The Language of Emptiness

I’m sitting in an empty coffee shop. Earlier, when I ordered my trusty cup of Darjeeling No. 10, the barista dutifully apprised me that the Wi-Fi signal was down. Maybe this muting of technology’s mouth has something to do with the emptiness of the shop.

So what happens when technology gets a sore throat and can’t talk?

Well, besides myself, two young university linguists are sitting on a couch. Their backpacks, laptops and cell phones, which are all spread around them like dashboard instruments, are all closed up and turned off. They’re talking while I’m listening from the opposite wall. I’m convinced they’re the only people tonight in all of Northern Indiana who are discussing the pronunciations of words and how they are filtered through various regional accents. It’s so nerdy. I love it.

Have you ever considered, for example, the myriad of phonetic variations which can be applied just to the word “shoes”? These girls have.

But as their conversation progresses, their sounds grow stranger and more foreign. “Ye.” “Da.” “Yon.” “Agn.” “Dow.” The awkward, meaningless syllables reverberate across the empty tables.

Later, the barista walks out to spray the tables and clear piles of abandoned newspapers. The lights and music dim a little more. The shop is about to close.

And I’m not alone in my eavesdropping. Between swipes and without making eye contact, the barista asks if they’re learning Chinese?

“We’re just memorizing words,” answers one. “It’s not very interesting.”

“What are you learning?”

“Everything,” she replies. She offers an example. “We’re learning how to ask, ‘How do you order beer?’ I guess it’s a big cultural thing to learn when you’re there.”

It turns out they are preparing to travel to China sometime in the near future as part of their university-required study/service term.

It also turns out that the barista has had several years of Chinese language training herself. Small world. She offers to share her books and workbooks with them, if they’d like. “Sure,” they say. It was difficult to know whether their enthusiasm was real or contrived. The polite conversation taking place across several tabletops leads to a “potential” invitation to get together sometime and practice speaking.

Somewhere in the exchange someone came up with a solution. “I’ll just text you or send you a message on Facebook or something.” There was a sense, though, that this vague and formless electronic, or otherwise, rendez-vous would never actually happen.

The barista then continued along her rehearsed path, silently, through a dry forest of coffee-ringed and crumb-ridden tables.

The two girls continued talking. “Orange juice?”

“Chung shu.” She tried again. “Shi … sheu.”

Language is interesting, especially when there’s something missing.

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