Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Between languages

Following on from BBC World Service's The Forum, where I have picked up a number of points listeners make on the programme's Facebook site, this thought occurs to me, triggered by something a bilingual listener said about the emptying out effect of repetition. (You repeat a word until it loses meaning, then, according my devised exercise, you use the word in ten different sentences to fill the word up with meaning again.) She tried it and thought it was quite an intense experience. My reply to the bilingual listener:

I think speaking more than one language brings that experience home. I speak English and Hungarian There is, I think, a transition moment in switching from one language to another before one language stops and the other starts. It takes a split second for the second language to fill up with meaning, the way a programme on the computer fills - but much faster than that. There must be a momentary between-languages condition.

When we came to England my parents wanted to speak as much English as possible, even though only one of them spoke English, and even then not altogether correctly. It was a kind of shock therapy supported by special English Language classes at primary school or before I started. I quickly learned English and equally quickly forgot Hungarian.

But what happened between the learning and forgetting is a mystery to me. I have no memory of it at all, and have sometimes thought it might be because there was no stable language in which to register the experience.

I wonder whether others find there is the same curious split-second vacuum when switching languages, a moment when meaning goes out of the window and there you are in outer space drifting away from the mother ship before somehow, you are yanked back in again?

I must see whether Pinker has anything to say about this. Or maybe Chomsky?


Anonymous said...

Dear George,

I read your post and listened to the BBC podcast about washing words with great interest. I am dyslexic and I am often in this interum land where the grasp of a language begins to fade and I walk right through the boundaries or else get propelled off of surfaces I never knew were there. I feel it is a way of switching mediums and of existing through the texture and atmosphere of a landscape that one inhabits from the inside- almost like a taste.
Trying to freeze-frame these moments that are ungrapable at that point into the regular contours of a form or a pre-existant category only seems to heighten the extra-sensory burn-out of language as noise, light as blinding glare. Yet I believe these slipped frames if one can train oneself to move with them, become articulate. They are an invitation to go into the minutaie of contrast- and to work it back up anew- like feeling vision as a pressure gradient. I think language and form can begin to recalibrate out of that diffusion. And maybe that is a way of shuffling the pack and working back up a re-invigoration. The laundry gets done even in the rattling machine with its endless cycles. Out of a thousand contortions form becomes movement again. That is when the repetition spins into simplified images, catch-phrases and rhythms that are new alignments with new possibilities. Memory is a loss and a reinvention at the same time. Memory isn't just something brought up fully formed from the depths. It is a practice of mixing, sifting, forgetting and making. I think you are a poet because you do that. Because of what you forget and what is forged in the spaces left as open questions.


George S said...

Yet I believe these slipped frames if one can train oneself to move with them, become articulate. They are an invitation to go into the minutaie of contrast- and to work it back up anew- like feeling vision as a pressure gradient.

That's a fascinating answer, Ruth, beautifully and intensely conveyed. Is it possible to find me an example? We are so dependent on metaphors. I'd love to see an instance of what the metaphor is like in action. Do you remember any such moments and recall what happened as a result?

Anonymous said...

Let me try- out of the wanderings of today. Cycled down the river lea. A group of teens in black logo T.shirts are painting the rails with pots of shiny black paint. There is music blasting from a speaker in the middle of the park under the logo, "Give a little, get alot". I sit with a frothy coffee in the rose garden which is past its peak. The drill of the base from the music is shaking my system, perturbing my vision. I try to text my sister and can hardly function the buttons. It is Jewish New Year. We are not religious.
I lurch through the gate wet with paint back onto the canal. The girl with the paintbrush is talking about the American Fundamentalists who have threatened to burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9-11. My mouth is beginning to get that dried up caked feeling as if I am under a local anaesthethic and if I were to put my hand to my lips I would be a good two feet out. All I can do is smile ludicrously-through the gap between the two girls- the wet paint on the metal bars, my teeth. No words come. I cycle some more to a bench opposite a boat. There is alot of banging going on from inside the boat. I look at the green slime on the surface of the water- swim in it- letting it smack around my face, my skin- coating me- bringing me round. The thudd thud from inside the hollow of the boat feels like an antidote that I cannot resist because my body has become imobile. I am not selecting things to witness- they are selecting me. Because I am there and I can not get out of their way. I sit half dreaming, the light bending and doubling in on itself and bouncing out again.

Then it happens by chance as it always does. I glance to my right and there is this hole burnt deep into the wood of the seating between two panels. It dips into the blackened charcoal of that smarting flesh- a grain that I can see-smell-feel crossing the inches that seperate my position from the mark because I can feel it. That is not a one-off instantaneous condition. It is a moving in. A gradual shoring up into the filaments of that grain that would smart some more if I rubbed it the other way.

Suddenly going against the grain has an entirely literal and practical meaning. The metaphor made solid. And a second later I am doing that. Not out of decision or plan- just by a kind of magnetic drawing to a close the gap between an idea and the on-going practice that the idea is truly composed of. I am aware of this filtering exchange in the middle of the most obvious perception. The charcoal is on my hands- I even try to rub a bit on the bench- to make a mark from it. But it doesn't rub off. Just then a man cycling a trailer with off-cut wood in the back clatters forward. He comes out of nowhere. I almost veer into his face sweeping up from the downward intensity of my place in the damaged wood. I look directly through the hole in his ears which have been widened gradually- maybe over years- to the size of button holes. There is not the normal distance of looking and remarking. I am actually there at the site. There's a split second of seeing and being seen through that absence in his ear- which creates a reverb like the sound in the park but now carefully placed between both of us. Then its over- he's gone.

I know that all the devastation and coming undone that unwound in various ways in my own organism and in the inorganic materials that surrounded me and wouldn't knit together or let me go allowed for this dwelling that simply came and went and would have been nothing- just a mising piece of flesh- without all the other incidental fragements.

On my way home Orthodox Jewish women are staring into the dark canal, praying with their children.


(There is another bit to add but I am approaching my limit.)

George S said...

That is beautiful and fascinating, Ruth. Picking this up late after a late night home and a full day.

So will you finish?

Ruth Solomon said...

Here's the bit that didn't fit- out of sync now because there are other days and other blog entries. Leading on from what I wrote before:

All this later churned and helped me galvanise some thoughts and writing to do with a visit to my neighbours the night before on the eve of Jewish New Year. They are from the Orthodox Jewish Community. Issues of identity. Fear. One of them being hidden as a child in Nazi occupied Paris. The sound of boots on stone. Voices. Ritual-honey-apple. Words. Recitations. Prayers. Pain-in the bones when one is forced to repeated actions over time. How do we know what our neighbours will do in unfamiliar circumstances? What do we do with our past experience? Whom do we trust? Whom do we get close to? What is common experience-even across differences of time, place, faith, outlook? The day to day life we lead separately-together-in proximity. How do view-points cohere? The telegraph wires strung across the marshlands.

Everything that happened along the canal was not directly related to this but it allowed me to occupy a number of positions- between strangeness and intimacy- and informed really, my point of view. Not rational or geographic but through what it is possible to feel from moment to moment.

Starting then from the literal sense of words can words and objects dove-tail into one another? Practice is the missing link, aggravating out of inert matter sudden discrepancies -feelings.

Below is the poem that came out of it- the lines have been re-shuffled by the strictures of the comment box.


She had heard the boots against the pavement
From behind closed shutters she had been
Ferreted away; passed from hand to hand.

The sole of a boot, the surface of a walkway
Could never for her be the same again.

A little girl below the ledge of a window
Her face occluded. But the rhythmic drill got in
Between the cracks of walls, carried across the

Airway passages into the ear’s secret places
Her waking body sucked into the labyrinth of sleep.
Voices she heard. Foreign.

Because ears cannot close to shut away the rift
To this day she cannot bear...
An open channel
No shutter to shut away the tumbling stream

Later she was hidden but still a child
On the outskirts of Paris the silent years
Of forgotten rituals, whispered prayers
Far removed.

Now she dips an apple into honey and passes
It to me the sweetness dripping over my fingers
An abundance but cruel.

Her face is unusually bright this evening
So that I inadvertently squint
In the harshness of this appeal

But even if I were to come over
And to be saved by my own people
I could never make it up to her

For the lost days the blinding voices
Keeping her married to one letter
After another

Her finger following a line
Waiting for the door handle; her husband

Her chest swells under
A black dress with a high collar
And a pearl brocade

Even I can understand
The beautiful incongruity
Of all of us here together

Tomorrow I will be gone
Again I will omit
The holy prayers

Renegade on my duties
To become a wanderer, an idler
A liar

She will remain where she is
On the other side of that ruby
Curtain blood stained like the blood

Of the sacrificial lamb
That could so easily
Have been a child.



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