Strange Persistence.

Julie Sedivy, whom I’ve posted about more than once at LH (2012, 2014, 2015, 2017), has a nice piece at Nautilus called “The Strange Persistence of First Languages.” I might as well repeat what I said at that 2017 post — it’s one of those long, meaty articles that make too many points to summarize briefly, so I’ll just quote a few bits and urge you to read the whole thing:

[My father’s] death underscored another loss, albeit a far more subtle one: that of my native tongue. Czech was the only language I knew until the age of 2, when my family began a migration westward, from what was then Czechoslovakia through Austria, then Italy, settling eventually in Montreal, Canada. Along the way, a clutter of languages introduced themselves into my life: German in preschool, Italian-speaking friends, the francophone streets of East Montreal. Linguistic experience congealed, though, once my siblings and I started school in English. As with many immigrants, this marked the time when English became, unofficially and over the grumbling of my parents (especially my father), our family language—the time when Czech began its slow retreat from my daily life. […]

When a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. Language is memory’s receptacle. It has Proustian powers. Just as smells are known to trigger vivid memories of past experiences, language is so entangled with our experiences that inhabiting a specific language helps surface submerged events or interactions that are associated with it. […]

A first language remains uniquely intertwined with early memories, even for people who fully master another language. In her book The Bilingual Mind, linguist Aneta Pavlenko describes how the author Vladimir Nabokov fled the Russian revolution in 1919, arriving in the United Kingdom when he was 20. By the time he wrote his memoir Conclusive Evidence in 1951, he’d been writing in English for years, yet he struggled writing this particular text in his adopted language, complaining that his memory was tuned to the “musical key” of Russian. Soon after its publication, he translated the memoir into his native tongue. Working in his first language seems to have prodded his senses awake, leading him to insert new details into the Russian version: A simple anecdote about a stingy old housekeeper becomes perfumed with the scents of coffee and decay, the description of a laundry hamper acquires a creaking sound, the visual details of a celluloid swan and toy boat sprout as he writes about the tub in which he bathed as a child. Some of these details eventually made it into his revised English memoir, which he aptly titled Speak, Memory. Evidently, when memory speaks, it sometimes does so in a particular tongue. […]

I discovered that, while I may have run out of time to visit my father in his homeland, there was still time for me to reunite with my native tongue. On my first day there, the long drive with my uncle between the airport and our place in the countryside was accompanied by a conversation that lurched along awkwardly, filled with dead ends and misunderstandings. Over the next few days, I had trouble excavating everyday words like stamp and fork, and I made grammar mistakes that would (and did) cause a 4-year-old to snicker. But within weeks, fluency began to unspool. Words that I’m sure I hadn’t used in decades leapt out of my mouth, astounding me. (Often they were correct. Sometimes not: I startled a man who asked about my occupation by claiming to be a savior—spasitelka. Sadly, I am a mere writer—spisovatelka.) The complicated inflections of Czech, described as “character-building” by an acquaintance who’d learned the language in college, began to assemble into somewhat orderly rows in my mind, and I quickly ventured onto more and more adventurous grammatical terrain. Just a few weeks into my visit, I briefly passed as a real Czech speaker in a conversation with a stranger. Relearning Czech so quickly felt like having linguistic superpowers. […]

I’ve recently left my job as an academic linguist to devote more time to writing, and I often find myself these days conjuring my father’s voice by reading a passage in Czech. Like many Czechs I’ve met, my father treated his language like a lovely object to be turned over, admired, stroked with a fingertip, deserving of deliberate and leisurely attention. He spoke less often than most people, but was more often eloquent. I may never regain enough of my first language to write anything in it worth reading, but when I struggle to write prose that not only informs but transcends, I find myself steering my inner monologue toward Czech. It reminds me of what it feels like to sink into language, to be startled by the aptness of a word or the twist of a phrase, to be delighted by arrangements of its sounds, and lulled by its rhythms. I’ve discovered that my native language has been sitting quietly in my soul’s vault all this time.

I’m a bit surprised that she doesn’t mention the Czech original of her surname, Šedivý (feminine Šedivá), so I’m doing it for her. (Thanks, Ariel!)


  1. Of course, Languagehat would get right Czech female surname!

    I would be impressed, but stopped being impressed by LH long time ago.

    For those who are not aware: Czech female surname formation is kind of tricky. If Julie’s father had surname Šedivý she would be Julie Šedivá, but if she has married someone named Šedivý, she would be Julie Šedivová

  2. Czech female surname formation is kind of tricky:

    Not just Czech. The same principles were applied in Croatian until about the start of the 20th century. Although, to make matters really tricky in Croatian, that was not the official surname, which would always be identical to the husband’s or the father’s (as the case may be), but the nickname by which the woman was known.

    To recap, a woman might be called by her (1) feminine form of her maiden name, (2) feminine form of her married name, (3) her official surname, whether it is her maiden or married name, (4) first name.

  3. “If Julie’s father had surname Šedivý she would be Julie Šedivá, but if she has married someone named Šedivý, she would be Julie Šedivová”

    It doesn’t work this way. Czech is not Lithuanian. If she married a man named Šedivý, she would become Šedivá, as if she was born with the name (unless she chose to use the masculine form, which is now possible, but still rare and even more so for adjective surnames).

    “Šedivová” is a female surname whose male counterpart is “Šediva”.

  4. Are you saying that Šediva could be both feminine and masculine surname?
    That’s even weirder than I thought.

  5. John Cowan says

    stopped being impressed

    Unfortunately, this is an idiom for ‘started to be unimpressed’, as I don’t think that X is an idiom for ‘I think that not X’. English has to employ a variety of tricks because of its pervasive raising of negatives to the outermost clause.

  6. There are obviously women with surname Šediva and Šedivová however acquired. There appears to be no men with last name Šediva. Wiki has an explanation of feminine Czech surnames (of course).

  7. On the larger point, knowing your ancestral language can delay modernization somewhat, but I doubt much. Obviously, it is easier to keep the old ways if you leave in rural Moravia instead of Montreal. And, without looking into details, all this studies showing that being into the old culture help keep youngsters from doing drugs are suspect. How can they know that it is not simple correlation because of docility (kids who listen to their elders and learn less useful, but culturally significant language probably are more prone to listen to they elders and stay away from drugs). Research on reacquiring forgotten languages is absolutely fascinating.

  8. SFReader: Šediva is masculine, Šedivá is feminine. The acute accent is all the difference.

    Actually, the short (unaccented) -a nominative noun ending is typically feminine but can be masculine as well. Cf. Latin or Greek first declension (cognate, I think).

    The long (accented) -á is feminine adjective ending. Since all Czech female surnames have to be adjectives in form, an adjectival suffix -ová is added when the masculine form is not adjective itself.

  9. > stopped being impressed […] is an idiom for ‘started to be unimpressed’

    Wiktionary defines unimpressed as “not impressed”, so if SFReader feels nothing, they’re technically unimpressed.

    But there’s an implicit assumption that you feel something about everything. If you’re not impressed, you feel contempt. It’s much harder to express that you don’t feel anything.

    I think this is also the underlying principle that explains (or at least justifies) negative raising. If you don’t think something, by default, you must think the opposite.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    That’s why people are often accused of deception when they claim to have no position on an issue.

    I do not agree that it’s “much harder to express that you don’t feel anything”. What’s hard is to get it accepted.

  11. Examples of Šedivová online are pretty rare. Are we sure some aren’t errors for similar names such as Šedivcová (feminine of Šedivec) or Šedivková (feminine of Šedivka)?

    There is a list of surnames beginning with Š at

    (with both masculines and feminines as separate entries).

    This lists feminine Šedivá (and of course masculine Šedivý) but not Šediva or Šedivová.

  12. Sedivy has now come out with a whole book, Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self; Stan at Sentence first has a thorough and enticing review.

  13. >What’s hard is to get it accepted

    I find the evidence for this whelming.

  14. What kind of “evidence” do you expect my claim to be shored up by, and why ? I reported my own experience when I wrote “it’s hard to get people to accept” that I don’t always have an opinion on any given subject.

    When was the last time you accepted someone”s claim not to have an opinion on some topic, i.e. did not decide they were deceiving you ?

    It could well be, of course, that the people you associate with and hear about always have an opinion on every topic. This would explain why you find it hard to believe people who don’t – if you do find it hard to believe. It would be the evidence you’re looking for.

  15. Um, Stu.

    I didn’t say I found it underwhelming. I said I found it whelming.

    Consider the content of your original point, and then consider what I may be expressing.

  16. *I* got it.

  17. Of course, Stu’s reply could also be a joke – pretending to be unwilling to recognize that I wasn’t rejecting his evidence.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    Bingo !

    Note that I referred neither to “overwhelming” nor “whelming”, whatever “whelming” may mean – a moderate amount of whelm ? Underwhelming ? I couldn’t tell, so I thought I would just whelm back, for the sake of clarity.

    Clarity is the mother of cognitive caution.

  19. >Clarity is the mother of cognitive caution.

    Nah. That’s the nature of jokes. They’re clear to everyone who gets the joke. And everyone else is by definition the outgroup who we’re laughing at.

  20. Whelm and overwhelm are pretty much synonyms, as a comparison of their OED definitions (omitting the obsolete and the dialectal) will reveal.


    (2d) throw (something) over violently or in a heap upon something else, esp. so as to cover or to crush or smother it

    (4a) cover completely with water or other fluid so as to ruin or destroy; to submerge, drown; occasionally to sink (a boat)

    (4b) bury under a load of earth, snow, or the like

    (5) engulf or bear down like a flood, storm, avalanche, etc.; hence, to involve in destruction or ruin


    (2a) bring to sudden ruin or destruction; to engulf; to crush; to defeat utterly or conclusively. Also: to overcome or overpower with excess of work, responsibility

    (2b) overcome or overpower (a person, the mind, etc.) with emotion

    (2c) deluge or inundate (with)

    (3a) bury or drown beneath a mass of earth, water, etc.; to submerge completely; to destroy or obliterate by covering with something

  21. Given the specific meaning 4.a. of whelm, relating to watery inundation (quoted by John Cowan above), I am slightly surprised that, of the three powerful magic weapons in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure “White Plume Mountain,” it was the Mjolnir-inspired war hammer that was named “Whelm,” while the trident was the relatively nondescript “Wave.” (See here if you want more details of what I’m talking about.)

  22. David Marjanović says

    (2d) throw (something) over violently or in a heap upon something else, esp. so as to cover or to crush or smother it

    Like tableflipping?

  23. In practice, talking about obsolete vs. extant meanings of whelm is pedantic.* The word itself was made obsolete because the popularity of overwhelm simply whelmed whelm.

    Whelm has a newspeak coinage related to dating, that will also be obsolete in a year; an intentionally archaizing usage in D&D and related contexts; and my usage – the meaning of “between over- and under-whelming”. This is the only transparent usage, because basically no one knows the word, but everyone knows overwhelming and underwhelming, so if the context is right, the listener will automatically triangulate and come up with the intended meaning.

    Notably, underwhelming was formed in the same way. It’s not a term that meant to under-engulf or under-bury, based on whelm, which was carried over to more figurative settings. It was coined as a sarcastic backformation based on overwhelm.

    * Not that there’s anything wrong with pedantry.

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