A State of Chronic Abstraction.

Gavin Francis has a review of two books on switching languages (NYRB, May 26, 2022 issue; sorry, no archived link available yet, but I can read the whole thing without being a subscriber, so perhaps you can too):

A few weeks ago I was invited to the book festival in Trieste, in northeast Italy, a city of divided loyalties and complicated history. […] For my trip to Trieste I had packed perhaps the most appropriate reading material possible for someone living and moving between two languages—Memory Speaks by the academic psycholinguist Julie Sedivy and Alfabet/Alphabet by the poet Sadiqa de Meijer. Both writers moved to Canada as children, and though their books are very different, both examine their complicated relationship with their adopted language: the gifts of bilingualism, but also the visceral sense of unmooring they experienced as each lost touch with what Ghita El Khayat called the “milk language”—the language of lullabies and nursery rhymes.

I’ve written about Sedivy a number of times, most recently in 2018 (with a discussion of the Czech original of her surname, Šedivá, and a link in a comment to a “thorough and enticing review” of her new book at Sentence first), so I’ll confine myself here to quoting sections on the other book under review:

For de Meijer, to speak English every day is to live in a state of chronic abstraction—though she is fluent in the language, Dutch has remained much more dominant in her thought and speech. She agrees with the Polish Canadian writer Jowita Bydlowska that her second language is an “exoskeleton”—a tough hide of words that shield her from feeling. The poet in her is shocked by the incongruity between the associations her two languages evoke. One of her poems, written originally in English, contains the word harbour, which “conjures a generic image; there are ships, docks, and gulls, but it is nowhere that I can name.” Translating the poem herself, she substitutes the Dutch haven, and effects a magical transformation:

I saw our former river harbour, a charmless place of silos and concrete piers…a bicycle ride on an overcast afternoon, during which my youngest brother sat in a seat on my father’s handlebars. I was being somewhat reckless, biking in a slalom between the moorings, near the sheer drop to the water.

De Meijer realizes with a jolt that English offers her little in the way of access to memories of her childhood self. Passing on news of her grandmother’s death in English, de Meijer’s voice is “monotonous, composed”; she feels herself to be coping well with the bereavement. It is only when she tells an acquaintance in Dutch that the full force of grief breaks through: “The pain was immediate and furious. A flood of tears, unstoppable. Early words, along primal neural pathways, imprinted when I still meant everything I said.” […]

De Meijer’s mother lived in the Netherlands long into adulthood before emigrating, but after decades in Canada she too began to notice her command of Dutch shifting, deteriorating. “English words, more readily at hand, are swapped in here and there in her speech and in mine,” de Meijer writes. “At other moments, we both falter and have to remind each other of the Dutch word we’re looking for; it is a sensation familiar to dreams, to be certain that something exists without being able to locate it.”

In the 1950s the psycholinguist Susan Ervin-Tripp showed that bilingual subjects put through the Thematic Apperception Test, a kind of verbal Rorschach blot, will conjure stories of a very different emotional register when they conduct the test in their two different languages. Tests of personality also prove untranslatable, issuing widely variable results with the same subject according to which language they are questioned in. […]

A selective forgetting of Czech might have encouraged Sedivy’s childhood assimilation and integration in Canada, but as de Meijer points out, citing the work of Manuela Julien, a teacher of Dutch to immigrant families in the Netherlands, a thorough grounding in a mother tongue can actually help immigrants attain proficiency in their new language: “Julien also objects to the stigma inherent in the term taalachterstand, or language-behindness, which is used in her field to refer to these children’s partially bilingual states.” Sedivy discusses Lily Wong Fillmore, an American linguist of Chinese heritage, whose work suggests that early immersion in English at the expense of a home language can be devastating: “The loss of a fully bilingual generation in immigrant families, a generation that could serve as a bridge between its older and younger members, could have dire consequences for family dynamics.” […]

De Meijer thinks of Dutch now as a kind of “carbon shadow” that permeates her English. “Never erase,” her favorite art teacher said to her once, “it doesn’t really work,” and she writes of the ways Dutch surfaces in the hurried moments of her life. Dutch is the foundation of language for her, the first draft of a drawing that she has added to but never erased. Like Sedivy, de Meijer ends her book with a vision of the richness and possibility that twinned senses of belonging have offered her. But with her gift as a poet, she takes that experience of language and transubstantiates it into the image of a fruit tree she knew of in the Netherlands, in the garden of a family friend unusually skilled at the grafting of branches:

In his vegetable garden stood the odd, Edenic sight of an apple tree that also bore apricots and plums. Perhaps the minds of linguistic migrants are like that tree; the mother tongue is the apple trunk, with roots that penetrate the earth. And our later languages are branches, feeding through the same roots but setting their own fruit.


  1. When I speak Russian, I try to use “correct language”, not to import English words and phrases and expressions if I know and remember Russian analogs. But surprisingly (or not) it sometimes feels more artificial and distant, if the things I am talking about came into my life only in America and associated with speaking English. Macaronic language seems more natural. Which is unsurprising, it is the language of many immigrants.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    I am slightly confused by the harbo[u]r v. haven point. In modern English “haven” has a bunch of warm fuzzy positive overtones that “harbo[u]r” lacks, but I take it that is probably not so in Dutch/German, where “haven/Hafen” is just the normal unmarked word. For an L1 Dutch-speaker who then grew up in an English-speaking community, I’m not sure how to separate out the plausible psychology of the normal Dutch word being warmer and less abstract than the normal English one (because connected to childhood memories and ones parents etc) from the equally plausible psychological impact of the English cognate of the Dutch word being a warmer and more positive one even for monolingual Anglophones.

    The reason Ms. Sedivy’s parents took her away from a predominantly Czech-speaking environment when she was very young was presumably to get away from the Communist regime, which is the sort of thing that plausibly motivates people to put themselves and their kids through a lot of stressful/difficult cultural adjustments.* Ms. de Meijer by contrast was apparently born in Amsterdam in 1977, at a time when the Netherlands was neither a poorer country nor (most would say?) a more brutally or despotically governed country than Canada, so what her parents’ motive was for taking her out of a Dutch-speaking environment and raising her among Anglophones is less clear.

    *I read elsewhere on the internet that Ms. Sedivy’s late father moved back to Czechia in 1992, after the Communist regime had fallen, which I suppose made good sense for him at that point in his life but did not seem a plausible option for his daughter (at a different point in her very different life) at that point, which adds some further poignancy.

  3. JWB, I read “harbor/haven” distinction as a difference between some abstract harbor and particular “haven” from the author’s childhood. Like there was only one harbor around and people said “haven” meaning that particular place.

  4. And, of course, the Dutch and English words are pronounced differently, which also must play a role for the mental associations.

  5. “Haven” does not mean harbor at all in normal English. It’s any place of refuge.

    Whenever Trieste comes up I feel duty bound to tell people that Fiorello LaGuardia (NYC mayor and airport namesake) was the American consul in Trieste part of the time when James Joyce lived there.

    His father was an Italian atheist serving on the American military as a bandmaster, and Fiorello grew up on the American frontier. His mother was a Triestine Jew of Hungarian descent., and Fiorello was fluent in Italian, Hungarian, and several other languages besides Engllsh. .

  6. the opening pages of Susan Ervin-Tripp’s 1955 Thesis are at https://www.proquest.com/docview/301954356/ but the rest is paywalled. My inner bilingual statistician is curious about the tales and the validity of the statistics, so perhaps one day someone will share it with yours truly

    (Oh, and BTW, and I have a new translated poem at the “website” link … it hasn’t happened in like a whole year.

  7. While Clare Boothe Luce was ambassador to Italy (a somewhat controversial appointment at the time, because she was a convert to Roman Catholicism), her most notable work was on resolving the Trieste Crisis of 1953–1954. (The stress of this and other work during the first part of her ambassadorship was compounded by the fact that she was being poisoned by the lead arsenate paint drifting down from the ceiling of her embassy bedroom and landing in her morning coffee.) As the crisis was dying down, somebody on the staff purloined her cigarette case, and it was returned to her at a gala event emblazoned with the Friauler Spiess crest of the city of Trieste.

  8. Lead arsenate was used as a pesticide. I’ve heard of lead paint and arsenite paint, but not the two in one. I’m guessing her room was arsenite green, not lead white.

  9. My mind apparently does not work like normal minds. The possible “La Guardia” + “Joyce” connection is fascinating to me, but if you Google it, it doesn’t seem to be for anyone else.

  10. @Y: I just checked, and the U. N. Naval Medical Center tests did indeed identify the toxin in Mrs. Luce’s (at the time top secret) urine sample as lead arsenate. In fact, the unusualness of the symptoms may have delayed the diagnosis, since the only previous case reports on lead arsenate poisoning were (as you suggest) in agricultural workers. Presumably however, the lead and arsenic were not actually added to the paint together. The ceiling was indeed arsenic green, and the lead was probably just added to the paint for the heck of it. (Amidst adding lead pigments to paint, it was apparently found that dissolved lead just improved the texture of some kinds of paint.)

    I should correct one point though. The ambassador’s residence is not at the embassy but nearby at the Villa Taverna. According to the linked Web page:

    Beginning in 1933, the U.S. Embassy rented the Villa from Taverna’s daughter. During World War II the property managed to avoid destruction by serving as a convalescent home for the Italian military. Returned to the U.S. Government in 1944, the Villa and gardens were purchased thereafter on March 6, 1948 from Princess Ida Borromeo-Taverna. The Villa has since served as the residence for 18 American ambassadors, and is protected by Italian law for cultural heritage.

  11. Rodger C says

    Surely the name of Fiorello LaGuardia didn’t inspire that of Leopold Bloom??? Remember you heard it here first …

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    I am puzzled by John Emerson’s claim that “haven” doesn’t mean “harbor” in English. It certainly doesn’t *only* mean harbor, but most dictionaries will still list that as one of its senses (the oldest sense, with the others being metaphorical extensions). That the extended senses are probably now much more common that the original core sense doesn’t mean the core sense has disappeared, although I guess some might reanalyze the original sense as if is were merely one applied instance of the extended metaphorical senses?

    E.g., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/haven

  13. That the extended senses are probably now much more common that the original core sense doesn’t mean the core sense has disappeared

    “Probably”? Do you hear many examples of people saying “haven” when they mean ‘harbor’? Proper names like New Haven don’t count. I’ve become chastened and will not state absolutely that what you call the “core sense” has disappeared (to me, the core sense is the one in current use, the one most people will spontaneously provide if asked what the word means), but I’m pretty confident in saying it isn’t in common use.

  14. John Emerson says

    “Haven” is a dictionary meaning and perhaps the original core meaning, but in ordinary normal average everyday English it means refuge, I don’t think it is ever used to mean harbor , except possibly in certain very specialized contexts, I don’t think that de Meijer was comparing the two words but just saying that the Dutch word was more evocative for her than its English synonym, which had no connection to her memories,

  15. What JE said.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    In describing the history of Yale’s location, the WiPe explains “haven” to its modern readers:

    # By 1640, “Quinnipiac’s” theocratic government and nine-square grid plan were in place, and the town was renamed Newhaven, with ‘haven’ meaning harbor or port. #

  17. PlasticPaddy says

    Haven in the phrase “Haven against a storm” has for me the original meaning. But this is because shelter is nowhere to be found on open water (below decks is not a great improvement…).

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    Hmm. Do modern Tolkien readers think the “Grey Havens” are a place of refuge as opposed to a port used for elven shipping? Or can they grok the older meaning when an archaizing style gives them the right contextual clues? “Haven” was apparently still productive for toponym purposes when e.g. the port of Grand Haven, Michigan (at the mouth of the Grand River where it flows out into Lake Michigan) was named in the 1830’s.

    I may admittedly suffer from the distorting factor of having studied German, because this is not the only instance in which the modern German meaning of a word illuminates a now-largely-archaic meaning of its English cognate. Although I think I’ve read widely enough in pre-20th-century English works to have a decent grasp of arguably-archaic semantics even without that complication.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Here’s a Storm as a haven against a light rain.

    “Haven” was apparently still productive for toponym purposes … in the 1830’s.

    Sure. That was then and this is now.

    I may admittedly suffer from the distorting factor of having studied German

    It’s always disturbing to study German. Just ask JE about the declension system. Either you bend or you snap at it, like a tree in a storm.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    Creeping forward from the 1830’s, here’s a sentence from a book (looks to be a biography of the composer Wagner, FWIW) published in 1924:

    “After all its perils and its buffetings, the great ship at last sailed into haven with every timber sound, and with what a store of incomparable merchandise within!”

    That is an old-fashioned sounding register, probably even by 1924 standards, but is it confusing or incomprehensible to 21st century Anglophones?

  21. Stu Clayton says

    Not to the smart set, but only to them not. That’s part of their smarts. They grok where others boggle.

    at last sailed into haven with every timber sound

    Harbors and ports are the only things that can be sailed into with every timber sound. If part of the manuscript were illegible:

    at last sailed into … with every timber sound

    I doubt anyone today would supply “haven”, but rather “harbor” or “port”. Certainly not “brick wall”.

    Edit: but possibly “into the sunset”.

  22. There appears to be a photograph of James Joyce and Italo Svevo together in 1908.

    No mention of Fiorello LaGuardia, however. (Could he be second from left, in the light-colored suit?)

  23. PlasticPaddy says
  24. Joyce and Svevo were close. Svevo helped finance Joyce (he was a businessman, real name Schmitz or something like that) and Joyce helped him with his writing and publishing.

    The poet Umberto Saba also lived in Trieste. He was an ephebophile and I have speculated that he might have been the model for Humbert Humbert. An early version of Humbert was a Mediterranean gentleman.

    It’s unlikely that LaGuardia was close to Joyce, he was young and non-literary, and he didn’t drink so a whole category of accidental encounters is ruled out. But there might have been some incidental contact.

  25. LaGuardia was 5’2″ and so was not in the photo.

  26. He could have been crouching behind one of the others.

  27. I figured that Tolkien’s “Grey Havens” was playing on both the “harbor” and “place of refuge” meanings of haven. It looks like the 1924 J.W. Brewer found may be doing the same. I could certainly imagine myself using the same device in my own writing.

  28. I imagine Russian gavan’ as a bay (with infrastructure that makes it convenient for a ship).
    Something that matter from the vessel’s perspective.

    Port as a place where cargo is loaded/unloaded (more: imports and exports, and taverns).

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    gavan sounds like a cross between a pavane and a gavotte…

Speak Your Mind