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X-words

24 June 2011

X-Words was presented at the 7th Women Playwrights’ International Conference in Indonesia, November 2006. This is a revised version of that piece.

The C-A-T, cat, sat on the M-A-T, mat.
I learnt to read with The Times and with Janet and John. In repetitive, staccato sentences Janet helped her mother in the kitchen while John rode in the car with dad. Janet’s only respite from housework seemed to be stepping in puddles, which inevitably took her back inside—to wash her mud-splattered white socks. Fortunately The Times newspaper offered a view beyond the picket fence. My father taught me the alphabet by cutting up the individual letters of the headlines. Once I’d got A—Z under control we moved onto the articles. This meant that I could supplement dogs and balls and primary colours with missile deployments, inquests and satellites. Not that my idiosyncratic vocabulary earned me any gold stars. When I announced to the class that I already knew how to read, I was called a show-off by the teacher and put into the Slow Learners group.

It didn’t take me long to discover that these Slow Learners were nothing of the kind. They were the children of Italian market gardeners, Cypriot watchmakers, and Hungarian refugees, in an era when English-as-a-second-language teaching was non-existent. From our exile in the corner, we shared biscotti and wax crayons and Giuseppe, Fotini and Júlia absorbed the words of their new country by a kind of osmosis—that wonderful linguistic facility only the very young possess.

In 1934 the Czech anti-fascist writer and activist, Egon Kisch, jumped into Australian history from the deck of the P&O liner the Strathaird. He landed awkwardly, breaking his leg on Port Melbourne’s dockside, and confounding the government officers who’d come on board to tell him that he had been refused permission to disembark. Kisch’s freedom was short-lived—about 5 minutes. Before he was taken away by police to sit a dictation test.

Under Section 3(a) of the then Immigration Act, an act framed soon after Federation in 1901 to enforce the infamous ‘White Australia’ policy, an immigrant or visitor could be required to pass a dictation exam in any European language. Yep, that’s right—any European language. Aware of Kish’s reputation as a linguist, the authorities chose Scottish Gaelic as the fail-safe way to ban him. For Gerald Griffin, a New Zealander of Irish background, and fellow guest of the 1934 All-Australian Congress Against War and Fascism, Dutch was the language used to send him back across the Tasman.

Small discomforts start long trains of thought. It’s tempting to claim my experience with the Slow Learners as an epiphany; a moment when I realised the power of language; that we can do things to each other with words, use them to exclude or persuade, silence or seduce; that language is political. Aboriginal Australians claiming land rights have a stronger case, legally-speaking, if they can prove their connection to the place by linguistic association. Knowing the name of that waterhole can be crucial.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words too can be lethal.
Chutzpah, kitsch, schlock . . .
I know only those Yiddish terms that have found their way into English, but I imagine that to write drama, essays or poetry in that tongue is to proclaim on every page, in every line of dialogue, that the Holocaust did not reduce that language to ash.

There was of course, no sudden flash of insight the morning I joined the Slow Learners, but I suspect that experience did, in some small way, kick-start my fascination with language, be it the supermarket trolley that is English, or the desire to comprehend a foreign reality.

Aimer to love, from the Latin: amare.
Amo, amas, amat: I love, you love, he/she/it loves . . .
The first foreign languages I studied were Latin and French. While the former focused on military manoeuvres, the latter conjured a landscape of vineyards and philosophical discourse, of cigarette butts and revolution, a sophisticated world glimpsed through a scrabble of subtitles.
One night when I was about 10 or 11 years-old, I got out of bed and crept downstairs. Pulled the big Larousse from the bookshelf, and stretched out on the living room carpet with the English-French dictionary open on my chest. It was 2:55 am. Outside it was raining, inside the light was off, but I held onto that book hoping, I think, for a miracle that might allow me to ingest an entire lexicon while I slept.

What’s your favourite letter?
Mine’s X.
Poor X, only a couple of pages in a dictionary almost 2-and-a-half thousand long. A symbol that shouts: Don’t do it! That announces: No Entry! Warns of dangerous crossings and blocked roads. X is a changeling and a trickster, keeping itself crossed, the way ex-lovers twist their fingers to tell a lie. X is a kiss, a chromosome; X jazzes up its poor relations; X cajoles and gets what it wants. With X by its side ray has the capacity to see right though you. X makes music, marks the spot, stands in for Jesus at Christmas. X is a short-cut, a vote, can be sleazy or scientific, and the more you cross it out, the more firmly it remains. X is capricious and contrary. X is the right answer, the wrong answer, I-don’t-know-the-answer. X obliterates and gets rid of what once was. X is the sign of the illiterate, denotes poverty and displacement. X goes forth and multiplies. And X is mysterious, an unknown quantity—thanks to Descartes’ printer who ran out of Ys and Zs for his equations and so turned to X.
X equals independence.

Kisch’s dictation test was administered by a Constable Mackay. In the appeal mounted by his legal team, details of this farce emerged. Mackay had never used Gaelic in his adult life and had only a tenuous grasp of the language. The text he was asked to translated into Gaelic for Kisch to transcribe was: ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. However, the Constable’s version actually translated into: ‘As well as we could benefit, and if we let her scatter free to the bad’. Kisch had been required to interpret an incomprehensible piece of nonsense. He didn’t even try. He screwed up the paper and threw it away in disgust. Shortly thereafter he was set free, the High Court finding Scots Gaelic to be a dialect rather than a true language, a decision which enraged the Scottish community.

When I arrived in Australia in 1986, no bureaucrat stepped forward to measure my linguistic abilities or limitations. But the spectre of the language test still haunts the national psyche, and shadows debate on the reception of non-English-speaking migrants. In recent years, the space between the lamp-posts has grown darker, as the ‘War On Terror’ and other events on the world stage, send governments into a frenzy of border protection.
The grammar of homeland security is deployed.
Refugees and asylum-seekers are renamed ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘illegal aliens’, linguistic chicanery likely to lessen public sympathy.

Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land and along the Kimberley coast still retain words they adopted hundreds of years ago from the Makassan fishermen with whom they traded. There were at least 14 Jews in the First Fleet that landed in Sydney in 1778. Afghan camel traders were traversing the deserts of the red centre in the late 19th century. While the Japanese packed their ghosts and rice bowls and arrived to begin new lives as entrepreneurs, farmers and pearl divers. A complex early demography that belies the popular and persistent view of Australia as an outpost of empire. A homogeneous British colony at the end of the world. (The white trash of Asia in more current parlance.) Then of course came the large-scale post-war migrations to blast away the provincialism and stretch the conversation a little further over the map.
And now—
Now cars accelerate into the outskirts towards the soothing excitement of scrub pine and shopping malls. Suburbs echo with the muzak of a thousand lawnmowers. And in living rooms we turn on American accents and catch the running captions. That digital text, like a line of termites, chewing right to left across the bottom of the TV screen. The flash of capital and percentages that underscores news coverage, that funnels world affairs into parochial narratives.

In my second or third year of high school we spent a term doing Transport Geography with Miss Stephenson. We went on field trips to the Channel ports, railway stations, and the British Leyland car factory near Oxford. Drew maps of trade routes and wrote assignments on the importance of the Panama and Suez Canals. To be honest, I can’t say I found the topic particularly riveting, but for some reason the word transport parked in my consciousness and refused to budge. And before long I’d developed a grudging interest in—no, more than that—an affection for the prefix ‘Trans’ from the Latin ‘across’. In italics, music, electricity, in the fine print of my dreams, everywhere I looked, there it was. Transparent, transpose, transmit, Transylvania—the whole extended family. Miss Stephenson was quite passionate: The future, she said, the future would be about the transfer of commodities, people and ideas around the globe.
Transit, transatlantic, transact, there are always some relatives you like more than others, aren’t there? Well, my favourite was translation.
Translation.
The ghost voice of an enormous world, bringing into the classroom the gift of the gab.

For Walter Benjamin the task of the translator is to reveal the hidden kinship among languages. Anthropologist Lévi Strauss offers another perspective: ‘Differences are extremely fecund,’ he wrote in 1978, ‘it is only through difference that progress has been made.’ While Derrida famously said that a good translation must always commit abuses. For me, translation became synonymous with Eastern Europe, with places where the planet sang at a sharper pitch. Cold War cities of dusty files and unsolved grievances, where it was always February and snowing like something out of Tolstoy. Push and I’d see endless forests of thin birch trees and the smoky interiors of coffee houses—although the pragmatic side of me knew concrete and bleak hinterlands were a more likely vista.
To translate in this context meant to understand that every word had a double, some version of itself cloaked in winter fur.

I wish I could say that I managed to transform my chosen word into action, and become the kind of polyglot you read about in medical journals and the occasional travel account. But I didn’t. Here’s a partial inventory of my less-than-impressive linguistic achievements:
1. Polish—lost in the past tense.
2. German—a year working as a Kindermädchen taught me: breadcrumbs, garlic, and: Did you hear what I just said?
3. Vietnamese—phonetic instructions to railway stations.
4. Korean—a hundred ways to apologise—I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture.
Oh and Euskara—

Euskara is the isolated, jagged, uphill tongue of the Basque country. Suppressed in the past by nationalist governments in France and Spain, it is devoid of Cs, Qs, Vs, Ws and Ys—except in borrowed words. But has an abundance of Xs. Hello: Kaixo! The month of March is M-A-R-T-X-O-A, txartel is a ticket, and there are even some words which contain 2 letter Xs: txotxongllo, a puppet or marionette, and txotxolo meaning fool or idiot. Not to mention txakoli, the sparkling white wine we drank by the tumbler-full when I was a student doing ethnographic fieldwork there.

Some neurologists argue that people with a flair for languages may have different brains from the rest of us, that their brains might be less symmetrical. A pronouncement that would have intrigued John Dee, the mathematician, alchemist, and Renaissance man who was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero. Dee spent years working on a language to talk to angels. As did Hildegard of Bingen—that medieval one-woman Google—some 4 centuries earlier. Possessed of extraordinary and eclectic talents, Hildegard composed music and verse, penned theological dissertations, researched the natural environment, ventured forth as a kind of monastic trouble-shooter and consultant exorcist, and somewhere in amongst all that industry, found the time to devise a secret language. She attributed her Lingua ignota, like her ‘unheard music’, to divine revelation, and it is—arguably—the only constructed language that still exists intact from the European Middle Ages.

Speaking of time.
My father grew up in the gap between electric light and television. When people spent their evenings building battleships out of matches, pressing flowers, and collecting marbles, seagull feathers, rubber bands, anything in the shape of an elephant. And he tried to pass on this enthusiasm to my brother and myself, buying my brother a succession of Airfix model aeroplanes. But the collection never took off, the Spitfires and Lancaster Bombers sat unopened in their boxes. I tried buttons, goldfish, stamps—but nothing stuck.
Until he gave me a notebook and I began to collect words.

I wrote down unfamiliar expressions, metaphors that fired my imagination, constructed new verbs, and developed my own short-hand calligraphy. Years, decades, later that collection is still going strong, although more of it is now stored on hard-disc than on notepaper. It’s evolved into plays, radio scripts, essays and other writings. But if I scroll through my documents and jottings, I come across these off-cuts and snippets:
There’s a footnote about the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges who, despite failing eyesight, was determined to master the language of Beowulf.
The idealism of Esperanto.
The alpha, bravo, Charlie of the NATO spelling alphabet—and many a TV cop show. The acoustic tap-tap of Morse Code with its cargo of shipwrecks and storms.
That story—probably apocryphal—about Humboldt’s parrot, the last remaining speaker of the South American Atures language.
And an index of imported and inherently untranslatable words: Weltschmerz, Schadenfreude, chiaroscuro, schmaltz, tsunami, fait accompli, saudade . . .

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the author Milan Kundera rued the decline of Central Europe during the years of Soviet dominance. He used the Czech ‘litost’ to describe that anguished longing: ‘A state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.’ A word with no exact equivalent in English.

Today’s buzz word seems to be ‘forensic’. Our small screens are awash with forensic anthropologists, crime scene investigators and pathologists. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before there’s a series about forensic linguists shining their blue torches onto printouts and dissecting the speech patterns of suspects.

They pop up regularly, don’t they? Fake doctors, lawyers or accountants. People practising a profession for which they hold no qualification. There are so many of these cons that we hardly notice them, although I do find it intriguing that the mortality rates amongst the pretend doctor’s patients are generally no higher than average. But one of these scams caught my attention. In a little-reported corner of the atlas, a woman was accused of being a fake English teacher. Let’s call her X. According to the article she’d been the paid carer of an elderly English woman in the final stages of dementia. To while away the hours, X took to recording the old lady’s ramblings on an antiquated audio cassette machine. Later, she transcribed these tapes into an exercise book, and attempted to make sense of them.

At the time of her arrest X was teaching beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, yet she didn’t know there was a future tense in English, that the personal pronoun ‘you’ could be singular or plural, or the meaning of deception. The English she was teaching was an idiom of her own invention, peppered with a few recognisable bits of syntax.

But here’s the mystery.
At her trial, many students gave evidence, insisting that she had been a wonderful teacher, and a tremendous help to them. One even described her as ‘the Picasso of small-talk’.
Rightly or wrongly, English has become the universal lingua franca, and for these students, X’s half-baked, ersatz English was their passport.

To all intents and purposes the case of Egon Kisch is now tucked into folklore, the way you slip a tram ticket or a postcard into a book. Sure to fall out whenever the volume is opened.
2006:
The government discusses plans to make new arrivals pass a citizenship test to confirm their English language skills, as well as their knowledge of Australian history and values.
The C-A-T is back on the M-A-T and conservatives everywhere are triumphant.
But before we enshrine monolingualism and that other X-word, xenophobia, as national values, there are a few things I’d like to say:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.
Actually they can, and do. Invading armies and repressive regimes throughout history can vouch for the crushing might of words. After all, if you can get the other party to use your terminology and scenarios, you’re halfway to victory.
Catalan, Welsh, Gĩkũyũ, Kurdish, indigenous tongues on every continent. The list of languages that have, at some point, been outlawed or restricted is a long one.
Words like ranks of shadows thinned to an official diction.

As walls and borders are demolished and dissolved, so new, less concrete ones, are erected. Ideologically along lines of language, ethnicity or faith; paper ones of immigration regulations; emotional ones cemented with the rhetoric of fear.

The writing’s on the wall.
In Marrickville, one of Sydney’s most culturally diverse neighbourhoods, the local council have been arguing over a proposal that all businesses translate foreign-language signs into English. These English translations must ‘appear in characters at least as large as those used for the remainder of the signage‘. A couple of days after that story first broke in the press I was in Marrickville—a suburb I lived in for 10 years and know well—and there was a shopkeeper, pasting giant, copper-coloured letters over his window: P-H-A-R-M-A-C-Y. An upper-case statement in our increasingly lower-case world.

Language can talk down from incredible heights of arrogance, but it can also build bridges, tunnel from the commonplace to the taboo, and astound us with its beauty. It can be a medium of pleasure, and not only safe, approved pleasure, but wild, anarchic, sexy, disruptive fun. And every time someone utters that playground retort: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me, we hear in the chant’s singsong cadence, that language, written or spoken, involves rhyme as well as reason.

When he was younger, my father spoke like an explosion in a dictionary, with all the exuberant pleasure of one who grasps a language more tightly because it has been discovered, rather than simply inherited. A few years ago he lost an ear to cancer, and that, plus the effects of old age—and now Parkinson’s disease—have reduced his ability to communicate, and those wonderful surges of pure unadulterated language that punctuated my childhood are no more. But he did remind me the last time I saw him, about Mrs Bradley. Originally from Germany, Mrs Bradley was a melancholy soul who’d never really adjusted to life in a foreign language. A broad boned woman with skin like washing left too long in the wind, she’d occasionally pick us all up from school, and the 5-minute drive home would expand into a 40-minute detour to check every nearby street poster and billboard, looking for cars, washing machines and hair-dryers: Volkswagen, Miele, Braun, Mercedes-Benz, Grundig, Siemens. Those German brand-names that cheered her up and, for a while at least, narrowed the gap between here and there, then and now.

But language is not merely an arrangement of sounds and utterances, any more than it’s a list of corporate logos. Language is first and foremost, the people who speak it. So I understand Walter Benjamin’s statement that the act of translation is a yearning, a desire for connection. I think my stockpiles of words and experiments with foreign languages were—are—an attempt to discover an order of things beyond myself and my own geography. An elsewhere that will click open like a combination lock, if only I can learn the requisite keywords.

We didn’t have a television until I was almost in my teens, and even when we did acquire one, I was only allowed half-an-hour a day—not enough to know what a dalek was, find an actor to have a crush on, or be up to speed on the latest sit-coms. I tried explaining to my parents that this was having major social consequences: without fluency in the plots and catch phrases of TV, I had nothing to share with my classmates. I can’t remember my parents’ response, but I wonder now, if sometimes one doesn’t understand the truth of things better through absences and lacks.

Although pity Giuseppe, Fotini and Júlia if their families didn’t have TV? Doubly handicapped, living in a place where they spoke neither the actual language, English, nor that second almost as important language—television.

But enough of television. As a playwright, how do you interpret and present a point of view outside your own compass? How do you find the words? It’s an oft-repeated cliché that theatre is a mirror held up to society, and it is—but it’s also, at its best, much, much more than that. Dangerous, irreverent, seductive, provocative, contradictory. If reflection were theatre’s sole purpose, it could never be any of these things. It would never question, never transcend reality. So I prefer to think of performance as possibility. An ongoing dialogue between excess and economy, between what is obvious and what is hidden, the mundane and the transcendental. In my most idealistic moments, a country without border patrols where a truth can be told that may not be not be the accepted wisdom; a space of infinite poly-vocal potential. ‘Poly’—another well-connected prefix. This one from the Greek, polus, polloi, meaning much or many . . .

I began this piece in London, learning to read with Janet and John, so I will conclude in Australia. At a mass rally in Sydney’s Hyde Park in 1934. With the words of Egon Kisch: ‘My English is broken, my leg is broken, but my heart, that is not broken.’

© Noëlle Janaczewska, 15 November 2006, revised March 2007.

From → Essays

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