A writer tells the story of teaching English to asylum-seekers in Rome, and meditates on the different “grammars” a person must learn when they’ve fled their home in search of a new life:

The guys understood what, where, how, and when. But why, the word itself, stopped us dead. Not every language has its equivalent. (Italian, French, and Arabic use perché, pourquoi, and limaadhaa—literally, “for what”?) But the real point of confusion was that “why” sounded like “y.” I’d be spelling out “d-r-y” or “a-s-y-l-u-m,” and someone would invariably shoot up a hand and say, “For what a why in this word?” (Never mind the convoluted history of “y,” a consonant, vowel, and/or semivowel, depending on context. It’s the “Greek i” in Romance languages—“i grec,” “i greca”—but the OED has its English origins as “obscure.” Even as a syllable, it’s confounding.)

Another big problem with “why” was that it brought us straight into the abstract. Other interrogative terms typically solicit specific information. Where does this bus go? When is lunch? How do I get to the train station? Why, on the other hand, brings us to causality and complexity but not always clarity. The causes and effects that ruled my students’ lives were so tied up with the vagaries of geopolitics that they had both the diagrammable logic of a sentence and the fluidity and chaos of the weather. Why didn’t the northern European nations, which have the most resources, do more to relieve the burden of the crisis upon southern European nations, which have the least? Why did every right-wing politician rant about bootstrapping yourself up, yet demonize immigrants for trying to do just that? Why did Norway accept so many Afghans one month and almost none the next? Why would Belgium give your wife and children asylum but deport you?