My Mother Tongue vs. My Grandmother’s Tongue

After having spent a number of days contemplating the connection between the Vedic and Celtic stream beds, via Indo-European language, and receiving a number of illuminating comments to my queries posted at several Celtic culture sites, I now find myself struggling upon the horns of a different, but related, dilemma.

The bottom line is this. I am a writer in English. That is the language in which my fluency and mastery can be expressed. Like Yeats, I question whether it is possible to achieve a true “literary mastery” of more than one language in a single lifetime, exceptions like Vladimir Nabokov notwithstanding. You see, learning another language at a rudimentary level is not enough — my desire is not to pass myself as a native speaker for the purposes of travel, or even to enjoy works in their native tongues — these obstacles can be relatively easily overcome with a modicum of study. The issue for me is to become fluent enough to write in another language. And in order for that to occur, I need to consider that in order to read a lot of what I’ve written in English, the reader must be pretty fluent in English. Otherwise, much of the nuance, the plays with language, the subtlely of innuendo and colloquialism, are likely to be overlooked, or even lost.

On my mother’s side, English is for the most part the lingua franca. As second-generation naturalized Irish, I can only assume that any Irish language proficiency was diluted by the time of our arrival on these shores, primarily due to the British efforts before and during the time of naturalization to replace Irish with English, even to the extent of banning the use of Irish. But on my father’s side, I need not go back that far to find non-English speakers, at least through my father’s matrilineage. My grandmother spoke Plattdeusch (Low German, or Pennsylvania Dutch if you will) during her childhood, and was forced to learn English in American schools as a child. My father learned this language in order to speak with his grandparents, who had naturalized from Bern, Switzerland and spoke no English. As a result, I have less trouble recognizing German words (albeit not High German) than many other languages. I also tend to get at least the Low German accent right. On the German-German (opposed to Swiss-German) side, my grandfather had no German. His family had been in the United States since 1741, fought in the American Revolution and so on, and was for all intents and purposes completely Americanized.

So the result is that English is my Mother Tongue. It is the basis for my understanding of the world. While certainly I have an affinity for a number of foreign expressions and modes of understanding based on my study of those languages (Latin, Spanish, Irish, Sanskrit, German) or my exposure to them (Plattdeusch, Hawaiian, Creole) I will remain only a “literary speaker” of English. Sad that this is true, it seems to me. Perhaps that is too self-limiting.

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