The Society of Authors, of which I am a member, hosts regular meetings for local and special interest groups. I run the Scottish Islands online group, and we were recently addressed by Donald E. Meek. Donald was Professor of Scottish and Gaelic studies at the University of Edinburgh, before he retired and went back to his native Tiree, one of the Inner Hebridean islands. His daughter also returned to their ancestral homeland and together they restored the croft house and holding in the township of Caolas, held by their family for over 200 years.
Donald had a bilingual upbringing, balanced between English and Gaelic. I was particularly interested in his account of his writing in each of these two languages. When he writes in Gaelic, his poetry and prose are personal – elegiac for the loss of the Gaelic speaking community of his boyhood, or humorous in the style of ‘township poet’ commenting on both local and global events and personalities. He also writes in English, and comments that this writing is happier because he isn’t diving so deeply inside himself: “English is ‘external’ to my core, and therefore not as ‘close’ in terms of describing feelings and emotions”. He says that language choice is to some extent subconscious, but often determined by readership. I can understand this; English speakers are numerous as it is a lingua franca for so many people within and outwith our islands, whereas Gaelic speakers were most likely brought up in Highland or western island communities similar to Donald’s own Tiree.
This led me to ask myself – how much does language affect the style of writing? I discussed this topic with Jenni Dollery in a Facebook writing group. Jenni is Finnish, with two degrees in English, an English husband and many English writing friends. She feels that in her native Finnish her writing can be “more precise, more nuanced, more…. everything.” I asked her whether this was just because it was her first language, or whether there was something in the intrinsic nature of each language which affects the kind of writing it lends itself to. In response she spoke about all the social constructions and cues built from birth in a person’s first language – for example, associations, synonyms, rhythm, comedic timing. As she says, “There is just a remarkable amount of silent information you have with your native language” – but then she goes on to deconstruct the different nature of the Finnish language, with appreciation of its kinetic nature: ” … the words give you so much information and room for imagination just within their exact meanings or how they ‘taste’ in your mouth.” What a wonderful description!
I think about my father, born in Munich in 1927 and speaking German till his family’s abrupt flight to London when he was eleven, just before war broke out. When he was twenty and ‘courting’ my English mother-to-be, he quoted German-language poets in his letters to her, translating their verses for her – Rilke, Goethe. I only met my paternal grandfather once, when I was six; before the Nazis took over he had been a successful artbook publisher, and sharing words and images were his life’s work. We visited him in Bavaria, where he had returned to as an elderly widower; he had never felt at home in the English language apparently. I could see that my father understood spoken German instantaneously, but struggled to pull words from the deep recesses of childhood memory in his replies. I wonder – if he had tried to write in German himself, instead of quoting famous poets, would his conceptual language be limited to that of his childhood?
When I was growing up, bilingualism was seen as a problem for immigrant children in the English education system; it was thought their birth language would hold them back and should be suppressed. Now the massive cognitive gains from learning and thinking bilingually are better understood, and are indeed to be envied. Those of us who are monoglots lack the richness and complexity of the fortunate writers who have two languages.