Friday, March 18, 2016

Losing Your Tongue

Losing Your Tongue

Ici je raconte la soif des livres cracquelés, je pronounce les silences riches d’émotions contenues dans chaque cellule désséchée. C’est ainsi que je retrace les voyages internisés sous ciel torride.

This is how we lose our mother tongue; that first language to tease our seat of knowledge. I lost my own bearings in the sand, one word at a time, and with it, the cultural difference it carried. The mental map folded and creased by cold letters from ‘home’. The names of objects which I found in new surroundings replaced accurate adjectives which I no longer used. This is how devolution of elocution came upon me, rapidly dropping onto the arid soil of the new places. So I spoke faster to mask the sense of loss. I learned every word in the context of found books and discarded papers. I avidly read every word of advertisement, front to back and again. The winds blew all perception as I grieved a part of self whom I had ill known.

If language is the vehicle of cultural identity, I became a split personality the day I decided to leave my birthplace. Romantic notions aside, I divested myself of a heavy mantle of propriety and gradually took on an assumed personae who spoke the words of miners and vagrants that inhabited the western desert. With every name of a rock and each tool of the trade, I discarded years of experience in both rural and urban way of French life, like sand dropped from my pockets, and disseminated in dunes forevermore.

In retrospect, a youth spent between a rigid city education during school, and hard labor at vacation time in my ancestral village, had previously prepared me for dual adaptation; as if I had been plugged into different circuits all along. I had already suffered the innate clan mentality which ostracizes others and excludes them from pleasant conversation. Family stared and sneered at me each time I used correct language in daily speech. Little ‘City girl me’ spoke Latin and whatever other “things” she learned there. On the other side of the cultural divide; upon my return to the renaissance hilltop of ancient knowledge ‘Country me’ was severely chastised for using spontaneous expressions in the Patois dialect of my ancestors. Every holiday was an exercise in Cartesian discipline, as much as I favored the satisfaction of learning, I felt a strange attachment for the simpler expression of my country folk. No time to use fancy phrases between chores. Three little words and turn around. I thrived there, for awhile.

The thirst for expanded knowledge would always stir, anywhere, and with it, the hunt for communication. Books were my primary source of American English; they were left as gifts, offered by temporary anonymous residents in the abandoned shacks which pepper the far landscape of the Great Basin. All I had to do was to find material before the pack-
rats did. From partially chewed newsprint to pristine Vonnegut, I ended up talking like an old Reader’s Digest magazine, and had the sense of humor of a third grader. It was easy to make me laugh, everything seemed somewhat funny to me.

“You’ll never be one of us” said the miner to me. Neither budging nor twitching, I felt a tear welling at the tip of my lashes, so I turned silently and felt the man’s hand hovering close to my shoulder. He hesitated and bent his head whispering “I don’t mean it like that”. I knew what he meant, but that was the last act of separation for the isolated woman I had become. The desert had become its own dimension between past and present. That unassuming man had given some food to our little family, he had provided water and blankets; probably because somewhere, he had children and a wife who would not live on the desert floor. His gestures, as those of other miners spoke of the division. “That is not bad – really - you don’t want to become like us out here” he added twisting his rough hands, I consoled him with a dismissive “I understand”. (No, I did not!) I was bent on chameleonizing my adoptive environment. Not to fit in, but to live in.

When the children were of school age, I was summoned to the office and severely admonished for speaking our language to them. I was told that I was confusing the children, and they were confusing the class therefore I should immediately stop. That was another snip of the cultural scissor, a surgical strike precisely delivered to my insecure seat of emotions. The fear of deportation looming as I feared they (whoever they were) would find out that we had no utilities, a public sin far worse than difference of language. I had been told that my children and I would be cleaved asunder if the authorities found that cold water and candles were inadequate situations to raise little Americans.

I reluctantly taught mostly flat English and kept the French for bonding chores only; ‘va te laver les mains - fait la vaisselle - et tes chaussures’ the daily commands of a quasi normal life. So we carried our water in jugs for miles and cooked on makeshift grills over deadwood embers. Life tasted good in any language. And the kids could generally read, write and count before teachers got ‘a’hold of their brains too. Sand is the ideal write –erase board, and twigs abound in nature. What is love for?

It was in Tecopa California that I realized that I had gained some track on the runaway train of language. I met a lady at the local Post Office who invited me to her local home extension of the Inyo-Kern library. For the next few months I read much of the little shelf full of donated serious literature and even perused saccharine romance before dutifully returning each and moving on. I no longer groped for new words whenever I encountered rare prospectors or geology students along our daily food foraging in Death Valley, but when I arrived at whatever hovel or cave I called home, the walls closed in on the fact that I was alone (with three small children) and my mind spoke no French. Even my dreams resisted the old language; they were now silent movies, gesticulating on an ethereal theater within. No color, no odor, I was dead to the old world for several years.

Societal scissors had severed the cords. I had chosen not to mend the wounds; perhaps to protect the family unit, or was it to forget the pains carried by my first language, my first life.


  1. I grew up in a bilingual home, but we were discouraged from using Spanish outside the home. What a shame, because language is a vehicle for culture.

  2. at the same time that we were living in the Death Valley area, there was a lovely Mexican family who spoke spanish at home --no one asked them to quit talking their language to the children-- it may have been that the father was steadily and well employed--or--they were renting a fine house and buying locally as members of the regular society. or their children depended on school to fully educate their children. mine had a mostly absent father-- no certifiable housing and ate very different foods. language was the excuse for one teacher and admin. the kids were very well behaved and educated prior to school. a sore point in some places.

  3. A poignant, telling article. Well-written--content excellent. A great message for society. What is language, if it is not life itself recorded and relayed? Kudos, Nadine.