‘The Sounds Words Have’ by Þórarinn Eldjárn


From Words Without Borders:

Once there was a town where no two people spoke the same language. No one used the same words for anything. And yet everyone understood everyone else and they all lived together in peace and harmony. Until recently, the locals were cheerful, cordial, and— though it’s hard to believe—talkative. The town was in a nameless region deep in central Europe. The place had no name because it was so remote that it was usually represented on maps as a black hole. That is, if it was represented at all.

Even after the outside world caught up with this peculiar state of affairs, not even the ablest linguists trusted themselves to explain matters. The townspeople were even less able to comment on the situation. For their part, it was so natural, so self-evident, that each person would speak her own individual language that no one gave it a second—or first—thought.

The explanation usually offered for this phenomenon was partly geographical and partly political. The town in question had existed for a long time and was surrounded by numerous renowned countries. As time went by, the merry-go-round of history paid a visit to all these countries, sometimes for longer, sometimes for shorter periods, and sometimes more than once. There had been a striking number of conflicts—more than in any other part of the world—between the existing and emergent nations and states, those various major sets and subsets, multi-sets, part-sets, and exclusive sets, those innumerable political entities, some grander and some pettier, which had arisen and subsided during the centuries: dukedoms, superpowers, empires, millennial reigns, republics, free states, utopias, every kind of state coalition, sacred and secular, from the olden days until today.

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