Friday, October 17, 2008


Today I bought laundry detergent.

This would hardly be worthy of a blog entry except that it led to an insight of sorts. As I stood in the German supermarket in front of a row of cleaning products, I thought: This is what it feels like to not be able to read. None of the product names conveyed any information to me whatsoever. Which was for cleaning clothes, which for cleaning toilets, which for cleaning windows, which for cleaning me? The only way I could tell was by pictures, which were in short supply on the containers. Finally I found a tiny logo of what I hope is a washing machine and not a dishwasher (or possibly a xerox copier) and I bought it. I hope it doesn't do awful things to my tee shirts and jeans.

This was a profoundly unsettling experience. I can't remember a time when I couldn't read, a time when I didn't read voraciously. Last night, when it was windy and raining and I stayed happily in, I was reading an SF novel, Hunter's Run by George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham. The book was absorbing and satisfying. It's difficult for me to imagine a life where that experience doesn't happen nearly daily. And yet for millions of people, presumably it doesn't. Half of India, to take just one example, is illiterate.

My purchase is called "Perwoll." I hope it's intended for laundry.


markus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
markus said...

Yes, Perwoll is for laundry :-)

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Lordy. That EXACT experience is what I remember about my first days in Iceland. It was profoundly unsettling. And in Iceland, I couldn't even read things phonetically at first.

TheOFloinn said...

Reading German signage is easier than speaking. A lot of nouns are very like English: Hund (hound), Ohre (ear), Nase (nose), Markt (market), Schuh (shoe). If you pronounced English (one) the way it it spelled, you'd get close to "ein." Even some compound words you can figure out: Handschuh (hand-shoe = glove). (Learned that from my grandfather, Dutch Flynn.) "Buchhandlung" is (book-handling), a bookstore. It "handles" books. You can also tell by all the books in the window.

(Back home, every year on Grundsau Day the paper reports the meeting of the "Grundsau Lodge Nummer Ains". And the Allentown paper used to have a weekly column: Pennsylfawnishe Deitche Eck. [Pennsylvania German spelling is not Hochdeutch spelling, but phonetically it's a Swabian dialect.])

Of course, some compound words are difficult: Fernschnellzugmitschlafenzimmerwagen is definitely a mouthful.

Now, in Budapest, there I really felt illiterate. Magyar words bear no resemblance to anything Indo-European. Oddly, Tamil didn't have the same effect. My brain didn't "see" the squiggles as "letters/words".)

When she was living in Amman, my daughter and her husband hired an Egyptian woman as a housekeeper. She was illiterate, the first such person Sara had ever met. She had to go down to the lobby and bring her up on the elevator because she had no idea what the squiggles on the elevator buttons meant. Even after they showed her - this means "2" - they had to go fetch her the next day. It just wouldn't stick.

Is there an age by when if you haven't learned to read, you never will?

Orion said...

For my first trip to the grocery store in beautiful downtown Amsterdam, I was accompanied by a native. Most of the food you can figure out from the pretty pictures on the package, but cleaning supplies are another matter.

I picked up a book and gave myself a crash course in Dutch a month before I left home, and then filled in the gaps with my German when I got there. Now, the Dutch will tell you that this is impossible, as their language is nothing like German (huff, huff), but I found the differences to be minor. If you account for the spelling changes, you can use your German vocabulary to read in the Netherlands. Or vice-versa, one presumes.

I never quite had the feeling of being illiterate, but it was really slow going- I could read about every third word, and had to guess the rest. It's a peculiar feeling, as if the words are being deliberately unsociable and resisting you. The letters form readable patterns, but you stare at them and there's no connection to concepts in your brain.

I do feel illiterate when I am faced with non-Roman scripts. Sometimes even the sense that I am looking at the written word is missing.

alau said...

I totally hear you. I'm living in Japan now and one of the first things I bought was a guidebook called "How to buy food in Japan." I've been here for about 3 months and I've started learning katakana, but when I go to a restaurant sometimes, it's still a matter of guessing.

Nancy Kress said...

Orion and Mike--
Yes, you're both right -- a combination of sounding out words to find English analogues and outright guessing is helping. I actually have a dictionary with me, but since I'm walking miles every day, every extra thing to carry becomes an exaggerated burden. Women's clothes seldom have enough useful pockets.

Mark said...

Then there's that new Gen-Y language, "txt" :-)

TheOFloinn said...

Then there's that new Gen-Y language, "txt" :-)

OTOH, I sat next to an elderly, white-haired dame on the airplane this morning -- and she was txt'ing double-thumbed like an old pro.....


Ja, I've always thought of Dutch as the arithmetic average of English and German. Add the two together, divide by two and, hey presto: Dutch. I remember seeing a sign by the road: Lett Opp. Makes sense when you say it aloud: Let up; meaning Yield.

Methinks the difficulties come in because English has so many French words to replace the "crude" Anglo-Saxon words. Otherwise, out Yield signs would say Let Up, too; and our restaurants would be Eatinghouses.

Daniel said...

It is truly an odd experience, to not be able to read.

I had it easy, as far as languages go. I was in Peru for a time. Even though Spanish is one of the easiest languages for English-speakers to learn, it's still disconcerting to look around and not know what anything means (or what anyone is saying).

My cousin knows Mandarin, and I envy him (after having watched all of the "Firefly" episodes for the first time).

Unknown said...

I never thought of it like that.

My step-father is functionally illiterate. Street signs and numbers and some basic words. I've wondered what that was like for him. My mom passed last week, and now my job for the next couple of months is helping dad adjust. I've been trying to figure out how to relate so I could explain things to him as far as buying things or other stuff that requires some reading. This actually helps me a bit as I can think back to my experiences in Germany and India.