Speaking of Language

Hello again from the Big Blue,


She came, she saw, she photographed…and photographed…and photographed. My twelve days with Helmi the Wonder Editor flew by far too quickly. Luckily, we have plenty of pictorial evidence of her stay, not to mention a new nickname to add to the list: “Photo-Op Helmi”.


Much happened in only twelve days. New friends were made, new sights were seen, new adventures were had. You will recall from the last Chronicle, Helmi’s introduction to the wonderful world of snorkeling? Well, I’m proud to say, on her last full day, she actually snorkeled in the wide open ocean! This is no small feat. Even folks who are comfortable in the water get intimidated by the Big Blue – home of creatures with large pointy teeth and tentacles. OK, I’ve never seen any big teeth or tentacles out there but this is what people imagine lingers beneath their tender, exposed limbs as they swim. What a sight, then, to see my friend floating along, swaying with the surge, in a state of perfect relaxation. Ten bonus points for that!


Of course, later she would discover the joy of snorkeling against a strong current, inside the lagoon – we can’t have her getting too complacent, can we?


One of my great joys, these past twelve days, was having a fellow language lover to talk with. A professional snorkeller, Helmi may never be, but when it comes to language she is aces. Born in Germany, she first discovered her passion for language in elementary school. Her teacher wrote the word “father” on the board and then went on to write it in several different languages, pointing out the connections between them. She was amazed. At university, she majored in English and minored in Spanish, with the goal of becoming a translator.  Language would prove to be her ticket out of her homeland and off into the world she longed to explore. While she has traveled extensively, and lived in a few different countries, Helmi has put down roots in Canada and has adopted English as her primary language. I might add, she speaks and writes English better than most people who were born in Canada. When I asked how her native tongue was faring after so many years, she said her family tells her, on visits home, that she speaks in “Broken German”.


Language also happens to be one of the qualities I most admire about the Cook Islanders. Though all islanders speak English, Maori is the official language, (it is a different dialect than the New Zealand variety). The Maori language was developed when there was a shortage of consonants in the world. Consequently, native speakers sound a bit like they are talking while a dentist works on a back molar. Here is a Maori sentence: E iva anani i runga i te paata. Please don’t ask me what it means, I merely pulled it from a textbook, but it has nine consonants and fourteen vowels. Impressive. Equally impressive is the fact that, despite the heavy-handed influence of the “civilized” world, including a whole whack of missionaries bent on reforming the heathens, islanders have managed to hang onto their language.  


Good for them.


In the shops and restaurants, you will hear the locals slip back and forth from English to Maori as naturally as breathing. I’m sure I’ve been talked about more than once in Maori. I’m beginning to suspect,  Aa ke tupua i moana ke teina” means “Oh god, here comes that skinny, white girl checking to see if there are any packages, again. Can’t she get a life?” But nowhere is the Maori language more beautiful than in church.


Yeah, you heard that correctly, church.


Last Sunday, Helmi and I got dudded up and went downtown to sample a little religiosity. We’re neither of us godly but the traditional Maori choir at the Christian church here is mentioned in every guide book as a must-do activity. The guide books, I can now swear on a stack of bibles, are not lying. To traditional (read: boring) church hymns, the Cook Islanders bring a savage beauty. Even the most joyful black gospel choir would be hard pressed to match the power of these crooners. The hymns are sung in Maori and sung loud enough to make even god say, “OK, OK, I get it now can you keep it down, it’s Sunday and I’m trying to rest!” The men and women call back and forth to each other in song much the same way they do in their own music, which made all of my hairs stand on end. I loved this, it strikes me as an almost imperceptible act of defiance, as if they are saying, “You can make us wear clothes and give up our traditions…but not all of them.”


The service was given in both languages but I would have preferred to hear it all in Maori. Foreign languages are also a kind of music to me.


We are now six months into our stint here at Perfect Beach Resort. Our guests come from all over the world and we have learned the art of communication with speakers of many tongues. Most world travelers have at least a rudimentary grasp of English and some are proficient in three or more popular languages. All this leaves me more than a little embarrassed at my mono-linguism. Take the Swiss girl who lamented to me that she spoke seven languages fluently, several more with some degree of fluency, but her Navajo, damn it, was pretty poor. My ability to count to five in Japanese did not score any points with her.


I love the way Swiss and German people pronounce the word “smoothie”, by the way. Smoovie.


Many of my conversations with Helmi, however, focused on the English language, specifically as it relates to literature. I call her the Wonder Editor for good reason; she is the police officer who patrols my stories, kicking out mixed up tenses and bad punctuation. She is the yin to my yang. I have no shortage of imagination, what I lack is the discipline to keep my creativity under control and within the parameters of good grammar. One of the reasons I love writing these Chronicles is that i kan write bad englush and it don’t matter none. (As she reads this, Helmi is squirming!) 


But all too soon the snorkeling and language discussions were over. Helmi of Many Nicknames was loaded back onto Air Rarotonga, and now I have to do my own dishes again. (I told you I was being spoiled, Helmi!) I will miss her terribly. (Not just because of the dishes).


We now enter the busy season so don’t be surprised if the odd Coconut Chronicle is tardy. Already, my personal emails for the past two weeks have stacked up and wait, unanswered and accusing. (Martha and Patty-Cakes, thanks so much for the Tiger Sauce and Licorice, I’ll write soon, promise!) Thankfully, this is also the start of our winter. Ah, winter! Nights get so cold now we actually have to put a sheet on…brrrrrrrrr!


I will leave you with my favorite photo of Helmi; I hope it makes you smile as much as it does me.


QUESTION: What language have you always wanted to learn?


Until next week, I hope this finds you healthy, happy & lovin’ life!

The Princess


p.s. – New photo album coming soon!


Kick Helmi, kick!


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