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.

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