mother tongue english and how it got that way
Inheritance in the Mother Tongue
Every man is a prisoner of his language, (…)
The first word he speaks is a sign which places him as a whole
and proclaims his whole personal history.
Roland Barthes (tr. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith)
Every generation uses language
to build its own resonant past.
Whatever shape the exile takes,
language is what remains in us.
1. Defective Inheritances
Inheritance is a reaffirmation of what is assigned to us and a reactivation of its contents through an act of betrayal on the part of the inheritor: to not leave the mandate received intact but to interrupt it, execute it, betray it, transform it, as a way of being faithful to it, even at the cost of its loss or abandonment. The inheritor is the one that gives a new life to the mandate, which involves not just its reception but, above all, its intervention. Saying yes to the inheritance does not mean choosing it or replicating it but submitting it to another’s will, making it speak in another way, opening it to new developments and outcomes, ultimately keeping it alive, which also means sacrificing it.
The inheritor is put to the test when they decode the legacy and risk their eyes trying to understand the secrets within it. Reading this familiar and foreign language that inheritance constitutes is what the mandate means to transmit: not so much to understand what is meant but to understand that it is impossible to say it and that its content is not transferable.
The reflection on inheritance is an unavoidable question when thinking about memory divided on the tongue and about the literature that is written from the leap between one language and another.
2. Sounds of Memory
Memory is a matter of hearing. It is not possible to remember except within a language, and memory is the way that language sounds. This represents, then, its most intimate zone, the place where the past acquires a sonorous form and becomes the effect and affect of a voice. To remember is a sound that is heard, a verbal material that the memory solicits so that the murmur of the past unfurls.
The mother tongue is the first memory, and in it the pure sound of identity is made audible because there, where the mother is heard, belonging is a sonorous possibility, a happening of the voice, an affectivity of the tongue.
All past is determined by a language that creates it as it says it. That language that is the past is also its possibility of existence. It is the recognition of a voice that drives the subject to react before that call that is always and only a matter of hearing that questions its deepest private life.
How does memory speak when it is made and said by more than one tongue; when the very core of it fractures in the mother, in that compact and singular sonority that is given to us as the “origin”? How does the past sound when it is determined by an in-between linguistic space that ruptures the sense of belonging or makes that sense of belonging an unsettled place? About this interstitial condition founded on the concomitance and simultaneity in a subject of more than one language, the French-Argentine writer Héctor Bianciotti says: “Every language forces us to lie because it excludes one part of us, it excludes one part of the facts, of our very selves; but in the lie there is an affirmation and it is a way of being in another moment; many languages that live together at the same time negate us, fragment us, scatter us within ourselves.”
This argument signals a close relationship between language and experience by showing how speaking and remembering are acts experienced in a language that determines a specific form for feeling what happens, anchored in the language in which this happened and evoked through their linguistic specificity. Therefore, memory is also the tongue in which the past happened, as if its most intimate truth were in the language in which the events were experienced and in the way these sound in memory.
For bilingual or multilingual subjects, the maternal language is a problematic and difficult-to-inhabit plural, as if the mother were also that which separates us from her only to return us to her protection through the fracture caused by having heard her name in another language, which implies its shattering into an irreversible dispersion.
In the autobiographical book Monolingualism of the Other (tr. Patrick Mensah, 1998), Jacques Derrida wonders, from his Franco-Maghrebi condition, how it is possible to be monolingual, to have one language that at the same time is not your own: “I only have one language; it is not mine.” This “contradiction” poses the idea that the mother tongue is not one but more than one; that is, that it never is just one because in it dwell, in a problematic simultaneity, other languages that reveal the interior presence of a radical alterity that makes the ownership of and in the language impossible.
For a multilingual subject, the mother tongue, the “birth as it relates to language,” is a state of alteration where various forces struggle for the power to name and to sound memory from a specific linguistic belonging; it is an in-between where nothing is pacified or appeased but rather where every effort forges its way and expresses itself right there where it breaks and is wounded.
In The Tongue Set Free (tr. Joachim Neugroschel, 1979), Elías Canetti, a writer divided among several languages, reflects on the existing relationship between language and experience when he observes: “Each deformation of the words afflicts me, as if the words were creatures sensitive to pain,” and, referring to his in-between-languages condition, he observes: “I heard them [fairy tales] in Bulgarian, but I know them in German; this mysterious translation is perhaps the oddest thing that I have to tell about my youth.”
It is worth noting how Canetti defines that childhood wound that is traversing the in-between languages by calling it “mysterious translation,” or “transposition” in its Spanish translation, because it emphasizes the movement required to go from one place to another, toward that beyond of a language, through a “mysterious” route where you walk over two languages without being totally sure where one ends and the other begins. This not knowing is what determines the form of childhood in memory, its enigmatic way of sounding.
If the mother tongue as a wounded tongue is capable of constituting “the oddest thing about my youth,” the experience of an irreparable fracture makes his memory possible from that place where his language breaks; in the same way, this can become a criminal tongue capable of killing his children and leaving them without a tomb.
Joseph Brodsky, in a moving essay titled “In a Room and a Half” (1985), writes about his childhood in Russia, where he lived with his parents in a fifty-square-foot apartment, and looks back on different episodes from his family’s past. Throughout the text he expresses his pain and indignation at the injuries that his parents suffered from Stalinist totalitarianism and at the death that the terror machine caused. The way he chooses to take charge of the irreparable damage inscribed in his genealogy is writing about their lives in English. With this gesture he extirpates his parents’ body from the mother tongue, Russian, and transplants it in a foreign tongue so that he can give them a more dignified burial by housing them in the foreignness of his land and of his dictation:
I want Maria Volpert and Alexander Brodsky to acquire reality under a “foreign code of conscience,” I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements. This won’t resurrect them, but English grammar may at least prove to be a better escape route from the chimney of the state crematorium than the Russian. To write about them in Russian would be only to further their captivity, their reduction to insignificance, resulting in mechanical annihilation. I know that one shouldn’t equate the state with language but it was in Russian that two old people, shuffling through numerous state chancelleries and ministries in the hope of obtaining a permit to go abroad for a visit to see their only son before they died, were told repeatedly, for twelve years in a row, that the state considers such a visit “unpurposeful.” […] May English then house my parents. In Russian I am prepared to read, write verses or letters. For Maria Volpert and Alexander Brodsky, though, English offers a better semblance of an afterlife, maybe the only one there is, save my very self. And as far as the latter is concerned, writing this in this language is like doing those dishes: it is therapeutic.
Brodsky confronts the mother tongue to reject and disown it, to signal its corruption and complicity with the totalitarian beast. Writing the story of his parents in English, opting for a foreign language, which is his adopted language once he moved to the United States, implies signaling the sinister dimension of the mother tongue converted into deafening sound, into incomprehensible, corrupt jargon in order to bury the memory of his last name. Writing in the name of his parents in a foreign language means, then, making his history sound in another way, pulling his bodies from the meaninglessness of extinction to inscribe in them another resonance capable of moving them far from the criminal tongue. He achieves it as such, through the “outside” of the language, that “unpurposeful” journey that the writing vicariously carries out by remembering them with the syntax of another language and attributing to them the meaning that the mother tongue denied them by taking away their life.
3. The Languages of Literature
Literature is a space that registers the sounds of memory and accounts for that being between languages in which the identity of a subject, a community, a nation is at play. There are numerous cases in which writers and intellectuals who, after wars, upon emigrating to other European countries and other continents, experience this wound in the mother tongue that drives them to make a home and to work in other languages.
Names like Walter Benjamin, Elias Canetti, Ezra Pound, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Hannah Arendt, Joseph Brodsky, Hélèn Cixous, Jacques Derrida are central figures of a literature and a thought marked by bilingualism and multilingualism, the displacement between cultures and imaginaries, translation, contamination, exchange. Their works demonstrate how cultures and languages change, emigrate, and are exiled, and how that uncomfortable, unutterable in-between place where they find themselves and rub against one another defines ways of thinking and making literature as much as making one’s own language.
If we consider the case of Latin American literature, it is worth noting the presence in its tradition, both older and more recent, of foreign voices and languages that reveal the difficulty of drawing a line between the self and the other, the national and the foreign, within the notion of the national literary corpus. Authors like Vicente Gerbasi, Witold Gombrowitz, Arnaldo Calveyra, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, Roberto Raschella, Sylvia Molloy, Fabio Morábito, Sergio Chejfec, Arturo Carrera, Márgara Russotto, Raúl Zurita are just some of the voices that stage, through distinct poetics, that wound in the mother tongue crisscrossed by so many cultural, political, social, and aesthetic implications.
Before the constant processes of migrations and displacements of subjects, languages, cultures, memories, facing the increasing circulation of writers beyond their national borders, it becomes necessary to pose a concept of the national canon that is less rigid and more permeable to plurality, contact, looming legacies and their reciprocal indebtedness. A canon that is understood not from the criteria of permanence and homogeneity, but from instability and strangeness, from the inclusion of clandestine voices, barely audible but not any less powerful in what they contribute to the process of forming and questioning a national literature.
Ricardo Piglia, one of the critics who has given the most attention to the problem of the ways literature uses inheritances that define it, asks how literature (he alludes to the Argentine case) is traversed by subterranean currents, by foreign and minor languages that activate “mechanisms of falsification, the tendency toward robbery, translation as plagiarism, mixture, the combination of registers, the disorder of affiliations.” This grouping of foreign sonorities of minimal or small visibility “irreverently” disperses and fractures the national corpus, weakening its stability and coherence. It is the “conspiracy” that these minor languages plot in the majority language, the confrontation between the “superior” and “inferior,” the familiar and the strange, the crossing of languages where things are made strange and become uncertain, which demonstrates how a literature is also a story of its disintegration and betrayal.
Following this same line of reflection in an essay about Jewish literature, Sergio Chejfec emphasizes the importance of that interstitial space where the limits of language and culture are blurred when he says: “A similar circumstance took place in Latin America, whose most complex and aesthetically inspired literature is not that which is immediately emblematic, that which is identified with the outward gaze, but that which tends to be written on the blurry border of cultural traditions, confusing the notions of the self and other.”
Both Piglia and Chejfec recognize the importance of having a notion of a national literature that is not only centered on the most representative books or on those that tradition marks as the most emblematic, but also on those marked, as the author of Artificial Respiration says, by the “strangeness of the language,” with the knowledge that “the crystallized forms of literary language, the ways and manias of the styles made conventional negate any music of the language because in the darkest and most hopeless places you can capture the tones of a new style.”
It is worth asking ourselves, then, what happens when the writer leaves “their house” and emigrates, is exiled, is displaced to other geographic destinations? How do the writers who “are outside” relate to their language and how do they inscribe themselves, or not, into that diffused, inapprehensible, and increasingly disseminated and delocalized construction that is national literature?
Sylvia Molloy, in her book Poeticas de la distancia. Adentro y afuera de la literatura argentina [Poetics of distance: inside and outside Argentine literature] (2006), responds to this question when she says that the migrant writer must “make their own language—generally derived from the methods of translation that are transformed into a mode of survival in the new culture and the possibility/necessity of constructing a personal “library” through loans, appropriations, and exchanges—a collection of new references capable of creatively articulating that new private language with the normative tradition of the culture that they knew to be their own and that they now perceive as something ominous, both foreign and familiar”.
This language of their own that Molloy talks about, the result of a process of transformation and change that is produced when the language leaves its sphere of belonging and opens up to an exterior that diverts it, fractures it, intensifies it, makes it doubt the correct use of its syntax and grammar, is the only language possible for those who are on the outside. Their wounded state, their being the edge of what is utterable, their imbalance and intensity reveal their affective dimension because the language is also capable of feeling and making itself felt through its mode of sounding and vibrating, of being off-key and out of tune. This sound that writing emits, its passage between languages as an audible journey that makes sonic the verbal material of which literature is made, is the place where memory weaves its most secret story and shows the complexity of its plot.
Translated by Sarah Booker