english

in other words 3

One last time about Jhumpa Lahiri, on language and territory. Quite in the beginning of In altre parole, the account of her familiarization with the Italian tongue, she writes: “Every language belongs to a specific space. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it is linked to a geographical territory, a Country. Italian belongs particularly to Italy, …” (This is my translation; a proper English translation by Ann  Goldstein has been published in 2016, but that I don’t know.)

And this starting point, the connection between tongue and land, leads her to write seventy pages later: “A strange tongue is a weak and fussy muscle. You don’t use it, it deteriorates. My Italian, in America, sounds like transplanted to me, and out of tune. The way of speaking, the sounds, the rhythms, the cadences, they all seem rootless, out of place. The words seem without any relevance, without any meaningful presence. They look like castaways, nomads.”

There’s no place for Italian in ‘America’?

But then again, when in Italy, and writing in Italian, her Italian readers shake their heads and simply say: ‘Non suona’. “They say that the word I’d like to use is considered outdated nowadays, that it belongs to a register either too low or too refined, that it sounds either affected or too colloquial (that’s how I learned the adjective aulic). They say the word order isn’t authentic, that the punctuation doesn’t work. This has not necessarily to do with correctitude. They say that an Italian simply wouldn’t speak like that.”

What a strange remark! As if, certainly in an extended territory as Italy, people from Calabria or the Veneto would speak the same tongue. Maybe a Roman wouldn’t speak like Lahiri does, but someone from Napoli might (if at least s/he wouldn’t talk Napolitano). Even in a small space, such as the low countries by the North Sea, the phenomenon occurs. When I was living in the Netherlands and speaking/writing Dutch, people used to say how cute my Belgian version of the language was. But while in Belgium, people ask me: are you a Dutchman? It’s not dialects that I’m talking about; it’s about subtle nuances and variations in the use of general or standard language: the use of specific adjectives, the word order in a sentence, whether compound verbs are broken down in certain tenses or not – not to mention (also very important in Italian and French) which tense to use for a past action, event or situation (she wrote/she was writing/she has written), etc.

These nuances and variations may be conditioned by territory or class, but more than with idiosyncrasies of local tongue, they have to do with a primordial role of language: the construction of identity. Language reveals the speaker (their family, school, occupation, local background … and hence probably their future), but it also defines in what ways or degrees they are different. ‘Yes, you may write an entire book in Italian, and even get it published, but don’t fool yourself: you’re not one of us.’ Nevertheless, and very understandably to me, Jhumpa Lahiri constructs her own glossary to practice regularly, and she studies Italian grammar in order to be able, one day, to write ‘error free’.

Suddenly comes to my mind what Deleuze and Guattari wrote in Mille plateaux (1980): rather than being a syntactic marker, a grammatical rule is in the first place a power marker. And a bit further, when dealing with the relation between dominant or major languages and dialects or minor languages, they write: “Forming grammatically correct sentences is for the normal individual the prerequisite for any submission to social laws. No one is supposed to be ignorant of grammaticality; those who are belong in special institutions. The unity of language is fundamentally political. There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language that at times advances along a broad front, and at times swoops down on diverse centers simultaneously. (…) The scientific enterprise of extracting constants and constant relations is always coupled with the political enterprise of imposing them on speakers and transmitting order-words.” (transl. Brian Massumi, 1987)

Disregarding the remark about belonging in special institutions when ignorant of grammaticality, would this statement also be valid when it comes to studying a foreign language? Or is the qualification of language as power marker only valid when you accept the link between language and geographical territory? Is there any other way to learn a new tongue than by trying to fit into frames and rules that simultaneously act as power markers – not only to native speakers, but indeed to foreign students or newcomers too? Is there a way to escape this trap, and might that have any sense?

I remember that, when I left Saarbrücken after two years of living and working there, I said to students and colleagues I was glad I had at least learned proper German. It made them laugh: “Well, at least, you have learned to express yourself in Saarländisch.” Would it be a problem that Lahiri’s Italian or my non-native tongues will never be as authentic or error free as the general or standard tongue we’re supposed to learn?

There is one consolation. Jhumpa Lahiri reminds you of some famous exophonic writers: “Becket had lived in France for decades before he wrote in French, Nabokov had learned English as a boy, Conrad has spent quite a long time at sea, absorbing English, before he became an anglophone writer rather than a Polish one.”

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