Zugunruhe

There is a season in word country when things rise and fall: some things fall in place, and others rise to go. All is changing, colour, temperature, movement. After springing forth, after flourishing and strengthening in the constant rounds of the estival festival, a direction is found, and that direction is either down or away. There is a hunger. All seems under the gun. There is an electricity, a summer’s buildup of static ready to discharge.

It happens in many places and with many things, this energy. Runners who have trained all summer now taper for their fall target race, skittish, antsy, almost overcome with an urge to run. Students’ long lazy summers end in a pile of unread, unwritten, uncounted work lurking on the thither side of a bell. Birds gotta fly: they’re skittish, they don’t sleep the same, they just want to go south like so many Canadian retirees at the first sign of frost.

Languages, too, grow into these seasons, these moods. Something that has always been with you but that you have never needed a word for, something that could easily have had a name from local rootstock, instead seeks abroad for its label. Somehow it feels better. The soil it grew up in is too plain, too ordinary, too expected and habituated. The familiar thing, to be seen apart from its surroundings, must go to another language for its word, returning in its new form after the winter of discontent.

These urges and these flight paths may at first seem incoherent. Perhaps you cannot make out the sense of the form: Zugunruhe. Is this Tibetan, Mongolian, Turkish? As your eyes focus you see it may be German. That ruhe, that’s something German, no? “Peace”? And zu, “to” – so is this, um, peace to the gun? But wait, what is gun in German? No, that’s not it. Your eyes zig-zag through the gauze, picking out hunger, urge, run, rotating shapes (three cups u u u and two caps n h and that electric bolt Z and…). This strange bird that we have brought back from our migrations, it has to do with…

Zug. What’s that? One of German’s more basic all-purpose words: “train, trend, way, move, push, pull, migration” und so weiter. Said like “tsook” to English minds. Plus unruhe, “restlessness”, said vaguely like “oon rooa.” Together, “migration restlessness”. Our restless need to go abroad has led to our bringing back a word for a restless need to go abroad – or, more exactly, to migrate: it’s a word for the birds.

Birds fly away, then come back, and they seem much the same. People often grow or change, though not always. The language, in its excursions, returns like a merchant ship laden with treasures. But as the exotic becomes familiar we must again seek to make the familiar exotic. Old words, fallen out of use, coat the ground and enrich the soil; new words will come to take root and add new forms and colours to the landscape.

And the time has come around again.

Thanks to Doug Linzey for suggesting Zugunruhe.

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3 responses to “Zugunruhe

  1. Wow. This was a brilliant and beautifuly written column…and the word is quite lovely, too. Thanks to you and to Doug Linzey who suggested it.

  2. Pingback: uisce | Sesquiotica

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