Freedom From Language


but then I realized that I could

Whenever I finish a letter, I always go back and reread it, see if the ramblings of my mind are too obscure to merit any understanding. I trust the sympathy of intimacy, but not too much. I was midway through a letter I’d written to an old lover when a single word stopped me. I lost track of my reading as if I had seen it for the first time in my life. In a matter of seconds, the strange, unexpected realize disengaged from the rest of the writing, its letters no longer serving as mere signs in a continuous line of thought. My mind was resting on the digitally blunted curves and lines as my inner voice slowly repeated the word. r, the rolling of the tongue backward like a surfer’s wave, ea flowing into each other to touch the mushy l, i spilling over the jingling z. I felt a strange sense of freedom within, as if the mere joy of sound and sight was enough. As if whatever I’d said in the letter wouldn’t reach the mind of anyone let alone upset its intended reader, which I wanted.

Was I free really? Could I remain on the surface, savor each word without any concern over meaning? I knew that I was about to send that letter and I knew it would kindle some sort of response. But English is foreign to me - an ocean over which I try to keep afloat like a buoy, constantly in awe at its vast, unending expanse. Unlike those native to its waters, I feel like I am not made to survive underneath, so in a way, I always stay on the surface. Nineteen years after I started learning this language, I am still thrilled by just the feel of it.

I began writing in English at middle school when we were supposed to keep a journal for an entire semester. I had little reason to drop the habit when I hit puberty and suddenly felt like I needed to hide my life from my parents. When I was seventeen, I found that I was too distracted by English to focus on anything else to make a living. I became a translator and interpreter, carrying other people’s words from one language to the other. But when it comes to speaking those of my own, I’ve hardly felt comfortable expressing myself in my mother tongue since I started writing in that pink, scented journal at sixth grade.

Foreign language can indeed be liberating. Without a whole host of personal and cultural connotations that might distract your thought process, you have a greater leeway to express yourself. For native speakers of contemporary Turkish, meanwhile, even a simple “hello” cannot escape a sociopolitical choice: Merhaba, although of Arabic origin, is a secular preference over the clearly Islamic selâmün aleyküm. To avoid Islamic associations, a lot of people shun the word nur, Arabic for “light”, to express condolences. Instead of the more commonplace “Nur içinde yatsın” (May he/she rest in light), you get a Turkish substitute “Işıklar içinde yatsın.”

Furthermore, the language Turkish people speak today has been suffering from cultural amnesia since the foundation of the Republic. Atatürk’s language reform involved purification, a systematic effort to cleanse Ottoman Turkish of Arabic and Persian words, the richness of which had channeled intellectual and artistic thought for centuries. The reform included resuscitating Turkic words from Central Asia with which Atatürk invented geometric terms very clear and very much in use today. However, the entire effort was too radical and top-down to prove intellectually rewarding in the long-run. Many of the invented words never found their way into public use, while Persian and Arabic ones drifted away from basic understanding. And Nnow, less than a century after the reform, generations of Turkish people are unable to read a novel written at the turn of the twentieth century.

Given these circumstances, I feel too self-conscious in my mother tongue, with my words a clumsy mix of nostalgia – do I sound archaic? Have we lost muhakkak, mütemadiyen yet? –  and a hopeless effort to sound natural. When years ago I was a religious person, I had two distinct choices to express gratitude: “Çok şükür” when I was happy about something, “Hamd olsun” when the situation was bad but I was not complaining nonetheless. Along with my religious sensibilities, I lost the second expression and my faith in its circulation among the larger society. And plus, what if I say the likes of inşallah, hayırlısıyla, hamd olsun in a two-minute telephone conversation and give the impression that I’m still a Muslim? I cannot express myself in Turkish without feeling my word choices contrived and overburdened with assumptions. I seek refuge in a language that I am a stranger to.

Freedom from cultural baggage aside, foreign language can cure self-censorship. Language then becomes a film that blocks the immediacy of comprehension through which you can convey your thoughts without inhibition. You can be bolder, more honest and even obscene while distancing yourself from the full impact of your words.  Imagine yourself in a fight where English is the only language you share with your adversary. If you say cunt, how can you fully assess its effect if you’ve heard it only in Scorsese’s films? Many non-native speakers improve their grasp of English by collecting phrases from books, pop culture or the internet. Unless you regularly communicate in English, you can be verbose or lack words, change register mid-speech. When you find yourself in a rare and delicate conversation, your impersonal knowledge of vocabulary can gather into flesh too suddenly. You can be cruel unawares.

Choosing another language is also escapism. It feels safe. Following years of experience with carefully selected English-speaking therapists, I’d found myself choking on my words when my analyst insisted that I switch to Turkish. English had become a blanket I was hiding underneath, allowing me to communicate myself just enough to bear the truth. When it was pulled away, I faltered and fumbled for words, unable to confront what was taking shape as I spoke. I had thought that by simply being in that room I was manifesting courage. But the real test was with my mother tongue, the only shortcut to my fears and denials.  

but then I realized that I could find a way out

Foreign language, ultimately, always remains foreign. And that’s where its appeal lies, whetting your appetite for what you can never conquer. Just like falling in love when you are fixated on sensation– the lips, the voice, the wisp of hair that falls right above the eyebrow, the winter breath. Our object of desire is external to us; the foreign is threatening and seductive for that very reason. We like to fill the rest with imagination, both to enhance our pleasure and to feel safer. 

From a semiotic perspective, our object of desire is nothing but a sign we try to decipher. Semiotics is the overarching discipline that studies signs which communicate meaning in context. In an overwhelming number of cities across the world, green traffic light is a sign that urges the driver to stop. A wink may be but a wink, or a sign of sexual attention. In semiotics, a sign is made up of two elements that are like two sides of a coin, the signifier and the signified. It can be applied to language: r e a l i z e, shapes on paper or the sounds they produce are the “signifier”, while “to understand clearly”, the conceptual meaning the signifier conveys is the “signified.” In between, there is a gap that never quite fills for the speaker of foreign language. That was what stopped me when I read my own word in my letter, an alienation from meaning that took me back on the surface, as if it were my first encounter with the word. And it’s that gap some interpreters find difficult to tackle especially when they are beginners to the profession. They have easier time translating from their A (first) language to B (second) because they immediately grasp the flow of speech and tap into it, after which production in the target language is not a big challenge. Meanwhile, they need longer time to process a chunk of foreign language. A heavy accent, the speaker moving away from the microphone, little-known idioms can be trouble. If they fail to understand a unit of language fast enough, they cannot render a meaningful equivalent in their mother tongue, which in simultaneous interpreting is a glitch nobody wants.

The gap between the signifier and signified does not allow you to roam freely though. It’s an illusion. In his famous poem “Vowels,” Arthur Rimbaud gives colors to them: “Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O – vowels/ Some day I will open your silent pregnancies.” To him, “I” is a “bloody spittle, laughter dribbling from a face” and “A” is “hairy with burst flies.” Much ink has been spilled on metaphorical and symbolic readings of the poem but ultimately, the associations tell us nothing about communication – the reason why language exists. In Rimbaud’s poetic vision, “A” is moved out of its strictly functional zone, the role it shares with other letters in a given word which together create sense. Vowels in the poem earn a life in their own right at the expense of signification.

To Roland Barthes, language is a system of random signs resisting the whims of individual users.[1] To quote from him verbatim, language is quite simply fascist, for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech.[2] It forces you to say “an” apple. If you want to hide the name of someone, you can use the third person singular in English, but then you have to give away the gender. These rules can be even more restricting for the foreign speaker, especially if similar structures are absent in the mother language. You need time to master a new grammatical framework and a vocabulary to mold inside that frame. A lot of work goes into developing the agility to use a new language, to express a wide spectrum of ideas and emotions. Meanwhile though, signifiers can be solace as you accept that you will never penetrate into the depths of a language. You can stay there as long as you want and compromise communication.

The moment I take a synesthetic pleasure in realize, I move away from context, hence meaning. All along, I am aware that the signified in English, those seamless layers of understanding, will remain out of my reach like the fruit tree forever eluding Tantalus’ hands. This may not be the freedom I thought I had. Love of language, the very look and sound of it, is as liberating as any love is. You cannot escape its consequences.

but then I realized that I could find a way out without you.


By Merve Pehlivan

Merve is a writer, translator and interpreter based in Istanbul she is also the host and founder of spoken word Istanbul and Spoken word Turkçe, you can find out about that here: @SpokenWordIstanbul

[1] Roland Barthes, L’aventure sémiologique, Paris, Seuil, 1991.

[2] Roland Barthes, Leçon, Paris, Seuil, 1978.