Letter Twenty Three

When my children were still at nursery, we were greeted at the door every morning by a small poster made of laminated blue paper with the word “welcome” printed in a multitude of languages. Letters reordered and decorated with accents and transformed into elegant whirls, illegible to me but reassuring to others, all meaning the same thing.

Some people rant that this is the problem with Britain today: too many languages huddled together, in the schools, in the hospitals, on the streets. The only language they want to hear is English. Please know: those people are wrong. For one thing, English itself – for good reasons and rotten – is a composite of multitudes of languages, words adapted from Latin, Greek, Old Norse, French, Persian, Arabic, Hindi, and more. But also, the multitude of languages is one of the joys of living here. A single children’s playground or train carriage can hold people from around the globe. A single sentence in English can hold together all the world.

But if what frightens those ranting people is unfamiliarity, I suppose I can understand that. On the nursery poster I would always look for the Greek word for welcome: Καλώς Ορίσατε. I liked to see it there, because Greek is the language that surrounded me as I grew up, spoken by parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who undertook their own strange (sometimes unchosen) journeys to get here. Sometimes when I’m walking around the city, I’ll overhear someone speaking in Greek and smile, not because I understand what they’re saying, but because my mind glows with images of olive groves, and roadside stalls laden with jars of amber honey, and family parties with too many people crowded into smoky rooms. Within the bustle and cacophony of the city I have caught a pulse of home, and found comfort in that.

You too might be bewildered at first, to hear so many languages, to be confronted by so much that is strange. But I hope as you settle, you’ll have these experiences yourself: of hearing in an English word an echo of something old; of hearing someone as you walk down the street speaking like family. I hope you might look into a poster with the word “welcome” printed on it, in a multitude of languages, and find one that is familiar, and know even so each word means the same thing.

Maddy Costa, London, Writer

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