Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Slant and tesknota

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth's superb surprise

Is there any other way of telling but slant? How can telling help being slant when language is itself a slant thing, a kind of musical instrument set at a slant where the keys are constantly sliding and shifting? Anyone who has ever engaged in an argument knows as much. You said this! But I meant that! The words we use are turned against us. The meanings we think to load words with are interpreted differently by others.

Language is not a precise instrument. The dictionary in English is a record of usage, and usage, as we know, varies over place and time and person and occasion. The term idiolect is used by linguists to denote a highly personal language, a wholly individual language consisting of made-up words and phrases, shared with at least one another person. It is, of course, quite useless, except to convey a special sense of intimacy. Lovers construct idiolects to lock the world out. One or two special friends might do the same.

Idiolects can expand into ecolects, the language used, for example, within a family for similarly intimate, reassuring purposes. Some of these may be entirely new coinings, some might be ancient words revived and twisted a little. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon’s family - he tells us in an often quoted poem - referred to the hot water bottle as a quoof,.


Language is a musical instrument that is constantly slipping out of tune. We know this primarily when we translate into a language with which we are not deeply familiar. We are quickly made aware of the limitations of the dictionary and the phrase book, even in perfectly mechanical conversations, and when it comes to conveying subtle meaning – a matter of manners perhaps, a question of preferences, sympathies, pleasures and fears – we are likely to be quite lost. As a child immigrant in Canada the new words Eva Hoffman encountered meant nothing to her. They were strange, wooden things, riddled with holes, hollow, lacking any association or history. The English word ‘river’ for example, was a mere sound compared to the Polish word for river, rzeka, which was dense and magical with experiences, stories and poems. And yet rzeka is a perfectly ordinary word in Polish.

But the losses are more complex still. She talks, in the book, of leaving Poland, standing on the ship at Gdansk, and realising the loss of something quite intangible. Here she refers to another Polish word, tesknota:

"I am suffering my first, severe attack of nostalgia, or tesknota - a word that adds to nostalgia the tonalities of sadness and longing," she writes.

Tesknota means nostalgia with added tonalities of sadness and longing. She suffers tesknota as a thirteen year old girl. She names the feeling. It is of course a generic name. Words for feelings always are. Elsewhere she tells of being a child and hearing Polish peasants singing an ancient song when she has the same feeling though this time she doesn’t know for what. Tesknota. Nostalgia plus.

Idiolects and ecolects are, as we have said, unofficial, restricted forms of intimacy. Often we forget them as we enter the outside world, where there is, after all, some agreement as to meaning and has to be else nothing gets done. The same with language when we decide to move abroad. Our first languages become idiolects and ecolects. The old language remains, rich with tesknota, but the new language filters in and fills out, and becomes – or can become if it comes early enough - landscape, history and dream. The original mother tongue fades: the new foster mother fills out, gradually becomes more matronly, transfers its own nostalgias until they become our own. This too is a sad process. It is, after all, sad forgetting your mother..

...It is precisely its fugitive nature, its sense of precariousness, uncertainty, its treacherous failings, its grandeurs and pathos, its sense of nostalgia for a world of fixed and perfect meanings – its tesknota if you like - that make poets both love and distrust language. People generally long for meaning without quite knowing what it is they are longing for. Poets being particularly and acutely aware of language as a medium feel that longing, that tesknota, all the more. They are aware both of language’s potential and its shortcomings; of its rich fields of history, association and colour as well as of its flimsy, alien arbitrariness. Language to them is both intimate and exotic, familiar and strange. It is not as if all these strange sounds we make with our mouths and represent by means of marks, they think, were any more than a faint scratch on the huge glass of the universe.

These are excerpts from 'The Slant Door and Where it Leads'. In the circumstances of the last few weeks - the retrospective aspect of publishing the New and Collected Poems, and so forth - I have had to talk so much about my own circumstances and views that I have begun to feel a bit bilious. It isn't quite over as I am talking on Irish radio tomorrow and will be doing The Verb next week, though I'll be out when it is broadcast, and there are more readings and occasions to come, but I have started to feel that I would sooner talk about ornithology or nuclear physics or the fortunes of Doncaster Rovers - anything except the immigrant-language question.

The Domain series will however continue as that may build into an altogether bigger project.


Unknown said...

I so enjoyed this blog, especially the idea of the 'tesknota' of the word being the thing that makes poets 'love and distrust language'. That longing to express, paired with the way that language is not a science and defies accuracy.

Many thanks for the thoughts.

Jacqui x

George S said...

Thank you, Jacqui.

Padhraig Nolan said...

Aye, a thoughtful and thought provoking piece.

Which Irish radio show, George?

Anonymous said...

Just come from under the elderberry tree, George. I agree with the other comments. A most thought provoking piece. A philosophy on language. Fascinating. I've felt tesknota many times. I'm also frequently idiolectic and ecolectic within my close circle of family and friends. The first sentence of this comment is one such instance.

How is it that I have to read your blog to understand myself? And others. Perhaps you're cleverer tham me. (Smile.)

George S said...

The show is on Radio 1, PJ. I have appeared on it before. It's called The Arts Show - Vincent Woods is doing the main business. I am on for about twenty minutes, talking and reading some four or five poems. I have just been working out with the producer which ones. She had some ideas I am happy to go with. The show is broadcast next week. If anyone is interested it is here and probably has a repay / listen-again feature: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/theartsshow/

I don't think I am such a clever clogs Billy. I think about this stuff because it is the field I work in, and I can't help wondering what exactly makes that field. There are people who say: don't, it will make you self-conscious, but I don't see why I should stop myself thinking about anything at all. It's what I've always done.

In any case, it's far too late to be worrying about it now.

Padhraig Nolan said...

Thanks. I'll catch that!

Gwil W said...

nostalgia with added tonalities of sadness and longing

Tesknota is similar to 'hiraeth' (Welsh).
Odd that the English language doesn't have a lovely word like 'hiraeth'.
OED - you should put it in. Ex-pats from Wales often use it.

George S said...

It often happens that languages lack each others' terms for specific shades of feeling. The German heimat, as I understand it, has no direct equivalent in English, nor does the Hungarian 'haza' (a passionate blend of homeland, motherland, and my country, that works both in the nominative and the dative. The cry: haza! can also be the quietly spoken answer to the perfectly ordinary question: where are you going? Haza then simply means 'home', where you happen to live.

It has long been fascinating how English picks up the French 'ennui' while Baudelaire employs and normalises the English 'spleen'.

I suspect the English has thirty-seven unspoken words for 'middle-class'. A subtle language when much is never spoken.

Gwil W said...

German speakers often admire "the fine English manner": They are impressed by succinctness and understatement. It's a skill they have never mastered. Perhaps it's not possible with German, a language where many words are hooked together rather like carriages of a train.
Your right about 'Heimat'. At the very mention of the word, there's a manly stiffening of backs and a jutting of chins or a whimsical faraway look drifts into a lady's eyes. It's a kind of being 150% patriotic combined with good old fashioned values and magnificent mountain scenery. Och, aye, a kind of Scotland the Brave! quality.