It’s a truism that language is integral to identity. So when our relationship with it changes, complications quickly accrue: Do we become someone different in another tongue? Is that all down to culture and context, or is there something inherent in a language that affects who we feel ourselves to be? And what happens when we start our lives speaking one language but then switch to another?
These are among the questions explored, with heart and rigour, in Julie Sedivy’s new book, Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self (available October 2021 from Harvard University Press, who sent me a copy). Sedivy was born in the former Czechoslovakia and spoke only Czech until the age of two. At that point her family left the country, then the continent, and her linguistic environment was transformed.
As a child in Canada, Sedivy was suddenly surrounded by English, heard it animate her new friends and role models, and felt compelled to adopt it. English ‘elbowed its predecessors aside’ and became the family language: ‘What could my parents do? They were outnumbered. Czech began its slow retreat from our daily life’. The consequences were not yet apparent to her; ‘the price of assimilation was invisible’.
Years later, after losing her father, Sedivy came to realize ‘how much I also mourned the silencing of Czech in my life’. Her Czech heritage had come to feel like a ‘vestigial organ’. She had lost access to the ‘stories and songs that articulate the values and norms you’ve absorbed without knowing they live in your cells’. She wrote Memory Speaks as part of an effort to ameliorate and understand that loss, exploring
why a language can wither in a person’s mind once it has taken root, what this decline looks like, and how the waning of language can take on a magnitude that spreads beyond personal pain to collective crisis.
Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline has a passage on the challenges (and opportunities) of using a second language. The narrator is giving a writing workshop in Athens and meets a woman who describes her experiences outside of English:
She wasn’t quite sure how the language barrier was going to work: it was a funny idea, writing in a language not your own. It almost makes you feel guilty, she said, the way people feel forced to use English, how much of themselves must get left behind in that transition, like people being told to leave their homes and take only a few essential items with them. Yet there was also a purity to that image that attracted her, filled as it was with possibilities for self-reinvention. To be freed from clutter, both mental and verbal, was in some ways an appealing prospect; until you remembered something you needed that you had had to leave behind. She, for instance, found herself unable to make jokes when she spoke in another language: in English she was by and large a humorous person, but in Spanish for instance – which at one time she had spoken quite well – she was not. So it was not, she imagined, a question of translation so much as one of adaptation. The personality was forced to adapt to its new linguistic circumstances, to create itself anew: it was an interesting thought. There was a poem, she said, by Beckett that he had written twice, once in French and once in English, as if to prove that his bilinguality made him two people and that the barrier of language was, ultimately, impassable.
A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein
Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.
This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.
Languages often borrow from one another: it’s a common source of linguistic growth and change. Normally what gets borrowed is words, called ‘loans’, ‘loanwords’, or ‘borrowings’ (though the terms suggest eventual return, which isn’t how it works). Any word that isn’t a loanword is a native word.
English is a frequent borrower, being full of loanwords from many other languages. This ability to integrate foreign forms is one reason for its success. And it goes both ways: because of English’s status and reach, it’s a common ‘donor language’ for others. The World Loanword Database is a useful resource on the phenomenon.
Less often, other linguistic elements are borrowed, like grammatical structures or pronunciations. An example of the former is because X, a popular construction in informal English.* I first wrote about because X in 2013, elsewhere picking it as my word of the year (the American Dialect Society later did likewise). Such was its impact that the phrase was discussed not just by linguists but by moremainstreamoutlets.
In idle half-hours I’ve been watching Danger Mouse on a DVD I picked up for the price of a croissant. As well as being enjoyably daft and wryly amusing, it’s a trip down memory lane; my sister and I loved the cartoon as children.
Browsing its Wikipedia page, I see that it was even more popular than I supposed, placing third (behind The Muppet Show and The Simpsons) in a UK Channel 4 list of the top 100 children’s TV shows of all time. It had a fantastic theme tune too:
Puns and silly wordplay are a constant (‘Shooting star? Crumbs! I didn’t even know they were loaded’). In an episode titled ‘I Spy With My Little Eye…’, written by Brian Trueman and directed by Keith Scoble, there is an exchange rich in overt linguistic humour, excerpted here.
Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful. —Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces
Just a quick post to praise Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces, which I recommend without reservation. As a general reference point I might suggest Primo Levi, or Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, but these are only approximate markers.
For a proper flavour of this extraordinary book, see her Guardian interview and the excerpts below, which I’ve chosen only because they’re language related; every page contains treasure of a different sort – on memory, loss, love, longing, pain, grace, and connection.
The narrator of part I, a Polish child hiding from Nazi forces in ‘a delirium of sleep and attention’, starving and terrified, remembers his sister, Bella, crying at the end of Jack London and Romain Rolland stories:
I’ve been reading Flann O’Brien again, having picked up Hair of the Dogma (Paladin, 1989), a selection from his riotous Irish Times column ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, which he wrote under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen. (Brian O’Nolan was the writer’s real name; he had many pseudonyms, of which Flann O’Brien is probably the best known.)
Because Myles excelled at satire and wore many masks, it is hard to tell sometimes just how serious or truthful he is being. But I believe this passage from his article ‘J.J. and Us’ (J.J. meaning James Joyce), about a plan to translate Ulysses into Irish, to be essentially on the level:
I suppose uncertainty is the handmaid of all grandiose literary projects. Many motives lay behind that 1951 decision of mine to translate Joyce’s Ulysses into Irish. If they won’t read it in English, I said to myself, bedamn but we’ll put them in the situation that they can boast they won’t read it in Irish aither.
It’s work, though. And black thoughts encloister me, like brooding buzzards. Is it worth being accurate if nobody will ever read the translation? What’s the Irish for Robert Emmet? And who will put Irish on this fearsome thing written by Joyce himself: Suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus, suil go cuin.
See the snares in this business, doom impending, heart-break?