GUEST MUSE LETTER SERIES: Who am I in a different language, do metaphors follow me?
Theme of the month: Lost In Translation | The Muse Letter No. 107 |
Occasionally I publish essays by fellow Muses. This one is by suse mermaids.
suse mermaids is a Berlin-based artist and soon-to-be sociolinguist. She creates pop culture influenced illustrations, intuitive abstract artworks and is passionate about sharing what she learns along the way on how language shapes the way we think. She writes mermologie, a collection of personal essays and reflections with a little linguistic twist. With journaling she has an on-off relationship. Now and then she can’t put her pen down and then she ignores her journal for weeks. When she is not creating you find her with a book and a cup of tea in her hand or watching the Graham Norton Show – probably also with a cup of tea in her hand. Besides that she is into yoga, feminism, has a thing for mermaids (obviously) and is deeply in love with Ireland. Nothing is more relaxing to her than to sit by the sea and listen to the waves coming and going.
You can find her substack here.
And if you liked this essay, why not send a little appreciation her way?
GUEST MUSE LETTER SERIES: Who am I in a different language, do metaphors follow me?
by Suse Mermaids
During the summer of 2014, I moved to Ireland. After one and a half months in my new job, one of my colleagues decided to leave the company and the country. While searching for the perfect farewell gift, I found myself in a shopping centre with another colleague looking for dresses, and I pointed to one that I liked.
No, that's more your style, she said.
I wondered how a person I barely knew could describe my style.
It's typical for you! Black and simple!
I felt offended but caught. I went home to my new apartment, opened my wardrobe, and looked at dark and simple clothes. Within my group of friends back in Germany, I was known for wearing all black (that's kind of a Depeche Mode thing
as well - the fans call themselves black swarm). But this time, it bothered me.
At the beginning of my year in Ireland, I missed the German language, so I listened to a lot of German-speaking music. The line "Wer bin ich in einer anderen Sprache?" (Who am I in a different language?) from the song Mi Scusi by Blixa Bargeld and Teha Teardo stroke my attention. I wondered - could I be different in English? It wasn't a matter of frantically changing myself. But was I able to use the new language and with it the new place to play with aspects of my personality I was too scared to explore before? I thought it was more difficult in my familiar environment back in Germany because no change remained without comment.
I wonder who I am in German and who I am in English. I don't feel like a different person in each language, but still somehow distinct. Other parts of my personality are more vital in each language. In German, I am more serious. In English a bit more light-hearted. I can definitely express myself better in German. I prefer yoga classes in English. I like to read English non-fiction books (especially about feminism). Fantasy I prefer in German. And I am funnier in German.
In the winter of 2017, two years after I returned from my Ireland adventure, I started studying to become a primary school teacher. In Berlin, that means you have to study three subjects. One of which was English Studies (I think it is amusing how we use names like English Philology or Anglistik in Germany, and in English, it is simply English Studies). In my first semester, I had to do a class and a lecture called Introduction to Linguistics. I felt a bit stupid, but I actually had no idea what linguistics is about and had to google it.
Linguists consider language a "uniquely human capacity to express ideas and feelings "(which can be speech sounds or sign language), while linguistics simply is the scientific study of language.
In my first class, we talked about languages and linguistics in general. What do we call a language and why? How many languages do exist? For what do we use language? What is a dialect, and what is an accent? There actually is a difference here. An accent refers to differences in pronunciation only. Dialects, however, include differences in vocabulary, syntax etc. For example, what is called sweater in American English is called jumper in British or Australian English. Hannah Gadsby talks about the contrasts in her latest show Douglas, and it's hilarious. (The show, in general, is fantastic!)
I enjoyed linguistics, but I didn't love it. That changed in the following summer semester when I had to take an advanced module in linguistics and ended up in a class about metaphors. Metaphors were always a bit of a drama for me in my school days. I just never recognised them, and so my initial rejection was massive.
But somehow I came back to that song I listened to in Ireland, that changed so much, and I noticed how the passage continues: Wer bin ich in einer anderen Sprache? Kommen die Metaphern mit mir mit?" (Who am I in a different language, do metaphors follow me?) It was one of the many moments when I realised what I've learned about languages, how they function, and how they influence our thinking. Regarding the metaphors - it is complicated. Some metaphors are the same in another language - some are not.
The book Metaphors We Live By, written by the philosopher Mark Johnson and linguist George Lakoff, suggests that our conceptualisation of everyday life is mainly metaphorical. For example, we use orientational metaphors to describe our mood (happy is up as in "my spirit rose", and sad is down as in "my spirit sank“).
In the summer, in which the seminar took place, I really intensively studied metaphors that describe love. Love as a journey is a very typical one ("we go our separate ways", "we've come so far", "we can't turn back now", and many others) So for my term paper, I choose to investigate Nick Cave's song lyrics and what kind of metaphors he uses for love, spending a whole summer sitting in the library listening to songs about love - or heartbreak.
Nick Cave is known for many things, but definitely not for cheery love songs. His music has extensive dark notes. In a lecture he held about love songs at the University of Vienna, Cave himself said that he considers a love song to be a sad song. (And I can tell you - he means it.)
So I am sitting in the library while one of the hottest summers ever in Berlin, having my best time listening to sad songs, diving into the depths of the musician's lyrics, who I deeply admire for his ability to use words (I remember sending text messages all summer to friends with excerpts from his lyrics saying: how brilliant is this?).
As I expected, around 75% of his metaphors are negative (I really don't like the term negative and the division of positive and negative, but I will stick with it here anyway). They describe the end of relationships, jealousy, and loss. I consider Nick Cave to be pretty romantic, not sure if he would say the same. When he talks about love positively, however, he uses the concept of destiny a lot. And then he gets pretty cheesy (I still love it, though…).
For you dear, I was born
For you I was raised up
For you I've lived and for you I will die (from Far From Me)
While also using the concept of love as a journey as I have mentioned before, what he does best is setting love in relation to nature, mainly the sea and the weather.
Now that mountains of meaningless words
And oceans divide us
And we each have our own set of stars
To comfort and guide us (from Come Into My Sleep)
And I think that's where my admiration for him started in the first place. – I Iike to deal with lyrics intensively. I read them all the time - I sit down very consciously and read the text of a song carefully while I listen to it repeatedly. When I read his lyrics, I can have this moment, which does not last longer than a blink of an eye. A short tension in my whole body followed by that sweet release and that feeling that something has shifted. The words you just read described something inside of you, but you were never able to grasp its complexity in just a few lines.
That summer, when dealing with, well, I call it poetry, cause that's what he is - one of the greatest poets ever (can you feel my obsession?) - I fell in love with language again. I fell in love with his music even more because of its lyrics. I fell in love with creative writing. It was a summer when I couldn't stop writing. Poems, essays, letters, and very personal thoughts in my journal. I wrote all the time. And I fell in love with sociolinguistics perspectives on language. Something opened up in front of me in a vastness that I had never perceived before. And suddenly, I was a kid again… a teenager and a grown-up at the same time. I was so curious. I wanted to learn all about it, and since that summer, language and how it shapes the way we think is something I deal with every day, and I don't get tired of it - not even a bit.
And now do yourself some favour and listen to Nick Caves song Spell:
I have no abiding memory
No awakening, no flaming dart
No word of consolation
No arrow through my heart
Only a feeble notion
A glimmer from afar
That I cling to with my fingers
As we go spinning wildly through the stars
THE MUSE LETTER is always on the lookout to support fresh, new voices. Find more information here.
SHOP - NEW POETRY ART ZINE
„And now that you have found yourself
within my love
how dare you leave?"
Sirens, that lure sailors into their deaths with their beautiful singing voices are a thing of the past. The modern Siren is far less powerful, wandering the city, swiping left and right, her voice unheard. A poem of a modern Siren, illustrated with sensual cyanotypes.
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