A Universal Language

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The amount of languages there are in the world baffles me; when I ponder the amount of words available to the entirety of mankind I am left bedazzled. As a member of the retail trade operating on a shop floor, engaging with many different people each week, sometimes the language barrier presents itself to me. I’ve scaled the heights of confusion with customers from Poland and Russia, had foreign cards rejected by PIN machines, and stopped short of knowing if a passport from China, is actually a real passport from China. This afternoon however, my senses were broadened when I had to engage with deaf patrons. Rarely have I ever had to utilize my skill in writing to converse with a customer; today I did it twice.

The woman indicated quickly that she was deaf. I nodded that I understood, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed, because the processes she needed to go through involved, what would usually be, verbal communication. I have to ask for addresses and surnames and for loyalty cards and deposits everyday, and I already knew her intentions would warrant similar inquires. At first we used hand gestures, indicating to likewise objects and holding up numbers and okay symbols like an odd game of retail charades. Marvelous how even through these simple means, we actually managed to get a lot done. Where I was concerned I might offend, we laughed at common misunderstandings, and during long pauses taken to stratigise further pointing, we smiled. Eventually however, she needed to ask me something no amount of arm waving could articulate. Only then did I think to draw out receipt paper and offer her the ability to write down her question. Shame on me as a writer for not adopting this method sooner. Words bridged the canon between us. Still, I had to rearrange the register functions to accommodate this form of corresponding. Where I would normally just ask for an address I found a way to print out a form instead, making matters more efficient. Later, another deaf lady came in, but this time I already knew to go straight to pen-and-paper.

I wonder how many times a day things like this happen on a global scale; how many times systems have to be quickly adapted to assist an urgent language issue. What’s even more staggering is that they are; the sheer matter of language has not kept the world separated. At one point, however many years ago, a person who only spoke Spanish and a person who only spoke English met for the first time completely unable to voice their intentions, and yet here we stand able to buy dictionaries which translate the meanings of words into something we comprehend. I always imagine the scene to be akin to the part in Tarzan in which he points to Jane and utters his own name. At some point someone had to start about structuring the meanings of another tongue with little to no references about how the language worked. And they did; in fact if this occurred every-time two new linguistically different cultures met, the number of brave individuals who have taken on the task is staggering.

As with the start of my transaction, I imagine a lot of the initial diction were simple hand signals; laying a hand on the chest to signify ‘self’, or moving fingers like feet to indicate ‘walking’. Perhaps the fact that we observe things in the same literal manor aided as well. Perhaps chalk on stone walls showed when a person was saying ‘cow’ or ‘tree’. I realise my vision of the learning of languages is romantic, but the concepts I mention must have happened at some point. I think the biggest advantage to our understanding of each other comes from universal expressions. No matter where you go in the world where someone is humored they will laugh, where someone is in pain they will cry; every culture in the world acknowledges a smile as a sign of good-will, and shouting as a form of aggression. It’s a common fact that a large percentage of what you say is articulated by how you say it; I wonder how much of how something is said, comes down to the expression on the face when it is said. Humanity in itself is a universal language we are already programmed at birth to speak fluently.

This is what happens when things are a little quiet at work. I only meant to tell you about my interlude with a new language barrier.  Remember the whole ‘how many legs you’d get for Christmas’ fiasco. Same thing.


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