Study Guide

The History of Love Language and Communication

By Nicole Krauss

Language and Communication

We often sit together at my kitchen table. The whole afternoon might go by without our saying a word. If we do talk, we never speak in Yiddish. The words of our childhood became strangers to us—we couldn't use them in the same way and so we chose not to use them at all. Life demanded a new language. (1.10)

What begins as a statement of preference for silence ends with a statement about the inability to speak. What has so separated the men from their youth that they can no longer speak Yiddish?

The reason she had to learn to read it was because it was written in Spanish. [...] During the second week of term, she bought a used bicycle and rode around tacking up posters that said WANTED: HEBREW TUTOR, because languages came easily to her, and she wanted to be able to understand my father. [...] My mother was also teaching herself Spanish out of a book called Teach Yourself Spanish. (2.10)

Alma describes her parents as having already fallen in love, although they can't yet "understand" each other.

Sometimes pages of the dictionaries come loose and gather at her feet. [...] When I was little, I thought that the pages on the floor were words she would never be able to use again, and I tried to tape them back in where they belonged, out of fear that one day she would be left silent. (2.25)

Isn't this a crazy idea? Do you think this stems from Alma's fixation with words, her mother's, or some combination of the two?

[...] at the table next to her was a little boy in a soccer uniform sitting with his mother who told him, The plural of elf is elves. A wave of happiness came over me. It felt giddy to be part of it all. To be drinking a cup of coffee like a normal person. I wanted to shout out: The plural of elf is elves! What a language! What a world! (4.6)

Leo's consciousness is so closely tied to written expression that his epiphany about the miracle of human existence, of course, ends up having a linguistic basis.

Tatiana's English wasn't very good, and often I couldn't understand her letters. But I waited for them eagerly. (5.3)

Alma is so desperate for friendship that actually being able to communicate with said friend is really not so important to her.

6. IF I HAD A RUSSIAN ACCENT EVERYTHING WOULD BE DIFFERENT (5.7)

Alma chalks up the awkwardness between Misha and her to sheer linguistics. If only she didn't speak such perfect English, everything would be so much easier. This may or may not be totally bogus, gang.

So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves. [...]

There was a time when it wasn't uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations. (6.4, 6.5, 6.8)

This passage considers the possibility of language having volition, an agenda of its own. How does this change our understanding of human interaction?

It took me a moment. And then I realized the difference. He was speaking to me in Yiddish. (7.82)

Considering what Leo has previously told us about him and Bruno never speaking Yiddish, this can be read either as a sign of their coming together or drifting apart. (This gets even more complicated in light of the fact that Bruno doesn't really, you know, exist.)

It took seven languages to make me; it would be nice if I could have spoken just once. But I couldn't, so he leaned down and kissed me. (8.27)

Here "the language of love," so to speak, is used as a substitute for the language of words. That is, if Alma had been able to speak, then kissing would not have been an option. Does this mean the two are incompatible?

On the other side of the wall, Misha's mother shouted something at his father. […] His father started to shout back at his mother. "What are they fighting about?" I asked. Misha pulled his head back. A thought crossed his face in a language I couldn't understand. I wondered if things were going to change between us. "Merde," he said. "What does that mean?" I asked, and he said, "It's French." He tucked a strand of my hair around my ear, and started to kiss me again. [...] "Don't," I said, and sat up. (8.28)

Let's set the scene: the teenagers are making out, and the parents are arguing in another room in a language the girl can't understand. Then the boy saying something in a language she can't understand, and she decides it's time to go. But what's up with the thought crossing his face in a language she can't understand? There are all kinds of miscommunication (or bad communication) happening in this little exchange, and language is at the heart of all of it.