I am obsessed with literary depictions of tongues that are cut, torn, or threatened. I keep a collection of tongues, a long list of references beginning in antiquity and stretching to contemporary poetry: Prudentius, Elias Canetti, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dionne Brand. Whenever authors need a symbol for linguistic incapacity, for the difficulty of expressing oneself, be it in an adoptive language, in the mother tongue, or in an old system of signs that no longer represents a new reality, they turn to the image of a violated tongue.
When I try to write in Romanian, my tongue does not feel injured. No. It feels as though my tongue were cleaving to the roof of my mouth, as if I had unthinkingly eaten two large spoonfuls of peanut butter and lost both the power to speak and the air from my lungs.
Once in Canada, my parents only befriended other Romanians. This is how it is in the diaspora—you find a group of people with the same cultural references, the same irrational nostalgia, the same tastes and traumas. My generation no longer spoke the language, even though we had grown up hearing it. Our parents’ culture was something strange to us; it was almost as though we were ashamed of it. Of all the girls in my circle (because, for some reason, we were nearly all girls), only I continued speaking Romanian, and this was due to my father. At any rate, here is how he told the story: my grandparents visited us in Toronto at the start of the 1990s when I was about ten years old, and it was then that my parents realized I no longer spoke the language. I could understand my family but always replied in English. My father then made a rule that I had to answer in Romanian. Years later, he was proud of the fact that I could still speak the mother tongue. Or in my case, the father tongue.
When I gave birth to my son, I was thirty-one years old and living in Dallas. I had left my parents’ home nine years earlier and had begun living most of my life in English. While other languages trickled into my daily rhythm—Spanish in public spaces, German in the intimacy of my marriage, medieval languages in my job at the university—Romanian only appeared when I spoke on the phone with my family. During my pregnancy, I had no idea what would come out of my mouth when I saw my baby face-to-face. I wanted to speak Romanian with him, to give him at least the chance of understanding my family, the chance to become multilingual in a natural, unforced way. It seemed to me that it would require effort, a certain amount of discipline.
The decision became clear the moment I saw Maxi. In fact, it was not so much decision as instinct. I spoke to him in the way that felt most natural, and that meant the language I’d heard when I was small. This was the language in which I was cuddled and pampered, caressed, and sometimes scolded. I suddenly understood how wonderful Romanian is for talking to children. How many darling diminutives I had ready for each part of his body. He had tiny fingers, degețele; a wee belly, burtic; a sweet little nose, năsuc; and dear little feet, picioruțe. Romanian has a treasure of endings to make each noun Lilliputian: -uțuri, -eluri, -ioruri. English seemed then a bulky, hulking way to speak, and for the first time I could not believe that there were people who used the same heavy word for the coarse fist of a grown man and the delicate hand of a newborn.
I first wrote this essay in Romanian, after years of trying to fit my reality imperfectly into English. In my essays, my father and mother and grandmothers speak English. I translate them so that I can tell my story, but every time I type a quotation mark, I know I’m preparing to lie. The rhythm of their speech is wrong; their wit, so cutting and ancient, loses its edge.
A Romanian editor suggested I try writing something in my mother tongue, so I did. I was suffering from writer’s block, and it seemed like a good change of pace. Once I started, there was no question of perfecting my expression or of even communicating what I truly thought. I simply wrote what I could and was grateful for each sentence as it appeared. If I could not write what I meant with the expressions I had, I wrote something I didn’t mean. It was tense but not painful.
When I came to words originally spoken in Romanian, I felt like I was sinking into a hot bathtub. For once I didn’t have to be on guard. I didn’t have to hold my breath.
When I was nineteen, I spent the summer in Bucharest. People kept asking me where I was from. I wanted to shout: From here! From this city! I was born here! To them, I sounded like a stranger who had learned Romanian very well; I spoke the English language but with Romanian words. Sometimes, I also feel as though I learned the tongue in school. It might as well be Latin or Old English, which I studied at university, formally, from books. Languages dead now for a thousand, two thousand years. Not the Romanian I was born into, in which I spent my childhood, but which I never met inside a classroom.
I needed batteries one day that summer. As I waited in line at a kiosk, I formulated the question in my head, using the formal second person: “Excuse me, sir, do you happen to have batteries?” When I reached the window, I unfurled my baroque little speech, while the shopkeeper became increasingly annoyed with every second and every hesitation. After me there were other customers, and I listened to the brusque way they asked for what they wanted. You have cigarettes? You have gum?
Maxi was three months old when we moved to Germany. My husband spoke German with him, I spoke Romanian with him, and our conjugal language was English. We didn’t really know what to expect, what the poor boy would understand. But I continued undaunted with my program. Colors in Romanian. Animals. Parts of the body. Foods. I showed him each object and repeated the word, until he began to recognize the sound and its meaning. I was the only person who spoke Romanian with him. I had no ambition to teach him the language perfectly; I knew that would not be possible. I just wanted to give him a grounding, so that he would not have to start at zero if he ever came to be interested in that part of his history. I wanted to give him the chance to choose what he wanted from Romania. And that meant I had to put in the effort to teach him as much as I could, as early as possible.
I did want one more thing. I wanted him to know his grandparents in Romanian. I wanted him to know how funny and smart they are, to sense that spirit that is so often lost in a second language.
Most of the older Romanians I knew in Canada and the US were not particularly attached to their background. Sure, they missed the food from home, and sometimes they held on to beloved songs or faith, perhaps to some idealized images from their youth. But they did not seem to feel much of a need to pass on their culture. In Toronto, my friends’ parents sent them to after-school programs where they studied Hebrew or Cantonese. None of the Romanians I knew growing up sent their kids to special classes. Their kids, in turn, changed their names ever so slightly, so as to make them more palatable to anglophone tongues. Iulia became Julia. Alexandru became Alex. Irina became Irene.
We adapted superbly. You could say we were the ideal immigrants. We were ready to forget everything.
It was a kind of madness to speak a language to my son that I hadn’t used in almost a decade. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that people around us would not understand us. I know some people consider it rude when someone speaks a foreign tongue in a public space, but for me it always felt like a necessity, even a life raft. Growing up among kids whose families came from India, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Poland, I felt sorry for the few friends who didn’t have a dedicated language for speaking to their parents. How embarrassing, I thought, for the whole world to understand your family business.
No, my problem was simpler and more shameful: I was unschooled. I was almost illiterate. I didn’t know how to form plurals (when first writing this essay in Romanian, I had to search online for the plural of “plural”), and once events had gone by, they existed in a tense that I could describe only with great difficulty. Even children’s books, the ones without words, were challenging. Maxi’s first books had drawings of animals, but I could not name all of them without a dictionary, never mind what sound the rooster or the goat makes. Animal sounds are regional: A dog goes woof-woof in English and wau-wau in German, but I had to search my memory to remember that a Romanian hound goes ham-ham.
I speak a Romanian that is antiquated, out of fashion. It’s the language of diaspora and nostalgia. The language of grandmothers. There is a theory that holds that languages spoken in former colonies—the French of Québec, for example—preserve the archaic qualities of the founding tongues. While the language spoken in the metropolitan center changes and evolves, places far away from the country of origin maintain their dialects embalmed, like an ant in a drop of amber.
Linguists dispute this theory, but I do believe that this can happen in the life of a human being, of a family, even of a community. A few years ago, my grandmother, who emigrated to Canada not long after the visit that precipitated my father’s rule, began to receive Romanian shows via satellite television. I could not believe the news programs when I heard them. The anchors spoke a kind of Romanian that seemed too casual for a serious show, almost to the point of being rude. “Things have changed over there,” my grandmother said when she saw my reaction. I could no longer judge the register of Romanian, whether it was suitable to the situation or not. To know a language you need more than grammar and vocabulary; a language gains its life from memories. It is woven from all the voices you ever knew, from the daily noise of the street, from the quiet melodies of the authors you read, from jokes and songs and curses. I did not know this language.
How can I write in my tongue? Is Romanian even my tongue?
This language does not belong to me; I am missing too many words, too many references—it is a ghostly memory I cannot escape.
The irony is that when I write in English I cannot break away from the rhythms of my mother tongue. I write long, expansive sentences that don’t end. This may be considered good style in Romanian, or maybe in French, but not necessarily in English. The style I love best in modern English is laconic: short, limpid phrases with a minimum of words. When I revise my own work, my greatest challenge is to simplify, to reduce, to prune, and to tidy. Are my never-ending sentences the subconscious traces of my mother tongue? Or are they rather a sign of my anxious disposition, of the fact that I am afraid to state my opinions firmly and clearly, especially when they might upset someone?
When I write in Romanian I do not have to fight to keep my sentences short. I have no way to make them long. Trying to write in Romanian, I arrive, without effort, at the simplicity that I long for in English.
Eight months after I gave birth to my son, my father ended our relationship. That’s when I lost my father tongue. Our phone conversations had been difficult, but they were in perfect Romanian. I learned from them. With my mother I spoke, and still speak, a medley of languages. I once asked her how to say something in Romanian, and she answered with the same English word I had just used. I repeated my question, and said I wanted to learn the Romanian word for it, because I knew the English one already. She said the English word again. We kept going back and forth for a while, until I gave up.
I was six when I left Romania, carrying little baggage. I had the Grimm Brothers and a now-lost children’s book called A Mystery with Raisins. I had my grandmother’s proverbs: Eat breakfast alone, share lunch with a friend, and give dinner to your enemy. I kept the melody of a song she used to sing in a sweet, high voice every time we set out on a trip but forgot everything beyond the first line, With all the best of friends, and something about the little rooster who would accompany us. I remembered her home remedy for an upset stomach—a single teaspoon of sugar dissolved on the tongue, chased with a small glass of water.
My grandfather was a poet who wrote short, humorous epigrams, and some of his punchlines stayed with me. I don’t know if I caught his humor from childhood or from reading his books later on, but the rhythm and spirit of his quips were in my blood.
When I was five years old, my family asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
“A rhymist,” I said, thinking that was what a poet was called.
“Have you written a poem?”
Lângă un alb-negru nufăr
Stă ascuns un cufăr.
“Next to a white-black water lily, a coffer sits hidden,” I said.
“But, Irina,” they said, “that water lily is either white or black.”
I meant to respond that poetry is not identical, leită, with reality. But I mixed up leită with another word, sleită.
“Poetry is not exhausted with reality,” I declared.
Maxi hasn’t learned to speak Romanian. But he understands me well enough, surprisingly well, given that in his nine years, his exposure to the language has mostly been through my mothering. He can translate into German what I say to him in Romanian. He notices similarities between the three languages that surround him and delights in wordplay. When we are alone together for a few days, he begins to speak Romanian spontaneously in short phrases. He knows that if he asks me for something in Romanian, he is likely to get what he wants—for pedagogic reasons, of course. A few years ago, I took him to the Black Sea, and he didn’t make much progress with the language, except when it came to food. I only have to mention the beach and he still begins to sing the call of the hawkers who sell hot corn from plastic bags and fresh raspberries in paper cones: Porumb, porumbel! Zmeură, zmeurică!
There are moments when Romanian annoys him: when he is tired, or when I try to convey a complex idea. My discipline has wavered. I now speak to him more often in German. I’ve started in English, too, but even though it is the language I know best, it feels forced and artificial to speak it with my child. (As forced and artificial as it feels to write my halting sentences in Romanian.) I want to stay with him in the imperfect but tender space of the mother tongue, the father tongue, the tongue of my childhood and my grandparents. A language I learned without learning, that I forgot without forgetting. A language as sweet as a mouthful of sugar.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.
Author’s note: “Tongue Stuck” is an expanded and adapted version of “O limbă lipită de cerul gurii,” which appeared in the Bucharest-based cultural magazine Scena9 in its 2019-20 issue. I am grateful to Luiza Vasiliu, at whose prompting I wrote my first essay in Romanian, and to Alysia Sawchyn, who gently helped usher it into my adoptive English.