Shaun Levin

The Language in Our Mouths

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 24, 2011 at 11:40 am

The language we write in is not the same as the one we speak in. It may seem to be the same, it may have the same words and the same grammar, but it is not the same language, in that it is not the same material, because its function is different. To write authentically, in a voice that is uniquely our own, we have to try and capture the words as we learnt them first, unfettered, our first encounter with language, the language we spoke when we were coming into ourselves, into who we were and our understanding of the world. We have to write first and foremost in that tongue that was spoken to us and which we spoke for the first years of our life. That is the language through which the world came into being, in which objects and feelings and landscapes were first named, and that is the language we must write in. Thos are the words that resonate with the first discovery. (Just as writing by hand puts the body in touch with the first time we learnt to write, with that first discovery of what happens when we put lines and squiggles on a page and they mean something.)

This is always a difficult issue in a workshop situation when working with people who are new to English, but still want to write in English. Even though they are not fluent in it, nor fluid. You have to feel that you can swim in a language, that you can move with fluidity and without thinking. All you have to do is move your limbs and you can move. Once you can swim you cannot remember what it was like not to swim. So it is with language; very rarely do we remember where and when and under what circumstances we learnt a word. Not the word “very” nor “rarely” nor “do” nor “we” nor “remember”. I would question what is it that people who want to write in a language that is not their own are escaping from. What do they want to avoid in their own language that writing in another language would not confront them with. A language that is not our own can only tentatively and incompletely and unsuccessfully take us back to the formation of our selves, to the core of us.

And yet, with that, writers are people who remember their fascination with language, especially if we have grown up with more than one language around us and witnessed how each word opens up our universe. I remember phrases in Afrikaans that I learnt from my father, questions I asked him about them, and that moment of the word being translated, and once it is translated it is mine, too, not just belonging to those who know. I remember the phrase “tussen die boom en die bas” from my father and “al dran aapn goue ring, bly hy nogn lelike ding“. And I remember words from Agnes, the woman who worked in my father’s house from before I was born. The woman who was referred to as the maid or the nanny or the help. But no different, I sometimes think, though thirty years have passed since I last saw her, than a mother. I remember listening to her speak with Maud or Cecilia or Johnson, any one of the other women and men who lived with us in those years that I grew up in South Africa, that land of multiple languages.

And I remember the fascination with English too, for somehow, even though English was the language I grew up in, there was always a sense that it was a second language, a language from elsewhere, that belonged to other people. But what language was really mine, I didn’t know. Maybe Hebrew. Hebrew was the language of the Jews. No one could question my link to Hebrew. There was nothing incongruous in my imagination of me speaking Hebrew. I learnt to read it by the time I was thirteen, by the time I had to stand up and sing my haftorah at the Summerstrand shul, but I did not understand what I was saying. I couldn’t open a Bible or a book and understand what the words I was reading meant. After two years of living in Israel, I spoke fluent Hebrew.

It helps not to feel entirely at home in a language, to maintain a sense of wonder and surprise. But we also need to be able to swim in the language we write in, to not think about it when we are putting our senses onto the page, to not feel tripped up by our limitations. We cannot let language come between us and expression. We have to be able to use language to express the things that have nothing to do with language, like small and taste, like a landscape, like the sound of chewing. Language in our mouth. Our tongue.

(But if a writer acknowledges their limitations, their being at odds with the language they have chosen to write in, a language that is not theirs from birth, could that then add integrity to the voice?)

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