In the Trap of the Languageessay2019

My mother started with a shorter fishing rod, because she wasn’t yet strong enough to reel in a fish along a full-size rod. She must have been around seven or eight years old. During her teenage years, she got strong enough and would bring the same ensemble as her father. Rubber boots, a raincoat, layers of warm clothing, worms dug up on the beach the night before. The boat would head out in the morning and stay in the same spot out in the middle of the sea all day long. The catch hung overboard in nets called ‘keepnets’. In the evening they were pulled on deck and the sloop headed back toward the coast.

For my mother, this is a precious memory. I look at a page in one of her diaries where, next to a boat with lots of wavy lines, it says fishingwithdad in the uneven scrawl of a child still just getting used to manifesting thoughts by pen, the words caked together the way you tend to experience things in childhood: as a single, uninterrupted stream.

I was reminded of seafishing because I’m trying to learn Spanish. In Spanish there are two different words for what we group under ‘fish’: pez and pescado. When I ask my teacher, she explains that a fish swimming in the water is called pez, and a dead fish is pescado. I take a moment to let this distinction sink in. The teacher has all the time in the world. Every week I come to her house, where the whole-wheat cookies are waiting for me, fanned out on an oval dish. Six, that’s how many make up a complete fan. And every week we come to the conclusion—and we laugh about it, but it’s a little uncomfortable too—that I still can’t seem to produce the rolling rrrr that makes her language sound like her language.

But pez and pescado are two words I can say easily, and over the cookies I ask my teacher whether my assumption is correct that fish A swimming in the water, and fish A who I then have for dinner, has two different names. And that using the right word is about establishing whether a fish is dead or alive. However, it turns out to be more complicated than I thought. The tipping point isn’t about the presence or absence of breath. A fish in the ocean is pez. But a fish taking a fisherman’s bait, being pulled from the water and flailing around on the deck of a boat—that’s all pescado. On ice, laid out at a market stall or served up on a silver platter—pescado pescado pescado. My mother, then, spent hours staring at her float in hopes of catching pez, but the moment she got one, pescado was what she reeled in.

Maybe I’m taking it a little too far, my fixation on these two words. Procrastination at its finest. The least charitable take on it is that I’m using this preoccupation to distract myself from my inability to roll my rrrrs. Someone quipped that in the ’90s, some South Korean parents would pay for oral surgery to cut their children’s frenulum—the membrane that restricts the tongue—so that they could pronounce the English r. A better r would increase their chances in life. My worry about the Spanish rrrr takes me to a plethora of YouTube tutorials where people demonstrate, in close-ups of stunning and less-stunning sets of teeth, how it’s done. A Russian woman explains that you have to put your tongue against the back of your front teeth and curl it into a kind of roll that the sound can travel over. It gets me nowhere.

In the most charitable take, I’m on to something. I feel that, if I can get to the bottom of the distinction between pez and pescado, I can uncover something about the essence of the Spanish language. Maybe the Spanish language reflects a fundamentally different philosophical take on things. Maybe those two words beg the question: can a fish ever be the same fish again once human beings enter the picture?
But that’s where I get tangled up. Because my teacher, who has never really thought about this distinction before and is now testing all kinds of scenarios for pez and pescado out loud, says that it’s not necessarily about the proximity of people. If I were lounging on a sailboat or swimming next to a fish, nothing would change. It’s about the second the fish takes the bait. The moment the fish swims into a person’s trap, or to be more precise, into the trap of the language. When the word changes, we look at the same animal from a different perspective. Pescado is something you can eat.

I looked for similar shifts in meaning in Dutch. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly, and although those terms denote different life stages, I wonder whether we actually tend to think of the caterpillar and the butterfly as two distinct animals. A tadpole turns into a frog—same story. But the word pair closest to pez and pescado is probably ‘cow’ and ‘cattle.’ Although the analogy is a flawed one (unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of wild cows in the Netherlands, and we refer to cattle in a meadow as ‘cows’ all the time) there are specific moments when a cow is considered cattle. Words like ‘cattle’ and ‘pescado’ preserve a certain paradigm.

More than revealing something about the essence of the Spanish language, then, I see something about the essence of humankind taking shape in the shift from pez to pescado—about our language, whatever particular language that may be.
I was reminded of the psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910), who describes our relationship with the world as being a constant process of carving things up. ‘What shall we call a thing anyhow?’ he wonders.

'It seems quite arbitrary, for we carve out everything, just as we carve out constellations, to suit our human purposes. For me, this whole ‘audience’ is one thing, which grows now restless, now attentive. (...) But in your own eyes, ladies and gentlemen, to call you ‘audience’ is an accidental way of taking you. The permanently real things for you are your individual persons. To an anatomist, again, those persons are but organisms, and the real things are the organs. Not the organs, so much as their constituent cells, say the histologists; not the cells, but their molecules, say in turn the chemists. (...) We break the flux of sensible reality into things, then, at our will. We create the subjects of our true as well as of our false propositions.'

Starting in childhood, we learn to break up the flow of reality that constantly surrounds us into disparate elements. Language plays a major part in this process. By naming something, we carve it out. In this way, reality—which deep down we might find unnervingly mysterious (I know I do)—remains orderly and easy to grasp. But because we use language for almost everything in our lives, we tend to forget that it’s not a neutral material. Words, after all, were made by us. The word, the carving, reflects our relationship with the thing. And maybe it’s more than that—maybe the word doesn’t just reveal the nature of that relationship; maybe reality molds itself to our words. Maybe the words with which we think also shape the content of those thoughts, determine how we interact with the world around us.

The boat has long since stopped going out to sea; my grandfather is gone. His raincoat hangs on the coat rack in my childhood home like a relic. When I called my mom as I was working on this essay, she confessed that she has come to feel conflicted about her memories of going fishing. Not about the whole enterprise, but certain aspects of it. She wonders how it’s possible that she only sees now, decades later, that the fish, once they’d been taken from the keepnets, spent the whole ride back to shore gasping for breath on deck. That the custom of fishingwithdad seemed so natural, such a chunk of immutable reality, that the elements this custom was comprised of could not be regarded individually for years, much less called into question.

My mother, for her part, had four children. One of them, my younger brother, spent countless afternoons by the ditch in front of our house. He had an ordinary fishing rod with pieces of balled-up bread for bait. There were other boys his age who fished in that same ditch. A rumor went around that a pike lived in that brown water. The rule was that if anyone ever caught it, it had to be released, so that everyone got the chance to catch it at some point.

Voor Mr. Motley i.s.m. Holland Festival