2002

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Life (and death) as we know it: Writes Poet X of Portland, Oregon:

"Brain Waves?

"I should call them 'Thornton Wilder Moments,' because when I experience them, I immediately think of the speech in the last act of 'Our Town' in which Emily says (I'm paraphrasing here): Oh, world, you're too wonderful. Goodbye to clocks ticking. Does anybody realize how wonderful it is while they're alive? (She's dead, of course, when she gives this speech. The scene is wonderfully recalled in Kurt Vonnegut's novel 'Timequake,' as well.)

"The mental dead end that I found myself in yesterday nonetheless provided one of those 'Thornton Wilder Moments.' What we were talking about just before I took a conversational detour, I have no idea. But I suddenly was trying to think of how many color words I knew in Spanish: blanco, verde, amarillo. I wondered aloud if blue would be azure.

"That thought led to contemplating the English words for colors. Most of them, English being a Germanic language, of course, come obviously from German, a language I know more than Spanish: red, white, green, blue.

"It got me wondering why and how different color words would enter the language at different times and from different source languages. Why is black so different from the German schwartz when white is so much like weiss?

"It's a question for a linguist or historian of sorts, I know, and not something easily looked up on the Internet. But, wait. The train of thought had one more leap to make.

"Knowing something about etymology and knowing a word's source can sometimes tell you when the word entered the language did me no good as far as colors were concerned. But it prompted an even more bothersome 'I wonder why':

"Our words for numbers also come, mostly, from German: one, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, tenó all have German cognates. But not two! Why is the English two closer to the French (or Latin, eventually, I'm guessing) than the German? And why that number? Only eleven is as dissimilar as two from the German.

"The ability of the mind to amuse itself, even with questions left unanswered, belongs on Emily's list of things to notice while we're still alive and able to appreciate them."

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