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.
I recently read Margaret Atwood’s Poems 1976–1986, a collection published by Virago Press. While doing so I tweeted an excerpt on her birthday, before I knew it was her birthday: a happy synchronicity. Below are some lines that deal explicitly with language and words.
From ‘Four Small Elegies’:
A language is not words only,
it is the stories
that are told in it,
the stories that are never told.
This verse echoes something Muriel Rukeyser once wrote (‘The universe is made of stories, / not of atoms’), but with a lurch into loss. Atwood’s ‘Two-Headed Poems’ returns repeatedly to the subject of a language’s decline or supersession by another:
Daniel Everett is best known for his controversial research into the Pirahã language, which he popularised in a book called Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (steadily crawling up my to-read mountain.) The post title is a phrase adapted from Carlos Fuentes, which Everett used in a talk titled “Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge”:
[T]he general principle that makes languages alike or different is very simple. You talk like who you talk with, so if you talk with somebody all the time, you’ll talk like them, and if you don’t talk to them, eventually you won’t talk like them at all. So, languages live like bread and love, by being shared with others.
But languages die also, and languages die in one of two ways. First way is that the speakers actually die, and so if the speakers of a language die out the language is going to die . . . . Another reason languages die is because the speakers stop speaking – speakers lived but they shifted to another language. So, the languages that are gone, usually won’t come back.
The full lecture, delivered at the Long Now Foundation, is on Fora.tv, where you can download the video, audio, and not-very-accurate transcript. It’s a fascinating discussion of a remarkable language and it gives an idea of what we can lose when a language dies. [Edit: Here’s a short clip.]
For more on Everett’s work and the Pirahã language, I recommend this post at Language Log and Everett’s old page at Illinois State University.