A family isolated by language

Arja Kajermo’s short novel The Iron Age (Tramp Press, 2017) has a few passages that describe the difficulties of being linguistically marooned when you’re a child whose family moves to another country. The narrator is a Finnish girl transplanted to Sweden in the 1950s when her father finds work there:

We were now what Mother called ummikko. We were people who could only speak our own language and we could not understand the language around us. And the people around us could not understand us. It was a terrible fate to be ummikko. It was like being deaf and dumb Mother said. Outside our own home we were like cows that could only stand and stare.

The children’s teacher, hoping to address the problem, sends a letter home with Tuomas, the girl’s brother. Their father translates it painstakingly with the help of a dictionary. Tuomas is to learn Swedish fast, and to do so he must forget his native Finnish and not speak it at all, anywhere: ‘It was for his own good and he would do better at school if he complied.’

Their mother considers this plan ‘ridiculous’, but their father accedes, being unwilling to go against the teacher’s instruction. A natural, secretive compromise ensues:

And so it came about that Mother and Tuomas and I spoke our mother tongue freely amongst ourselves only when Father was at work. Our mother tongue was a Finnish dialect that was quite different from the written language or the way people spoke in Helsinki. We twisted vowels into diphthongs, we ironed out diphthongs into long flat vowels, we added vowels between consonants, we cut out endings, we doubled up consonants inside words. All this gave a comfortable homely delivery to sentences, like the humming of a bumble bee with a bit of a cough. When we eventually made contact with other Finns who spoke proper Finnish they smiled behind their hand and said we spoke with a ‘crooked jaw’. In turn I found their oily speech unpleasant and pretentious.

I’m reminded of something Daniel Everett says about the Pirahã: apparently they refer to their own language as ‘straight head’ and to every other language, slightingly, as ‘crooked head’. Back in The Iron Age, the family’s linguistic isolation lends great importance to a ‘fantastic apparatus’ the father brings into the house one day: a radio.

When Father turned the dial you could hear all sorts of languages, French, German, Estonian, Russian … But Father had bought the radio to listen to the presidential election in Finland. Father was tremendously excited when he plugged it in. There would be no worry about wearing out the battery he said. We could listen as long as we liked. And we did. Once the radio was turned on it stayed on. I sat with him and marvelled at all the Finnish that came out of the radio. So many words in a language that I understood mostly.

The girl is enthralled by the flow of Finnish ‘like a moth at a light bulb’. But at the same time she speaks the language less and less, finding safety in silence: ‘Everything was so much easier now that I had stopped speaking. I never had to worry about saying the wrong thing.’

Kajermo’s book is finely illustrated by Susanna Kajermo-Törner and is a poignant, mordant, understated story that you’ll fly through in an hour or two. You can order it from Tramp Press.


24 Responses to A family isolated by language

  1. I’m studying Deaf Studies, so stories about bilingualism and child language acquisition are fascinating to me. It was at one time recommended that immigrant parents don’t teach their child their native language. No longer.

    I may get hold of this book.


    • Stan Carey says:

      Sad but true. Only quite recently has bilingualism become widely seen as beneficial, or at worst neutral. Studies right up to the 1960s were concluding that it was actively harmful to cognition, and this of course was often allied to familiar worries about the effects of immigration.
      It’s a very good book.

  2. Annie says:

    Such beautiful descriptions of language! The way the main character talks about their dialect got me to put the book on my to-read list.

  3. Roger says:

    A francophone lady I spoke to once said she had little opportunity to speak French outside of her home and family. As a result, she said, she considered her home French a kind of slang. She approved of my bookish version. That was a long time ago and immersion programs have boomed since.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m sure her French was perfectly fine, even if relative isolation had lent it some minor idiosyncrasies or made certain registers, such as formal styles, somewhat rusty. Interesting that she would consider it a kind of slang; family language often has that quality of insider shorthand, I think.

      • Roger says:

        In B. Traven’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre the prospectors talk less and less about anything but the work. Words are reduced to the minimum needed for communication among them.
        As miners, the men are single-mindedly less than a family.
        There must be studies of such language settings; how cell mates in prison talk to each other, for ex., — or don’t talk at all.

  4. That sounds completely brilliant, thank you!

  5. maceochi says:

    Hi Stan. Could you tell us who the translator is? This sounds like a fascinating book. The experience of the tens of thousands of Finns who had to leave Finland for Sweden, be they as children during WWII or in the postwar decades for work, is a strong motif in Finnish culture. It’s interesting to think about the language experiences of these emigrants, as they became minority speakers of a language that in their home country is a minority. That fate of being isolated by your native language cuts both ways, as nowadays many Swedish-speakers in Finland feel their language space is shrinking, even though Swedish is an official language alongside Finnish. There are – anecdotally, at least – plenty of children of bilingual marriages in Finland who never learn Swedish because the Swedish-speaking parent doesn’t feel the need to pass on the language, for whatever reason.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Ian. It is a very interesting book, working on several levels simultaneously. Social and political circumstances are conveyed but not often explicitly, since we learn about them through the eyes of the child narrator. Interesting to know that the linguistic isolation the book describes works in the other direction too. There was no translator: it seems Kajermo (who lives in Ireland) wrote the text in English.

      • maceochi says:

        I realised that after I’d left my comment and then gone off to find review of the book. An interesting enterprise, writing ficiton in your non-native language. I’d never do it. Beckett and Kundera did it with French, of course, but they were very fluent indeed.

        • Stan Carey says:

          It is a daring enterprise. Conrad and Nabokov come to mind too, and Eva Hoffman, whose memoir Lost in Translation is explicitly subtitled ‘Life in a New Language’.
          I’ve never attempted to write fiction in French or German, which I learned in school, but I did write a few stories in Irish (which was not a native language for me), one of which won a national competition; much of its prose would be opaque to me now.

  6. astraya says:

    Given that Sweden and Finland have a long land border, I’m surprised that there weren’t some other speakers around. But your precis doesn’t say where in Sweden they were (it might have been the part not near Finland).

    When I was 12, my family moved a thousand kilometres across Australia … and spoke the same language (apart from a few local/state idiosyncrasies).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, local geography is a major factor in this, and the degree to which it alters one’s linguistic environment can vary radically from one scenario to another. Have you ever written about the idiosyncratic differences you noticed when your family moved?

    • Roger says:

      Australian accent(s) is/are marvelous. I quibble on the plural because I heard once there are twenty-three (23) Australian accents. That was also a long time ago (as usual), and I don’t know whether the count was in regard to regions, social class, age (etc). If it included social class, that counters the idea of a class-free nation in the southern hemisphere; said idea may be antique by now.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Any figure like that will be arbitrary in a way, as it all depends on how you slice it. Class does seem to feature in Australian sociolinguistics; the podcast Talk the Talk discusses it regularly enough.

        • Deb Kean says:

          If Australia is anything like New Zealand it’s not at all classless!
          As an immigrant from England my father was fed up with being told New Zealand was classless, while being kept at the bottom, as a mechanic.

          • astraya says:

            Only a determined ‘splitter’ could get to a figure anywhere near 23 different Australian accents. I’m a ‘lumper’ and I would say 4 – broad, general, cultivated and Aboriginal. There are also second-language-speaker and children-of-second-language-speaker accents (who outnumber the Aborigines), but how do you classify them?

            Almost every Australian English speaker can understand each other, unless they are deliberately trying not to.

            An anecdote: in 2002 I travelled to England. Our choir was hosted by the Birmingham Symphony Chorus, some of whom spoke RP and some of whom spoke somewhere on a scale of ‘Brummie’. I also interacted with people around the city. At one point I commented about the incomprehensibility of Brummie and someone said ‘If you want incomprehensible, just go to Wlvrhmptn’. Wolverhampton is 25 kilometres away. Nowhere in general Australia is there that variety of accent. Even in places where different Aboriginal languages are spoken, people also speak Kriol, or broad Australian English.

          • Yes!
            My father was from Liverpool, and his accent was very distinctive. Manchester is just 34.1 miles along the road and the accent is completely different!

          • astraya says:

            I can’t tell Manchester from Liverpool! Through lack of practice, they’re both ‘northern England’ to me!

          • astraya says:

            Speech-wise, that is.

  7. astraya says:

    There’s a balanced discussion on dialects and learning on LLOG, with special reference to African American English wrt Mainstream American English (their term): http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=37845

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