Sunday, 1 November 2009

Home in other words

Living in a foreign country gets me thinking about words. A few days ago I saw Marilyn Robinson’s novel Home in a bookshop, translated as Chez Nous. In French it’s customary to use this phrase, ‘at ours’ or ‘at x’s’, to mean home. You can also use the word for house, la maison, but there isn’t an exact translation for ‘home’. Hebrew also doesn’t have a word for ‘home’ in the English sense. You just use the word for ‘house’/‘building’. Robinson’s heart-breaking and perfectly written novel conveys some of the emotions, beliefs and memories with which we layer the word ‘home’. For me ‘our place’ has none of those (though perhaps it might for a native French speaker). I’m willing to call our current flat ‘ours’, but it isn’t ‘home’.

The word ‘ecology’ has its root in the Greek word for ‘home’, oikos. This means we could translate ‘ecology’ as something like home-saying, or maybe home-knowing. I love this word. It’s slightly painful to see oikos also co-opted into ‘economy’, but that’s another matter. Eco-critics and greens in general often object to the word ‘environment’ because it means something that surrounds us and prefer ‘ecology’ for suggesting connection and shared being between ourselves and the natural world. I find it tempting to describe myself as an ‘ecologist’ rather than an ‘environmentalist’ for this reason, but to do so might be a bit pretentious and deceptive, as though I were pretending to be a scientist. Here in France there’s no problem: all greens are called écologistes.

So here’s a thought from French post-modernist Jean-François Lyotard, who argues that ecology is ‘not an environment at all, but a relation with something that is inscribed at the origin in all minds… ‘ecology’ means the discourse of the secluded, of the thing that has not become public, that has not become communicational, that has not become systematic, and that can never become any of these things. This presupposes that there is a relation of language with the logos, which is not centred on optimal performance and which is not obsessed by it, but which is preoccupied, in the full sense of ‘pre-occupied’, with listening to and seeking for what is secluded, oikeion. This discourse is called ‘literature’, ‘art’, or ‘writing’ in general.’ 


  1. Great post. The term 'ego permeability' is used by linguists to describe the level of one's ability to experience the world through a different culture or language. A person with a particularly permeable ego can more effectively disconnect familiar words from related experiences and understand that in another language, a word may not have a complete parallel. The new tongue may actually describe an experience non-existent in the person's primary culture.
    Surely this is the most exciting thing about learning to speak a new language - it means trying to see the world differently.
    Looking forward to more posts on your experiences in Paris and what you discover!

  2. Thanks for the comment and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I agree with you on the excitement of other languages. That's a really nice way to describe the special thrill of discovering a new type of word in another language or, even better, a new way of using structures like tenses.