With a film adaptation out, and Airborne Toxic Events occurring in reality, it seemed a good time to revisit White Noise, Don DeLillo’s great seriocomic novel of the mid-1980s. Its protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies preoccupied by an upcoming conference, because he doesn’t speak German.
Gladney begins taking private German lessons, recounting the experience in his wry, anxious voice. Spoiler note: little of what follows has any real bearing on the plot, and it’s not a particularly plot-driven book, but you may prefer to back out if you haven’t read White Noise and might soon.
For much of the previous millennium, a pidgin language was used around the Mediterranean for trading, diplomatic, and military purposes. Based originally on Italian and Occitano-Romance languages, it had indirect ties to the Germanic Franks and thus gained the term lingua franca.
Nowadays that phrase tends to be applied to Latin or English. Latin’s time as the default international language of learning ended long ago; English’s status as a lingua franca is still broader but very much in flux – and politically fraught, simultaneously uniting and dividing the world.
Having a lingua franca brings great benefits for travel, business, politics, and research: witness the speed at which Covid-19 vaccines were developed through international scientific collaboration. But English’s primacy rests on centuries of violence and exploitation. The power dynamics have shifted but remain unbalanced and entangled with complex threads of post-colonial identity.
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.
English is a famously irregular language, its grammar laden with exceptions to the rules. This is largely a result of English being a mosaic of different languages. To its originally Germanic structure were added heavy layers of vocabulary from Latin, French, and elsewhere, over centuries of use. This prolonged and complex mixing of influences led to the lack of uniformity we find in English verb patterns today.
Past tense and past participle verb forms are the focus of the post, which includes a brief quiz: Can you solve these, for example? 1. Once again the dog had [lay] its head on her lap. 2. He remembered he had [drink] the cocktail before. The point being, even native English-speakers struggle with some of these verbs.
Ask people to put elementary in a sentence, and many will quote a famous catchphrase by Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ (sometimes without the possessive determiner: ‘Elementary, dear Watson’). The expression, generally used humorously, has taken on a life of its own, with a separate entry in Macmillan Dictionary that says it means something is ‘very easy to understand or solve’. But all is not as it seems.
It turns out that in Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels starring Holmes, the detective never once says the line, with or without the ‘my’. I dig into the etymology.
‘Don’t belittle this word’: Sometimes a word is hated with a passion, by many people, for many years, and then new generations arrive and think nothing of it:
If you were told that a word had ‘no chance of becoming English’ and should be ‘abandoned to the incurably vulgar’, you would not guess that the word is belittle. It seems so ordinary and uncontroversial nowadays. But those quotes, from Fitzedward Hall in 1872, reflect real historical antagonism to it. ‘For shame, Mr. Jefferson!’ spluttered an article in the London Review, criticizing the Founding Father for coining it.
With all the anxious commentary now reduced to a quaint historical footnote, I review the word’s history and the gradual but ultimately radical shift in people’s attitudes to it.
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: