Thursday, 23 June 2011

Putting words in their place

In these posts, I return with regularity, some might say monotonous regularity, to the theme of words. It’s a subject that constantly attracts my attention, because I feel that communication through words is a key element of what it means to be human.

So it was an edifying to find myself in one of those situations this week when they are completely unnecessary.

It was during my stay in Kharkov. It often happens to me when I’m travelling that I feel an overwhelming desire to eat some fruit. I’d put it down to a sharpened need for vitamins while I’m away from home, except that exactly the same thing happens at home too.

In a country where you don’t speak the language – I have perhaps 20 words of Russian, the main language in Kharkov (even though it’s a Ukrainian city) – buying fruit isn’t as simple as it sounds. This isn’t like Western Europe: maybe after the European Cup brings thousands of foreigners to Kharkov next year there’ll be a bigger incentive to learn the lingua franca of football and of tourism generally, but for the moment English isn’t much spoken in the streets, cafés or shops.

My first problem was to find a shop that sold fruit. I tried a couple of shops, including one marke

‘Producty’, an interesting name in itself – common, I’m told, in the Russian-speaking world, presumably to distinguish those shops from others that sell non-products. At least it means that if ever I want a non-product, I’ll know not to go to one of them.

My particular ‘Producty’ shop didn’t sell fruit.

I was beginning to get a little desperate, to be honest, when I suddenly saw just what I needed, in the form of a non-verbal announcement of the availability of fruit for sale: a shop front plastered with pictures of fruit and, indeed, vegetables.

No words but no uncertainty
There was a delightfully friendly and helpful middle-aged woman behind the counter. She kept up a steady flow of words throughout the ten minutes I was there, not one of which I understood. But the tone was unmistakeable and it was obvious she was being kind and obliging, so why would I complain?

I took things off shelves and handed them to her – a few bananas (she was kind enough to split three of a bigger bunch for me) – some peaches, some cherries. At one point, she waved a plastic bag at me and I was able to place on of my few Russian words, pozhalusta (please). The one-sided conversation (not entirely one-sided: I did a lot of smiling) continued, and then she looked at me slightly more intensely and pronounced a stream of more pointed syllables in my direction.

‘Aha,’ I thought, ‘the price.’

I smiled again and shook my head. She turned to a calculator, typed in the numbers and showed me the result. I gave her a note and she gave me my change. I collected my bag and placed another of my previous stock of words – ‘spasibo’ (thanks) to which she replied ‘pozhalusta’ – the courteous Russian response to 'thanks is ‘please’.

The shopkeeper had made a little money, I had my fruit. The whole transaction had taken place in an atmosphere of goodwill and politeness. But apart from ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, there had been absolutely no verbal communication.

Words really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Not all I tend to crack them up to be. In fact, there are occasions when they’re completely superfluous.

A chastening experience which will no doubt be good for my soul.

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