Mar. 31, 2009

Why We Speak English

by Lynn Pedersen

Because when you say cup and spoon
your mouth moves the same way as your grandfather's
and his grandfather's before him.
It's Newton's first law: A person in motion
tends to stay in motion with the same speed
and direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force—
scarcity or greed.
Is there a word for greed in every language?

Because the ear first heard
dyes furs pepper ginger tobacco cotton timber
silk freedom horizon
and the tongue wanted to taste
all these fine things.

And when my son asks why his father speaks Danish
and he and I speak English and Carlos—
at kindergarten—speaks Portuguese:

because Denmark is and has always been.
Our ancestors tracked north and Carlos'
tracked south. What's left in their wake
is language.

Because it comes down
to want, to latitude and longitude as ways to measure
desire, invisible mover of ships—
great clockwise gyre of water in the sea—
like some amusement park ride where boats seem to sail
but run on tracks under the water.

Because to change course now would be like diverting
the Arno, this centuries-long rut we've dug ourselves
into, and how would it be to wake up one morning
with bird oiseau or another word entirely?

"Why We Speak English" by Lynn Pedersen, from Theories of Rain. © Main Street Rag, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of the father of modern philosophy and modern mathematics: the rationalist René Descartes, (books by this author) born in La Haye, Touraine, France (1596). His most famous phrase is "Cogito ergo sum," or "I think, therefore I am."

He was sent away to study at a Jesuit school. The priests allowed him to stay in bed all morning because of his delicate health, and this became a routine that he followed throughout his life. When he met his fellow mathematician Blaise Pascal in 1647, he told Pascal that the only way to stay in excellent health and to do good mathematical work was to not allow anyone to get you up in the morning until you were ready.

It was during one of his mornings in bed that Descartes invented coordinate geometry, while he watched a fly hovering in the air. He realized that the fly's position at any moment could be described as its distance from three intersecting lines or axes.

It's the birthday of the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz, (books by this author) born in Mexico City (1914). He wrote a book of essays on Mexican culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), which became standard reading for students of Latin American history and literature. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1990.

It's the birthday of activist and labor organizer César Chávez, born on a farm near Yuma, Arizona (1927). When Chávez was 10 years old, he started laboring as a migrant farm worker. He and his family picked grapes and harvested vegetables. He co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). He was passionate about working to alleviate the miserable conditions of farm workers, including low wages, backbreaking work, little or no recourse after injury, and infrequent breaks.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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