Sigh-lingual: being a multilingual writer in the UK

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Sigh-lingual: Being a Multilingual Writer in the UK by Sonali Misra

I nodded, though both my head and heart disagreed.

Sitting in my professor’s office in Edinburgh, I watched her face as the short story I’d submitted for review stared at me from the computer screen behind her. My posture might’ve straightened and shrunk with my professor’s words had I not forced it erect. Smile ­­­­– she must not think that your resting bitchface is your taking-criticism face. She was being kind. Her statements ended with invisible question marks, and she checked in with me to ensure I understood her meaning. I told her that I did, though I must admit a stream of my focus was still preoccupied with page three.

It had been an off-the-cuff remark, one of those edits you scroll past. “Here I’ve just changed ‘Her feet led her forward.’ to ‘She walked forward.’ It’s simpler, crisper.” And we moved on.

A £19,300 tuition fee must mean that she was right. It was cleaner, to the point. But it didn’t quite convey what I’d meant, and in that moment I couldn’t explain why. Either to her or myself.

Tapping the play button on this video was just another attempt on my part to learn more about the squiggles that are capable of creating universes in my mind…

Months later, I came across a TED Talk* on one of those nights sleep evades you and you scroll through the never-ending video suggestions kindly (/creepily) compiled by Facebook. Its title ‘How language shapes the way we think’ seemed interesting. Tapping the play button on this video was just another attempt on my part to learn more about the squiggles that are capable of creating universes in my mind, especially since – as much as I’d enjoyed reading the alternate paper in my undergrad English lit degree – a part of me regretted not studying literary theory. I silently oooh’d and ahh’d at the points the speaker made about how different linguistic communities perceive directions, time and gender. This video will be a cute, quirky share. ‘Cute and quirky’ because it was interesting, but it didn’t have any direct relevance to me. It’s funny how our passions are only emboldened if we feel we’re specifically being spoken to. Mine did ignite when Lera Boroditsky began discussing how people speak about accidents in different languages. She picked the example of someone’s arm being fractured and English-language speakers describing it as, ‘I broke my arm.’ The onus lies on the ‘I’ – I broke my arm. Did they though, at least deliberately, as the active voice centring around the subject ‘I’ in that sentence suggests?

Boroditsky didn’t refer to the translation from my mother tongue, Hindi, but I sat there and analysed the differences myself. A wave of aha realisation washed over me. The kind that I miss, since it’s harder and harder to come by as I get older (or I become too stubborn in my ways to close my eyes and welcome it with open arms).

In English, we’d say: I broke my arm. 
But, in Hindi: मेरी बाज़ू टूट गई। / My arm broke.

So, in English, we’d say: I broke my arm.

Supposedly, one day, when I had read all the books that I ever wanted to and seen all of Netflix, spoken to all my family and friends about everything that there is to in the world, ticked off every item on every to-do list that I could conceive of, I realised that I had nothing left to do, so I decided to break the bone in my arm. Which arm though? As a righty, I would need that one for tasks. I’d been biased against my poor left arm for most of my life – it had more scars and marks because I would use a dime-dollop of sunscreen as opposed to the penny-portion for the right, and after tripping I would twist mid-air to fall on my left side. Did my left arm deserve this too? Well, maybe if it had been more coordinated and useful like its sibling, I could show it some mercy now. Alas… and I crushed my left arm with a car door.

But, in Hindi: मेरी बाज़ू टूट गई। / My arm broke.

…shit happens.

The onus in Hindi thus lies on the arm, which is distanced from the ‘I’.

While I think in both Hindi and English, I also directly translate my Hindi thoughts to my English words. And I know this isn’t something only I do.

Hyperbole aside, I finally began to process the root of some of the odd sentence structures in my writing. While I think in both Hindi and English, I also directly translate my Hindi thoughts to my English words. And I know this isn’t something only I do. Some of these Hindi-translated phrases have become ingrained in my linguistic community, especially with the popular usage of ‘Hinglish’ in north India. “Arrey, that’s what I was saying only,” is a perfectly acceptable response when reinforcing your previous statement. The ‘arrey’ is one of my favourite Hindi exclamations, along with ‘uff’, ‘haw’ and ‘oho’ – it conveys surprise and exasperation in different contexts. But the ‘only’ is a weird one. It’s an English word that we stack on to the end of sentences because we’re translating the emphasising-force of ‘वही तो’ in such instances. These are still easier to understand, but what about my She walked forward/Her feet led her forward conundrum?

Both my time as an editor of children’s English textbooks and my writing knowledge told me that the professor was right in her own way. But in the context of my story, the spirit of Hindi-language passive distance between object and subject fit perfectly. My character found herself lulled into confusion; she gave up her agency to her body, which led her to a safe comfortable location by relying on its own memory. So, while all Western writing courses and books will tell us to prefer shorter sentences, active voice and straightforward phrases, there are obviously reasons to disobey these ‘rules’.

… even those using any British-English dialect other than the Queen’s English are seen as less than in the current power structures. What chance do foreign English dialects have then?

It’s not surprising that breaking away from the rules would seem odd to native English speakers in the UK, when even those using any British-English dialect other than the Queen’s English are seen as less than in the current power structures. What chance do foreign English dialects have then? Many edit English texts on the basis of what sounds right or wrong to their ears, but those ears come in various shades and have grown hearing multiple languages. This is not to say that there aren’t editors well-versed with English grammar and syntax rules, just that those rules are – or should be – fluid, since the English language has been claimed and shaped by not only former British colonies but nations across the world due to the dominance of the UK and US in trade, culture and media.

It’s been two years since that meeting about my story. Having considered all these ideas and doing some reading on the matter too (she who didn’t take up literary theory in her undergrad because she was intimidated by it read The Empire Writes Back: theory and practice in post-colonial literatures for funsies), I can confidently say that my Indian English is just as valid as the Queen’s English, especially when my meaning is clear. My character moved in the direction opposite to where she came from. Let’s focus on why she moved so and what she did when she finally reached her destination.

*How language shapes the way we think (TED Talk)

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Sonali Misra is an Indian author and PhD researcher in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling. Her work has appeared in Scholastic India’s #HorrorFrom Arthur’s Seat 3, and Monstrous Regiment Publishing’s upcoming So HormonalHer first book, 21 Fantastic Failures, will be out in 2020 from Rupa Publications. She is Co-founder of The Selkie Publications CIC and Co-Chair of Society of Young Publishers Scotland.

Find her online at @MisraSonali as well as at @theselkieuk and @sypscotland.

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