Charlemagne said ”to have a second language is to have a second soul” and this French moment was an acute reminder of how language can channel us to inner belonging amid external chaos. How language, like fragrance, can take us back to the exquisite emotion of fullness contained in a specific moment. How the sounds of certain words can change the geography in our minds. How one word in a particular language can describe something that other languages cannot.
In Indonesian the verb alone does not mark tense. You need to insert another word to indicate whether the action happened in the past or will happen in the future. In Turkish you need to include how you acquired the information in the verb: the form of the verb changes depending on whether you saw the action or read about it.
English speakers organise time — and many other things in our practical lives — from left to right. Hebrew speakers arrange time from right to left. In Mandarin the past can be above and the future below while in Aymara, a language in South America, the past is in front and the future behind.
So when I asked trilingual poet Merlinda Bobis at the Sydney Writers’ Festival how much language affects her sense of belonging I could relate to her eloquent answer. Bobis, who was raised in the Philippines and now teaches creative writing at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, is also a performing artist whose voice transcends the limitations of words.
”It’s where my body goes. I feel that when I speak and write in my original tongue my body changes, everything changes, it’s sensory, even my posture changes and I feel that its still nice to go back to that.
”For all my books in English my body decides in my first heart. Many of us can relate to that because there are many sensations, many feelings that can never be translated to that second language.”
(Merlinda Bobis’s latest novel is Fish-Hair Woman, Spinifex Press and Anvil Publishing)