(My country is the Portuguese language. Fernando Pessoa)
The idea of feeling an affinity with a language is not foreign to me given that I speak seven languages and have studied ten. In fact, my likes and dislikes for the sounds of languages have repelled me from certain languages and attracted me to others. But as my daily life crosses between several languages, I don’t feel particularly at home in just one language. Actually, my homeland is the multi-dimensionality of my linguistic world. If I could speak one sentence in one language and then a sentence or word in another and switch back and forth all day from language to language, I’d be at my best. But then few would understand me.
Finding home in one particular language
Recently, I’ve become curious about how someone can find their home in just one language. The idea first came to my attention when I was reviewing the movie “The Last Sephardi” (El ultimo sefardí) for my CNN interviews in Miami in January about the Ladino language of the Sephardic Jews that has stayed alive for over 500 years outside of Spain. In the film, there’s a conversation with Ladino speakers in Istanbul about their community and the old Judeo-Spanish language. One of them said, “It doesn’t matter where the Sephardic person lives, in Sophia [Bulgaria], in the Adriatic or in Istanbul, his homeland is the Judeo-Spanish language”. Seeing a diaspora community finding a feeling of home speaking in their ancestral language makes sense to me because it’s their language than brings them together given that they are spread out in various countries.
Here’s the clip to which I am referring. They are speaking in Ladino with Spanish subtitles.
Besides a dispersed people, who else finds a home in a language?
A month after seeing this documentary, I re-read the book Sostiene Pereira by the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi. The book is originally in Italian and he talks of many famous writers and thinkers, including Portugal’s cherished, Fernando Pessoa, who was born in Portugal, but grew up in England. This line from the book stood out to me:
“Fernando Pessoa, era di cultura inglese, ma avevo deciso di scrivere in portoghese perche sosteneva che la sua patria era la lingua portoghese.”
“Pessoa, was of British upbringing, but decided to write in Portuguese because the Portuguese language was his homeland.”
Pessoa had a choice between English and Portuguese and he chose his mother tongue. Antonio Tabucchi, enamored with Portugal, wrote his book about Lisbon during the rise of Salazar’s dictatorship, in Italian.
I wonder what Pessoa found in Portuguese that he didn’t experience in English. Was it the frequent “sh” sounds and nasal vowels he liked? Was it the subjunctive case denoting doubt that the English tongue barely has?
Why one language over the other?
Each language has its depth and its limitations. Nuances of meaning come through better in some languages than others. For example, in Russian, to say that you ate something, you have one verb form to say you completed the action of eating your item (я сиел/а) and another verb form to just say you ate (я сиел/а), while in English to specify that you finished off your meal, you would have to say “I ate the whole thing” or “I finished it” but the verb form doesn’t communicate the entire thought like in Russian. The ability to be so detailed in speech may attract someone to a certain language.
So what gives one the sense of home in a language besides an ancestral pull towards it?
I wonder if authors choose a language because of their ability to express themselves better in that specific language or if it’s for commercial reasons that they choose the language of the country in which they are living.
Joseph Conrad wrote in English although his native language was Polish. When I read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I could not believe that his dense English sentences were not penned by a native speaker. I often had to re-read the sentences to understand them, not because the English was poor, but because it was so rich and complex that it took me extra time to understand his thoughts. From what I’ve read about his spoken English, it appears that it was heavily accented.
The Czech writer Milan Kundera writes in French sometimes.
The Russian author, Vladimir Nabokov, spoke Russian, English and French from an early age and learned to read and write in English before he did in Russian. (I learned Russian writing and reading before English.) His first literary works were in Russian and then he switched to English. He even translated his own books originally written in English, to Russian.
How about you? Do you find your sense of home or self when speaking in one specific tongue?
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov by Laura González: