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.