Post-colonialist literature battles with the conflict of language—of who it belongs to and who belongs to it. It asks questions of how to express ideas and stories: in a native tongue, or in English. How do you decide? How do you give up part of yourself once you pick one side of the war? I ask myself, how it’s possible to gain power over something so powerful as language.
The Mayans believe that words have tremendous power--that words are so powerful that if you speak the name of someone, they are there, that when retelling an event, it is happening anew. And words do have power. Writing is such a release because when letting the words spill onto the page (or screen, as is in this case) it is essentially allowing my essence to overflow out of me. Using my fingers as a tool, the words just come. It is the same when singing, except more so. Combining two of the greatest powers in the world, music and language, allows the calamity inside to be set free and released upon the world in a much saner way. So I suppose words do have great force. They are my thoughts and feelings, my testimony, my words, my very soul--ME.
But if this is true, why do words fail me so often? Have I just not been blessed with the talent of words? There are times when I feel that certain words in a certain order have been brought to my mind. Everything just meshes into place and not only do the written or spoken letters appropriately propel my message to the heart, but they sound, look, FEEL beautiful. Right. There are these few times when the words are right. Yet it seems like so much more often I find myself struggling to convey my deepest thoughts and feelings to others. Somehow I think and my mind will be whirling, but these ideas in my head are somehow not words. I do not know what else they could be--in my mind I seem to think in words, but this must be a mirage. My thoughts cannot be words, for as soon as I attempt to let them go, something happens and I don't have the capability to express myself. And when I manage to eke out the barest essentials of my main train of thought, all the beauty, grace, tact, form, strength, eloquence has escaped. My words are instead weak and lame, limping off my tongue into the ears of those listening.
It is at times like this that words frustrate me, and I question them: how can these letters and sounds form anything of meaning even, let alone carry all these concepts and thoughts in my head to others. Somehow what is inside me needs to be carried to others. There are specific times when I feel this so strongly, or when I don't necessarily need to but all of me just aches and yearns to. And, of course, it is in these instances when words abandon me, and I stutter alone, wondering how I can translate what weighs in my heart and mind.
And this is in my native language. It is even more of a struggle in German. The frustrating part is not just that I am limited in my communication ability, but that I have worked for years studying my own language and working on communicating through it. When I was little I devoured books and then spat up my own imitations of stories and poems. As an English major, my life is reading and writing and trying to find ways to best say what I want. And, despite the inadequacy I feel, at least I realize that I can usually communicate at a level appropriate for my age. But in German, I just feel like I’m two. It’s frustrating when I want to say something with complex sentence structure in a certain way, speak and write like I can in English, and all I can think of is something like “Ich bin gut.” Or when the teacher says something that I know is important and I should understand, but I really just heard, “Du solltest…machen…was…jetzt” with a bunch of sounds in between but no comprehension. I need to do something now. But what? Having the verbal and aural skills of a second grader, even though it’s not your original language, is just as humiliating as not having control over your own language. I think anyone who has learned a language can connect with this struggle to some extent.
Yet, despite this, I love Deutsch. I love the way it sounds, the way it feels on your tongue when you speak it. Most people don’t think of German as a beautiful language, but the sounds are onomatopoeia. And Deutsch has taught me a lot about my own language and the power of words in general. As I learn a second language, appreciation for my first language, and this new one, overwhelms me.
Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o was born in Kenya. Living in a post-colonial world, he works to fight against the loss of his native language, Gĩkũyũ, to English. Growing up, he “learnt to value words for their meaning and nuances. Language was not a mere string of words. It had a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning.” To him, language is music, not just content, which gives “a view of the world, but [has] a beauty of its own.” It took being placed in situations where I did not know the meaning of the word to understand that perhaps part of the meaning of language is just the way it sounds and feels. In some ways, it is primitive. There is no comprehension-barrier. It is just the words and your senses and emotions. There is no meaning to taint your opinion of the way the words sound. Deutsch allowed me to step outside of language and just listen and feel, to sometimes just appreciate words for the way they sound and not what they mean, both in English and German.
German has also invented a new language for me, and many others. Denglish. It’s kind of like how Salman Rushdie spoke about post-colonial Indian taking the English language and making it its own. Denglish is how American German-learners make Deutsch (and English) their own. They simply mesh the two languages into one, broadly understood by all, and perhaps only completely understood by the one speaking. Although mostly used in the German class, I find myself using it often. Perhaps I don’t know how to say something in German, or I do know the German word and it just fits so much better than what I can think of in English. Insert Denglish! Deutsch constantly gives me new insights into the meanings sometimes hidden in English, or allows me to twist things in new ways to get at the meaning I want.
As I left my apartment this morning, I didn’t think in English. My mind turned to those lines, from a poem I’d be tested on during an oral exam later. “It’s freezing!” or “The snow is pretty” or “Yay, Christmas is almost here!” just didn’t seem to fit the situation. The bitter-but-exhilarating chill and beautiful snow covering the mountains called for the alliteration, assonance and explosive consonants of those two lines. And even though my Deutsch skills may not be where I wish they were, I knew that I could recite the beautiful sounds and apply them to my life. I knew that I could do the same thing in my own language, English, and add the next dimension of music with meaning to it as well.
It may be hard for me to connect with a post-colonial world on some levels. But although I’m not giving up a native language, adding a new one to it has proved difficult. But despite this, it has pushed me to a new appreciation of language and its power. Sometimes it’s okay to just give in to it, let the words take control in a primitive sense. And other times searching for the right word and working hard to force language the way you want it to go to craft something beautiful is the way to do it. But either way, words live. They breathe, and they fashion the way we see the world. It is through our language that we discover and explore and formulate thoughts and, most importantly, share these experiences with those around us. It is part of one’s identity—both on a national level and on an individual level, which is why I love German. Not only does it connect me with others, but it defines a new part of me that is growing. It’s why I love writing. My language is mine, and as I make it my own, it becomes part of me, and eventually, we—words and I—will work together.