Tsk, Ukh, Hmmm

Michael Newton

  • Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language by Daniel Heller-Roazen
    Zone, 287 pp, £18.95, May 2005, ISBN 1 890951 49 8

In his autobiography, Something of Myself, Rudyard Kipling tells how he returned to Bombay from public school in England. He had been away for 11 years, but once again walking the streets of Bombay, the town of his birth, the teenage Kipling found himself uttering whole sentences in the native tongue – presumably Marathi, a language he had entirely forgotten. He now found to his own mystification that he could communicate in it effectively, although with the curious drawback that he was unable to understand what he was saying. A language at once familiar and strange had possessed him, a possession that worked both ways, uncovering a substratum of India within the white colonialist. Kipling’s mother tongue may have been English, but those other mothers, the native nurses and household servants, had left their mark on him.

In Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language, Daniel Heller-Roazen recounts a parallel story. Elias Canetti grew up in Bulgaria speaking Ladino, the ‘largely medieval Spanish of the Sephardim’. Bulgarian was the language used by the family servants. However, while Canetti, his family and friends spoke Ladino, his parents also conversed in the German of their youth, a language whose meaning they took pains to conceal from their son. After his father’s sudden death, Canetti’s mother took her son to Vienna, her home city, but before she did so, they stopped over for some months in Lausanne. She had decided to initiate the child into German, the language that she and her husband had shared. He would learn it in Lausanne, and arrive in Vienna word-perfect. Her teaching methods were brutal. They consisted of her reading out loud an impossibly long series of German sentences, then making her young son repeat each in turn after her, and commit them to memory for repetition on the following day. If his repetitions were less than perfect, as inevitably happened, the child would find himself the object of his mother’s scorn. The rigours of this instruction remained with Canetti all his life. After a month, the family’s English governess intervened: more practical methods were adopted, and Canetti rapidly acquired German. He was now free to speak to his mother in the intimate language his father had once used with her. A ‘mother tongue’ is that language which the infant acquires without pain or conscious effort. Canetti had painfully acquired a second mother tongue. And as the years passed, all the experiences, stories and phrases of his early childhood, of his Ladino and Bulgarian years, translated themselves unobserved into German, leaving only a scattered remnant of Ladino phrases attached to the most dramatic early events. His infant Bulgarian was completely lost.

Years later, Canetti travelled to Prague to visit the artist Oskar Kokoschka. The language of the Czechs struck him forcibly, partly for its ‘fighting’ quality, but more for the curious way in which it seemed familiar to him. ‘Perhaps the force with which the Czech words entered into me was due to memories of the Bulgarian of my early childhood. But I never thought of this, since I had completely forgotten Bulgarian, and I am not in a position to determine how much of forgotten languages is nevertheless left over inside one.’ How could he both insist that he has ‘completely forgotten Bulgarian’ and yet retain it? What is being invoked in Kipling’s experience? What is the remnant left over from a forgotten language? These are the questions that Heller-Roazen’s book sets out to explore.

He begins by looking at the nature of infant babble. Roman Jakobson observed that as babies we are able to produce a range of sounds and articulations far greater than the limited set of phonemes required by any single language, or group of languages. Phonetically gifted beyond the dreams of adults, the baby eventually forgoes this richness for the narrow group of sounds required by the language of his or her society. Even more strangely, in the process of learning that language, the infant briefly loses the ability even to produce those sounds common to both his or her babble and the ‘mother tongue’. In other words, we learn to speak because we forget. We mislay the multiple articulations that we all manage quite easily as babbling infants, and reduce our phonic powers to the narrow range of one particular language. In doing so, we lose our capacity potentially to say everything in the attempt to say some things. The ‘echolalia’ of the book’s title is the echo of this lost speech, the remnant of this ‘indistinct and immemorial babble that, in being lost, allowed all languages to be’.

From then on, in 21 brief chapters, the book recalls and explicates moments of linguistic remembrance and forgetting. Among them: Freud’s writings on aphasia; ‘dead’ and ‘dying’ languages; vanishing phonemes; absent letters; a journey to paradise; and a tour of the Tower of Babel. Echolalias is a compendium of forgetfulness, a crossing of the linguistic Lethe. Its tone is not that of a conventional philosophical or critical book, although it is both deeply philosophical and incisively critical, but more that of a book of tales, both told and reflected on. One chapter begins with the 17th-century story of a young man without a tongue who nonetheless could speak fluently. It moves on to the question of how the word ‘tongue’ or lingua came to be used as a metonym for language as such; takes on the problem of speaking parrots, who can articulate human words without having a human tongue; presents a critique of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’, the story of a man mesmerised and still articulate after the point of death; and so neatly on to some illuminating remarks on the oldest documents of the Western tradition, the funeral inscriptions of archaic Greece. All this may sound bewildering and unconnected, but the connections are there and brought lucidly out. This is not a series of detached meditations but emphatically a book.

Its author comes across as a true ‘philologer’, or lover of language. I’ve met him: he is one. Conversations with Heller-Roazen tend to drift towards the subject of phonemes. He likes to talk about talking, and once explained this inclination to me by asserting that language must be the one absolutely foolproof topic of conversation, since it is the one thing we all have in common. It is because language exists in common that, when we forget it, we forget it together. When a language ‘dies’, or transforms into ‘another’ language, the process is one of a communal ‘forgetting’. This does not mean that the community owns it, however. Rather, it belongs between people, possessed by no one, not even by society as a whole. Language remains: it changes – is changed by us – and it survives us as our remnant, but not one that remains as it was.

Not every forgetting of language happens at the communal level. In 1745 the natural historian and physician Carolus Linnaeus (Charles Linné) published a brief pamphlet describing his observations of a man who had forgotten how to speak. The sufferer was a scholar from Uppsala, sick with podagra and scurvy. Linnaeus tried to contain the man’s illness, but couldn’t prevent the contagion spreading up from his feet and passing into his head. The patient lapsed into a sleeping sickness. Linnaeus applied a Spanish fly to the back of his neck with great effect: ‘for after that he became more awake, but seemed to wander in his mind, yet it was not so, rather he spoke, as it were a foreign language, having his own names for all words, e.g. to drink, To Ti, etc.’ Something had robbed the man of his memory. He was still there, and yet untranslatable: himself, yet not himself.

He had forgotten all nouns, so that he was unable to remember a single one: indeed not even the names of his children or his wife or his own name much less that of anybody else. And what was more remarkable was that if one mentioned anything he wanted to say, he said ‘yes’; but if he was told to repeat it, he answered ‘cannot’; when he saw anybody’s name, he knew who it was, and when he wanted to mention the name of any of his colleagues, he pointed to the ‘Catalogum Lectionum’ in which the name was found.

The ‘foreign language’ that this man spoke was shared by no one else. The babble of the infant had returned to him: not a language, but an imitation of language as such. He had fallen into a confusing world of things without designations, back where there were no proper names, not even a name for the self.

Linnaeus’ story reminds us by how thin a thread our language ties us to the familiar world. Heller-Roazen’s archive of the forgotten has the similarly salutary effect of helping us see what was always there, but somehow invisible or, more often, inaudible. It reminds us of the strangeness of things, even the basic and easily forgettable fact that language is, before anything else, a series of sounds made by and in our mouths, or a series of marks made on a piece of paper or a screen. For instance, who notices that we have retained the flexibility of our infant babble, those apparently lost phonemes, in the everyday onomatopoeias and exclamations, the extra-linguistic sounds we all know and utter: from the palatal ‘tsk’ of ‘that’s typical’ to the aspirated, half sighed ‘tsk’ made by a player missing a shot; from the ‘ukh’ emitted in moments of disgust to the ‘hmmm’ of doubtful acquiescence? Heller-Roazen loves the in-between case and pays attention to the unregarded sounds – such as the almost Arabic glottal stop that resides in the middle of the Anglo-American ‘uh-oh’ – which lie outside the phonetic limits of the speaker’s own tongue.

Oddities and exceptions fascinate him. His loyalties are with the underdogs of language. Take the case of the Hebrew letter aleph, which is a non-entity, a grapheme representing a sound that no longer exists, and which even in its origin was perhaps nothing more than a preparation for another sound not itself. Yet aleph also stands triumphantly as the original letter, the primordial sign that preceded everything. This combination – something both abject and all-important – seems central to the book’s concerns. Similarly, we have the history of the ‘breathy letter’, ‘h’, ‘more a spirit than a letter’. Its status as the sign of a mere expiration of air renders it all the more poignantly ephemeral and marginal. As Heller-Roazen shows, ‘h’ lives an imperilled existence, omitted by the French, ‘dropped’ by everyone from the Romans to the English, and harshly transformed into a tough ‘g’ by the Russians. Where ‘h’ once resided happily before consonants at the start of Anglo-Saxon words such as hlaf (‘loaf’), hrof (‘roof’) and hnut (‘nut’), it has since vanished, except in the mouths of those phonological die-hards who cling to the lost initial ‘h’ in words like ‘when’. However, this grapheme’s troubles seem only to provide opportunities for its resilience: ‘h’ is always threatened with being extinguished but, like breath itself, is always somehow still there. This fortitude in the face of extinction is at the heart of the book’s attitude to language: what goes, remains; what remains, goes.

This is particularly clear in one of the strangest of all the case histories that Heller-Roazen explores: the story of Louis Wolfson. Wolfson, a self-described schizophrenic student of languages, so much detested his mother tongue, and indeed his mother, that he set out systematically to forget it. The fact that he was living in New York City, had English-speaking parents, and English as his mother tongue was going to make this tough. A less courageous man would simply have moved to another country. One suspects that for Wolfson so simple a solution would have lessened the excitement. In any case, wherever he went he would have had to have taken himself with him. Better the English spoken around him than the one that might just come into his head. Since avoiding it was impossible, he decided to be forever on his guard against it. On hearing a dreaded English phrase he would begin a process of instantaneous translation, or destruction, shifting English words violently into their French, German or Russian equivalents, or mangling them into their phonetic building blocks so as to reassemble them in some foreign guise. The word ‘bed’ was only an aspirated t away from becoming the safely German Bett; ‘sore’ could swell into schmerzvoll; ‘I know’, his mother’s favourite opening gambit, was trickier, and could slip either into French (connais) or Russian (znayu).

This truly is forgetting as achievement, but to be so linguistically perverse requires a lot of talent. That this talent was self-defeating was something that Wolfson himself realised early on. The more he struggled to forget English, the more he was forced to remember it. To transcribe it, no matter how hurriedly or fluently, was to condemn himself to the role of the translator and therefore the guardian of the language he professed to hate: ‘Forcing himself never to forget to forget his mother tongue, he obliged himself always to remember to remember it.’

This is an old paradox. ‘In saying that we consign something to oblivion,’ Kierkegaard wrote, ‘we suggest that it is simultaneously forgotten yet preserved.’ Samuel Johnson said that ‘forgetfulness is necessary to remembrance,’ and Johnny Cash sang, ‘I forgot to remember to forget.’ That forgetting is a way of remembrance is the idea which recurs throughout Heller-Roazen’s book, appearing again and again in ever subtler guises. The idea that we can have things both ways, and yet not hold onto anything, fascinates him. The book stacks up its apparently contradictory dualities: to conserve is to destroy; exile can be a homeland; to remember is to forget; to forget is to remember.

For all its lightness and charm, Echolalias is a peculiarly melancholy book. Loss preoccupies it: phonemes, words, whole languages, and all the people who once spoke them, disappear, though not without a trace. Like every good philologist, Heller-Roazen commits himself to the archaeology of the vanished. His book is a testament to that quest, its goal the reconstruction of what was bound to be lost, the breathed-out and insubstantial event of language itself.

The note that Chaucer strikes at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, as he laments the changeability of language that will render his ‘litel book’ ephemeral, is often struck here. Film, like poetry, is vulnerable to this forgetting. The hilarity many audiences fall into when watching a British film of the 1930s or 1940s is really a kind of linguistic parochialism, the contemporary confronted by the forgotten. That brief distance between now and the recent past already also accounts for the alienation we feel when we hear just how plummy Virginia Woolf’s phonemes were, or just how much Yeats sounded like Frazer from Dad’s Army. In Heller-Roazen’s terms, the time-lag between the Britain of now and then is relatively brief, yet already the accents and prosody of a Bud Flanagan sound like oral history, not living speech.

Forgetting exposes not the end of things, but their mutability. To think of languages not as dying or forgotten, but as inherently mutable, shifts our attention from the ‘death’ or life of endangered languages to their capacity to change. Language is always being lost, and always surviving. For Heller-Roazen, there is little in it that is unitary or linear. Instead, it is marked by losses and pregnant with gains, bearing traces of the other things it is not, and marks of the thing it once was. At one point he gives a thoughtful reading of the myth of Io from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which, in order to prevent Juno discovering his affair with the beautiful Io, Jupiter turns the unfortunate nymph into a cow. Saddened by her new life, but without the ability to tell anyone what had happened to her, she simply writes out her name on the sand with two marks of her hoof: I O. As those basic forms stand as the graphic building blocks of the whole alphabet, in losing herself, Io discovers writing.

In all such myths of transformation, it must also be the case that the new creature (whether werewolf, vampire or enchanted prince) still recognisably somewhere bears the mark of the creature it once was. Heller-Roazen writes:

Precisely for the metamorphosis to be without residue, it must paradoxically admit of a remainder that bears witness to the event of the mutation: an element both foreign to the new body and still contained within it, an exceptional trait in the body ‘strange’ that harks back to the earlier shape it once possessed. In the case of the cow, the remainder is the written name of the vanished nymph, whose inscription marks the transformation of the creature it designates.

The story is an emblem of all the book’s instances of language’s forgetting. The transmuted creature bears a trace of the old, a remnant that memorialises its loss.

There is a telling moment in Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness, a documentary on the making of her husband’s film Apocalypse Now. An exasperated Francis Ford Coppola attempts to persuade a strung-out Dennis Hopper that he must learn his lines so he can do the scenes they have planned. The director pleads, willing his actor to play along; a charmingly baffled Hopper vaguely resists. Anyway, the actor protests, even if he did learn his lines, all they will do in playing the scene is forget what has been written as they change the script and improvise. So why should he go to all that trouble of learning them? Exasperated beyond endurance, Coppola cries: ‘Once you’ve learned your lines, then you can forget them!’ Daniel Heller-Roazen shows that this beautiful paradox is not unique to the travails of Method acting.

This thought-provoking book contains a memorable aphorism by Kafka that could stand as its epigraph: ‘I can swim just like the others. Only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten the former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, being able to swim is of no help to me; and so, after all, I cannot swim.’