After a long and stressful day at work yesterday I finally took the 9:02 out of Grand Central, settled into my preferred seat (next to the mid-car open area, where I like to stand or pace when I tire of sitting), and pulled out the Aleksandr Grin story I was reading (thanks, Tatyana!). A young brunette in a black dress settled in across the aisle, leaned against the window and extended herself over both seats, pulled out her cell phone and address book, and started making calls. When I realized she was not speaking English, I automatically began trying to identify the language. A few Slavic-sounding words or syllables—da, ale, chem—made me think it might be something West Slavic, but the closer I listened the more at sea I was. Suddenly I realized I was hearing glottalized consonants, and my whole frame of reference shifted: surely it couldn’t be… Georgian? But it was; as soon as I listened with that in mind, I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t known it at once. If I’d been in Brighton Beach, I probably would have, but what are the odds of hearing Georgian on the Hudson Line train to Beacon?

The funny thing was that the more I listened, the more of my long-forgotten Georgian began surfacing. Modi, that means ‘come,’ doesn’t it? And vitsi is ‘I know,’ ara is ‘no’ (I’ll never forget the first time I heard a Georgian say ar vitsi [AHR-wits(i)] and thought “He just said ‘I don’t know’!”—ah, the joy of test-driving a language you’ve been learning), akhali is ‘new’… I had hoped to exchange a few words with her, but I never got the chance; she talked nonstop until she got off at Ossining. I wonder how much of it would have come back if I’d been able to listen to her for a few hours? Memory is a strange business.


  1. Rather Flushing, Queens than Brighton beach.

  2. My friend and I, we’re both ESL teachers who have taught international students from around the world, play the same game. We listen to someone’s speech and try to guess where they’re from in under three seconds. Of course, one needs maximun clues to nail the language and nationality that fast. we like to see the name, glance at their handwriting (someone registering for ESL classes often provides this on their form), check out the clothes, shoes, jewelry and dental work. If they’re Spanish speaking, we want to guess the country (El Salvador and Honduras sound alike). we’re often right but never seems to guess the Brazilians, though the accent is unique, the looks can run the gammit. I once guessed a Turkmenistani by his name and Russian accent in English.

  3. It was interesting for me when, after a year of not really having much of a chance to speak Chinese, two friends from Taiwan came to visit. I found that I could speak it as fluently as I had been able to before, with two major exceptions: my pronunciation had deteriorated considerably, and there were a huge amount of words I could no longer actively call upon when I spoke. Whenever they introduced one of these “missing” words it would be reactivated and I could once again use it, but otherwise they seemed to be shut off somewhere. I knew I once had known the word, but I simply couldn’t use it when I needed it!

  4. LOL! When you said “Georgian,” my first thought was American Georgian! Mah, mah… ah need ta git bitter acquainted with mah forma’ Soviet republics.

  5. I once met a HS teacher whose married name was ~15 letters long and not from any language I could recognize (Indo-E, Finnic, Turkic, Semitic, E-Asian). I asked her and she said that her husband was a WWII refugee from Soviet Georgia, but not a Georgian. (I would have recognized several markers of Georgian, e.g. -vili). I never did find out which it was, but according to Wixman there are about 100 Caucasian languages in 3 distinct groups which may not be closely related.
    He hadn’t heard his native language in ~35 years by that time. He was fluent in Russian (he had taught HS there), German, and presumably Georgian, but his English was poor. Perhaps he just wore out. He worked as a janitor and hated the way people looks at him as if he were a stupid oaf.

Speak Your Mind