Alterity with my Muttersprache

Art by Jessica McLeod-Yu


I have always assumed learning a foreign language would only deepen my knowledge and appreciation of my Muttersprache, English. But learning German has made me lose my unwavering affinity for my mother tongue. What was once my unfaltering devotion to the English language has quickly transitioned into a feeling of being more and more alienated from my own native language.  

I have struggled to communicate and even comprehend my own alterity with the English language. It feels like such a personal relationship—a three-way relationship between what I feel, the English thinking part of my brain, and the part that thinks in German. Expressing my feelings out loud is difficult enough, let alone being restricted on every linguistic level of the language. How could I possibly put into words the feeling of not having words? Or having the words, just not in a language that the listener will understand.

I have found a lot of solace since I discovered a multilingual Japanese-German author named Yōko Tawada. Tawada writes frequently about her changing relationships with language and the multifactor of senses that make up words and sounds. Tawada has spoken about being able to physically taste words, even the words that linger in the air remaining unsaid. And only since learning a foreign language have I experienced this. 

When I speak English, I occasionally feel a German word that balances on the tip of my tongue. It’s not quite a word, but rather a feeling, a sense, an emotion. The feeling weighs down my tongue as if to make its presence known. I can taste it too—taste the heaviness of the feeling, and just like this English has forced a feeling to stay trapped inside my mouth. I could try futilely grasping at English words, creating strings of disjointed phrases. Yet there is always an element that is completely lost in translation. No matter how many English words I try to use, there is always a part of the feeling that stays trapped in my mouth. (Let alone the pain of having to use clunky phrases in comparison to the succinctness of a single German word!). So instead of doing the feeling injustice, I leave it unspoken. But I can still feel the weight and the taste of this unspoken emotion filling up space within me. 

The irony of this is not lost on me. English is my own mother tongue, yet on that same tongue sits unspoken feelings I cannot express in English. 

In her writing, Tawada uses a made-up word: Sprachmutter. And the beauty of the concept of Sprachmutter is that it embodies everything it encompasses. It would be a disservice to the feeling of Sprachmutter to attempt to translate it, but my interpretation of it is as the opposite of the word mother tongue. Sprachmutter is like a quasi-linguistic mother—a medium by which one learns not just language, but perspective and thought. For me, my Sprachmutter is the German language. 

Armed with an alphabet of 26 letters, 3 umlauts and 1 eszett, German has enabled me to think differently to the way I do in English. My Sprachmutter has gifted me new perceptions of the world around me, and not just perceptions driven by language. 

But the caveat of my Sprachmutter is that it’s given me an ever-foreboding sense of entrapment in my own mother tongue. Because if I can’t express my true, whole self in my native language, how can it remain my mother tongue?



Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 4 ‘Alien’

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