George Szirtes on Being Bilingual.

The Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes is an old favorite here at LH (1, 2, 3 — that last post, on Hungarian second-person pronouns, has 455 comments!), and his Guardian piece (from last May) on “what being bilingual means for my writing and identity” is worth a read. On his early experience with language:

When I was […] seven, in Budapest, I spoke only Hungarian. My vowels were pure; the mouth that produced the pure vowel shapes never closed gently into a diphthong. The letter “p” was formed further forward as was the letter “t”, maybe more the way the Irish pronounce it in Dublin. My early rzeka experience was set in Hungarian. I did, however, have a bilingual book of A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (known as Micimackó) in Hungarian, and Now We Are Six, both translated by the great 20th century humourist Frigyes Karinthy. My first memory of English was of the page that opened on the great capital letters, of AND, BUT, SO, which I then pronounced the Hungarian way as OHND, BUTTE and SHAW.

And on returning to Hungary:

The disadvantage of being (relatively) bilingual is that you are neither this nor that. You don’t fully belong. We spent nine months in Hungary in 1989 watching the state collapse around us and, under those circumstances, it became clear that I wasn’t truly Hungarian, but an observer – a visitor with privileges, who could be useful but not of the language or its poetry. In England, the rest of the time, a foreign-born poet is of the language until he isn’t; the point at which he hits the thick glass of English Words, where he will be deemed never quite to understand cricket or, say, John Betjeman, because these things are not in his DNA.

I can’t get enough of this kind of meditation on multilingualism. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. I note that there’s no mention of Eva Hoffman anywhere in LH, and I’d urge any interested Hattic to read her book, which is wonderful.

    The OED says that sung was the most usual preterite of sing in the 17-18C and indeed as late as 1836 it was more common than sang. The OED quotes a different line of the same poem: “The cock sung out an hour ere light”. So Tennyson’s use of it (twice) in an 1830 poem is just normal, with no “oddness, uniqueness, sheer stunning bizareness” worth mentioning.

    If I went to England, I too would be a foreign-born poet, with no Betjeman or cricket in my DNA, and yet English is my only language. Hmmm.

  2. What does he mean by p being formed “further forward”?

  3. All I can guess is that he means that the Hungarian p is unaspirated.

  4. Stefan Holm says:

    Yes, it sounds strange since the lips are the only active parts of your speech organs in producing a /p/. You could always protrude your lips a bit (not that I know if it would make any audible difference). The Swedish verb is puta but the English cognate pout seems to refer mostly to just your bottom lip in order to express annoyance or attempting to look sexually attractive.

  5. So Tennyson’s use of it (twice) in an 1830 poem is just normal, with no “oddness, uniqueness, sheer stunning bizareness” worth mentioning.

    I’m pretty sure he was referring to the oddness of calling what a fly does “singing” rather than to the form of the past tense.

  6. Oh. Thick me.

  7. The disadvantage of being (relatively) bilingual is that you are neither this nor that. You don’t fully belong.
    I can’t agree more, I feel that myself. Olivier Todd, who was raised in France by an English mother sniggering at the French, remarked in a similar vein.

  8. AJP Fro-ho-ho-ho-ho-he Weih-hei-nacht aus Oslo! says:

    Winnie the Pooh (known as Micimackó) in Hungarian, and Now We Are Six, both translated by the great 20th century humourist Frigyes Karinthy

    What, so the great Lénárd Sándor didn’t do the Hungarian version? Blow me down.

  9. John Emerson says:
  10. An excellent find, thanks! This part makes one despair of humanity (as one does so often):

    I have encountered a range of reactions from academics who have reviewed my scholarly work. Many reviewers have challenged my use of kin terms such as husband and mother-in-law rather than the more comfortable key informant or consultant, arguing that the latter terms are somehow more professional. I am required to provide pseudonyms for my consultants, despite the fact that (with their permission) I identify them by their very personal relationships to me. And oddly, despite the fact that I am quite a proficient writer of academic English, many reviewers’ comments indicate that they assume that I am not a native speaker of my own native language. Since this has never occurred in any other context, I can only assume that it is related to my open discussion of my family ties in Bolivia. Being a near-native speaker has made me less a native of my own native tongue.

    Tell them to shove their professional terms up their nether apertures!

  11. David Marjanović says:

    An excellent find, thanks!

    That includes the comment! 🙂

  12. Trond Engen says:

    my manner of speaking means that it is easy for people in positions of petty authority (airline clerks, shopkeepers, minor government functionaries) to perceive me not as speaking like a peasant but as being a peasant, and to treat me carelessly, rudely.

    The gatekeeper class.

    I may have told this before. When my mother got a part-time job in a glove shop in Oslo around 1960, she was instructed to pretend not to understand customers speaking broad dialect. This, of course, had nothing to do with serving only the uppermost elite but about catering for other gatekeepers. This took place at the time of the great backlash in the movement towards nativisation of Bokmål. Not coincidentally, I claim. But this was also a time of unprecedented economic growth, access to education and increased opportunity for all. The gatekeeper class disappeared, but their linguistic ideal is hanging on.

  13. “The disadvantage of being (relatively) bilingual is that you are neither this nor that. You don’t fully belong. ”

    To me this is the supreme gift of bilingualism. It frees you from your first language. It frees you from the limitations of monolingualism, and one of those limitations is the sense that any one language, yours for instance, describes reality the Right Way.

  14. Hear, hear! I have often thought about that, and been grateful for my embassy-brat upbringing.

  15. “Hear, hear!”

    I used to love it back when I was teaching and a student would ask what the (it happened to be French – not really competent for it but I had to pay the rent) word for X was, and I got to say “NO! wrong question! Now what are you trying to say?” and half the time they would have to stop and think, sometimes for the first time, what the English word meant in that context. With their permission I would tell the class that this was the difference between thinking for yourself and letting your language’s words do all your thinking for you – a very much softened form of Whorfianism.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    ^ *like*

  17. My vowels were pure; the mouth that produced the pure vowel shapes never closed gently into a diphthong.

    AND, BUT, SO, which I then pronounced the Hungarian way as OHND, BUTTE and SHAW.

    This makes no sense to me. “OH” and “AW” are diphthongs to me. (And why /ʃ/ for <s>?)

  18. He’s just trying to render the Hungarian vowels as best he can in English spelling; obviously he’s rendering Hungarian /o/, not the English diphthong. And s in Hungarian is pronounced /ʃ/ for historical reasons that bulbul or David will be along to explain, I’m sure…

  19. On reflection I’m wrong about “AW”.

    I still don’t much like re-spellings, though.

    Interesting about the sh vs. s.

  20. Not Hungarian /o/, but /ɒ/, which is written a in Hungarian; thus and would be pronounced /ɒnd/, which is being informally notated OHND. Though OND would be better.

    The only explanation I’ve ever gotten for “Why do you write s for /ʃ/ and sz for /s/, the opposite of everyone else?” is “Why not?”

  21. David Marjanović says:

    And s in Hungarian is pronounced /ʃ/ for historical reasons that bulbul or David will be along to explain, I’m sure…

    Wikipedia shows that sz was sometimes written z in earlier centuries (and still is in a surname or two), which looks like the Old & Middle High German use of s for retracted /s̠/ and z for fully fronted /s/ – maybe this was applied to the Hungarian /ʃ/-/s/ distinction before z was later restricted to /z/, and maybe the Hungarian /ʃ/ wasn’t actually [ʃ] yet in the Middle Ages. Not having a three-way distinction, Hungarian didn’t need to import sch.

    Perhaps similarly, the obsolete Hungarian usage of cz for /ts/ (again retained in a few surnames) was quite widespread in Early New High German or thereabouts.

    I once read somewhere (quite likely in bulbulistan) that Hungarians routinely use ß for sz in their text messages. If the capital letter ever becomes established in German, I wonder if it might become official in Hungarian…

  22. Jeremy Wheeler says:

    The sh sound for s, of course, is represented in English too (sugar). I suspect it would hard to provide a definitive reason for the use in Hungarian of s and sz, as they are pronounced now, though I am pretty sure that sz was introduced in the first dictionary of Hungarian, Verancsics’s 1595 Dictionarium quinque nobilissimarum Europæ linguarum, Latinæ, Italicæ, Germanicæ, Dalmatiæ, & Vngaricæ, along with other peculiarly Hungarian orthography. (http://books.google.hu/books/about/Dictionarium_Quinque_Nobilissimarum_Euro.html?id=XGxlnQEACAAJ&redir_esc=y)

    Re ß being used for sz in sms/text messages, I can’t say it has never happened but I haven’t encountered it, and a quick strawpoll of Hungarian friends (and my wife) suggests it is not widespread – in fact none of them even knew where to find it on their phone keypad.

  23. sugar

    That’s an exceptional case, along with sure and sometimes sumac, where original stressed /sju/ became /ʃu/ instead of the usual outcome /su/, as in sucrose, sue, suet, suit, suicide, sumo, etc. The OED1 says that sugar underwent irregular shortening after the /sj/ > /ʃ/ change, and that a form with the GOOSE vowel survives in “some North Midland districts” (as of 1915, anyway). The /g/ is strange too, with no known French antecedent; the OED compares it to flagon < French flacon.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    I once read somewhere (quite likely in bulbulistan)

    …actually, I now think it was Wikipedia, probably a talk page.

    with no known French antecedent

    French /k/ is very close to a voiceless lenis; given the rather unreliable voicing of English lenes, I’m not surprised that it was occasionally borrowed as /g/.

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