The Genius of Language:
Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues
Edited by Wendy Lesser
(Pantheon, 256 page, $23)
The historian Thomas Lacquer, born in Turkey to German Jews who escaped their country in the wake of WWII, recalls being urged by his parents as a three-year-old to learn Turkish so that he could communicate with playmates in Istanbul.
“Let them learn German, I supposedly said; Turkish ‘ist eine hässliche Sprache.'”
Entitled “Prelude,” Lacquer’s is by far the most poignant of the 15 essays in Wendy Lesser’s collection The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues.
“German was my mother tongue,” writes Lacquer. “I mean this partly in the usual sense — my first language was German. But it is also true that I spoke it almost entirely with my mother, grandmother and their woman friends…. I dwell on all of these childhood memories because German is for me the language of memory and loss, a linguistic Prelude…. My German is frozen, amber-like, not only in pre-war history but in childhood…”
The Lacquer family was uprooted again a few years after his comment about the Turkish language, only to land eventually in the coal towns of West Virginia, where his parents continued such Old World traditions as arranging lit candles on the Tannenbaum (until neighbors warned them that American fir trees, cut a month in advance, could well go up in flames).
Lacquer evokes “a childhood produced by the children of nineteenth-century Jews, who imagined the land of Goethe and Schiller with little of its reality or recent history.” He recalls that the family spoke German at the dinner table until he left for college because his grandmother claimed neither to speak nor understand English. “This was clearly false,” he writes. “She read English papers and watched English TV — but feigning ignorance allowed her to maintain the fiction of otherworldly incompetence that she seems to have cultivated all her life and that kept her entirely out of public view…”
Lacquer’s grandmother was the youngest of six children, born in the waning of the Biedermeier era. She spoke French (this, apparently, she admitted without shame) and played the piano well. “She and my grandfather lived for music,” writes Lacquer, “which they played four hands. They had heard Brahms conduct, early in their lives together, as well as many of the other great German conductors of the nineteenth century… My grandmother could do all sorts of needlework. But she could not — or at least did not, in anyone’s memory — so much as boil an egg.”
He writes that she remained in Germany until December 1939 on the grounds that she did not want to leave her Bechstein grand piano. “In America, she dressed and acted like a lady of a distant century,” he writes, “seemingly unaware that the world around her had changed…. The first of my fantasy Germany’s is hers. The words I associate with her are Es geht rapide bergab — ‘things are going rapidly downhill’ — something she said about herself from when she was in her late seventies to when she went gaga in her late nineties.”
From his father the young Thomaslein, as his mother then called him, learned curses (in the most traditional sense of the term), such as: Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selvst vergebens (“With stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain”) and what Lacquer refers to as “the ridiculously quaint” Was glaubst du das ich bin, ein Dukatenscheisser?, with which he approached his wife every month when he paid the bills (translation: “What do you think I am? Someone who s–ts ducats?”).
Of the sayings his father hoped he would remember, Kant’s categorical imperative was foremost — recited, according to Lacquer, with a “special tone of reverence”: Handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, daß sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde. (“Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”)
Lacquer also recalls that Donnerwetter (“thunder weather”) “was the prelude to an explosion of my father’s anger and was often followed by noch ein mal (‘once again’). This malediction was frequently associated with the threat that if we continued to misbehave my mother would call my father, who would then say ein machtwort — literally, a “word of power,” but really more like the definitive warning of the super-ego.”
Since another of the family sayings was Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi (Latin having an authority at least equal to German), which meant “What is allowed to Jupiter is not allowed to the ox,” writes Lacquer, “the ‘thunder weather/words of power’ combo carried a certain mythological terror,” noting that the Latin expression was used mostly to explain “why my reading of the categorical imperative was mistake in holding that the maxim for some action of my father’s included him…. I thought this was fudging on the universality principle but got nowhere with this line of argument.”
One word Lacquer says belongs to both his parents is Unsinn (“nonsense”; “absurdity”), recalling that, “Mache keinen Unsinn (“Don’t do anything stupid”) was the standard caution before my going out on a date. It did not apply to my driving, which was impeccable, but to ‘parking’ on one of the hundreds of miles of strip mine roads around where we lived and necking the evening away. (There was nothing else to do in Beckley, West Va., but this nonsense had other things to recommend it.)”
He finally reminisces about how his mother kept a copy of Heinrich Heine’s complete poems on her night table, which she read most days of her life, “Die Lorelei” being her favorite:
Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedueten,
Daß ich so traurig bin,
Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
(“I do not know what it means, that I am so sorrowful; I cannot get out of my head a tale of the most ancient of times.”) “This is roughly how I feel about things German in general,” writes Lacquer. “A fairy-tale built of projections and fantasies and memories that I cannot erase and that leave me melancholy.”
AUTHOR LUC SANTE, WHO came to the United States with his parents from Belgium as a child, writes in his delightful essay “French Without Tears” that his family attempted at first, as many immigrant families do, to create a language bubble for him. “When I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, the whole family would gather for Pepe le Pew, the Gallic skunk forever making romantic advances to horrified black and white cats: L’amour, toujours l’amour…”
While, during his first year of school in the United States, Sante’s mother drilled him in French for an hour when he got home every day, he recalls that the family’s efforts to remain francophone were ultimately in vain. “The family language was progressively mongrelized,” he writes. “While keeping the pronunciation and syntax of French it became franglais.”
His observations about the language itself are particularly astute, as exemplified by his explanation of why French is so susceptible to puns. “French does not necessarily have fewer sounds than English, but the protocols governing their order and frequency make their appearances predictable — hence the profusion of sound-alike phrases and sentences, which fueled Surrealism and ensure the ongoing appeal of Freudian and post-Freudian ideas in the French speaking world: Les dents, la bouche. Laid dans la bouche. Les dents la bouchent. L’aidant la bouche. Etc. These phrases, which sound exactly alike, respectively mean ‘the teeth, the mouth’; ‘ugly in the mouth’; ‘the teeth choke her’; ‘helping her chokes her.’ You don’t need to have been psychoanalyzed by Jacques Lacan to see from these examples how language can assist thought in swiftly tunneling from the mundane to the taboo.”
He then discusses his father’s love of reading and of the French language, particularly its precision. He recalls how the contents of his father’s bookshelf in America “He was a stickler for le mot juste, that very French , very positivistic idea that there is one, and only one, exact word capable of expressing a particular idea in a particular circumstance,” writes Sante. “Style for him was a matter of both precision and elegance, which were entwined in any case.”
Sante says his father also inculcated in him as “the very model of elegance” the conclusion of Cyrano. The dying hero announces to his friends that quelque chose que sans un pli, sans une tache/J’emporte malgré vous (“something spotless and unwrinkled, that despite you I’m taking with me”). He lifts his sword, proclaims et c’est; the sword drops from his hand and he falls into the arms of his companions. Roxane kisses his forehead and asks C’est? Cyrano opens his eyes, recognizes her and says, smiling, Mon panache. Curtain.
“Panache literally means the plume of a hat, as worn by a seventeenth-century gentleman,” writes Sante, “but it also means what it does in English, only more so. Thus we have the pun in the last breath of life, the expression of wit as an exemplary act of heroism, the manifestation of a principle in the very utterance of its name.”
Sante has similarly keen observations to offer on American English. In college, Sante found what he thought was the “authentic music of the American language, in the prose of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. ‘They threw me off the hay truck about noon,’ the opening sentence of The Postman Always Rings Twice, seemed to exemplify in nine words all the highest virtues of American prose. It was plain, unadorned demotic speech, resolutely laconic and flat, containing a while landscape of gas stations and bus depots and bars, of dollar bills and cigarette butts and spit, stuff I had encountered in daily life that seemed to stare down literature and dare it to cross the line in the dirt.”
WHILE MANY OF THE OTHER essays in The Genius of Language are considerably weaker than these two, there is some fine writing scattered throughout the collection. Gary Shteyngart, who was born in Russia and emigrated with his parents to the United States in the 1980s as a school-age child, writes that he found himself cut off from his peers by more than just the language barrier. He remembers himself as “doubly handicapped, living in a world where I speak neither the actual language, English, nor the second and almost just as important language — television. For most of my American childhood I have the wretched sensation that fin-de-siècle Yalta with its idle, beautiful women and conflicted, lecherous men lies somewhere between the Toys ‘R’ Us superstore and the multiplex.”
Leonard Michaels’ essay on Yiddish is also well worth reading, as is Amy Tan’s on Chinese. A few fall flat, such as Ariel Dorfman’s overwrought musings on Spanish and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s rather predictable diatribe on the African tribal language Gikuyu. Bharati Mukherjee’s essay on Bangla also lapses into knee-jerk anti-Colonialism at times, but she provides the collection with perhaps the most beautiful closing line — ironically indebted as it is to Western literature: “For a writer, the melting of a mother tongue is the Madeleine, the way back, and the way in, an early loss with the deepest memory, the mother of all plots.”