Those who know will know the English word barbarian comes from the ancient Greek for foreigner, barbaros, one who speaks a foreign tongue so other it resembles a dog’s barking, bar bar! Presently, I’m in Würzburg, Germany to participate in a workshop at an academic conference, and, although I do speak some German, my fluency places me outside the community of those for whom German and its local dialect(s) are their mother tongue, which (along with a taste of the local, famous vintage) gives rise to the fragmentary notes that follow on this experience of being a linguistic outsider.
1. A while back Johannes Göransson posted on Montevidayo a short quotation from Yoko Tawada that made me impatient, as it seemed to draw too neat a contrast between the reflexive transparency of the mother tongue and the relative opacities of a foreign language. Those of us who have ever had to take a “critical” or “hermeneutic” stance toward a poem in our mother tongue, or one informed by linguistics, know that such a stance distances, renders foreign or other, the mother tongue, such that its strangeness and materiality come into view. One need think only of Roman Jakobson’s (in)famous analysis of the linguistics and consequent aesthetics of “I like Ike” to understand that all discourse is always susceptible to a “defamiliarizing” gaze. However, it struck me as I ordered this evening’s dinner that when I speak German I hear my voice as if it were someone else’s, very differently from how I hear myself speak my mother tongue, which speaking I identify with my thinking, my stream-of-consciousness, and hence with myself. Though I can readily function in German, in a very pedestrian manner, when I speak in German I don’t exactly hear myself speaking German but another, “me-speaking-German.” This effect arises in part due to the relative opacity of the German I speak and hear: I may know (or believe I know) what I’m saying, but I still hear the sound of words more than their meanings, a kind of phonic residue that hangs in the air, the opposite of what happens when I speak English, where the sound of the words is muted by their meaning. Happily, there are moments of sufficient immersion, excitement or engagement, that are self-forgetful, when I do arrive at an immediate fluency, an identification. Of course, in such an instance, as the multilingual will know, when I speak German I am different from myself when I speak my mother-tongue. Fluent or not, the foreign tongue distances the speaker from (in this case) himself….
2. A tremendous benefit of abiding in a place alone where one is hardly fluent in the local dialect(s) is that one ends up talking to oneself, i.e., as Plato would have it at least, thinking, and, therefore, for a writer, in the best of all possible worlds, writing.