The Garden of Forking Languages: Spanish Ramblings


It is the summer after my second year of university, and I have gone back to my hometown in Italy for the holidays. My high school best friend and I are having coffee in our usual place, a small cafe near the sea. She teases me by pointing out that surprisingly I haven’t impulsively taken up a new language in a while, and she asks me why. I ask myself why. I have been studying languages all my life, passionately learning new grammars, lining up dictionary after dictionary on my bookshelf, but I have never actually reflected upon why I was giving that much importance to this hobby of mine. Perhaps I should ponder over every language I have studied in the past and what it has given to me, I say, before learning a new one. Maybe I should dedicate an article to each of them, I add, starting from one that dates back to my high school days: Spanish.

I started studying Spanish at the age of 14. Because my native language is Italian, I expected to find learning Spanish quite easy and straightforward. I was not wrong: since the very beginning, it was not hard for me to guess the meaning of most words. However, as I later found out, mastering this language at a higher level was a challenging and consequently fulfilling experience; it allowed me to experience the Spanish and Latin American cultures both concretely, by travelling and talking to native speakers, and abstractly, by accessing various fascinating bits of art and literature which could not be fully grasped through translation.

My first approach to the Spanish language, as with most of the languages I speak, was purely academical. Although I found the grammar deeply fascinating, nothing could match the satisfaction of finally being able to communicate with native speakers. I have met and talked to people both from Spain and Latin America, which allowed me to get to know many different accents, from the strong Andalusian one to the one of Zaragoza, from the Paraguayan one to the better-known Argentinian one.

The strong diversity which characterises the spoken Spanish language around the world has been one of the most stimulating features of this subject as I was studying it: as someone whose language is mainly spoken in a small and circumscribed peninsula, I found it extremely fascinating to observe how Spanish had evolved in remote corners of the planet, and how the historical and social circumstances of every particular place had influenced the evolution of each different dialect.

I was around the age of 16 when I started reading complete books in Spanish: it felt like I was looking at my favourite bits of literature from a new perspective, with a deeper understanding which was not available to me via translation. The Spanish speaking writers who influenced my thoughts at that time were many, including Unamuno, Márquez, Lorca, Allende, and Neruda.

The one writer, however, who actually managed to deeply affect my life was Jorge L. Borges. This extraordinarily erudite man could speak an uncommonly high amount of languages, which gave him great academical advantage. In his works, he reflected upon the themes of time, language, the self, eternity, the idea of god, and the multidimensionality of being. According to this outstanding man, every new learned word is a new adventure, which allows him to delve into a delicate maze.

The metaphor of a maze as a symbol of linguistic expression is a recurring theme in Borges, who embodies this idea in the short story “The Garden of Forking Paths”.  In this narration, the labyrinth is represented by a novel in which, instead of having the character making decisions and, by doing so, eliminating all the alternatives they did not choose, all the imaginable outcomes take place simultaneously. Different versions of this novel happen without contradiction: in one time-line the characters are friends, in the other they try to kill each other, and the two timelines both exist and diverge into more timelines like branches of the same tree. 

This image can successfully be used to explain the idea that Borges had of the different existing languages: they are not different codes made up of equivalent synonyms, as bilingual dictionaries could lead us to think. Instead, they are like tree branches: each one of them is a whole new dimension, which exists next to all the others without contradiction, and they are more intuitively translated into one another the closer their branches stand on the tree. 

With this image of languages not only as parallel versions of the same concepts, but as fully different instruments to approach thought, I continue my retrospective analysis of my experience of language learning, and I delve deeper into the maze.

[Viola Ragonese – she/her]

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