A TV interview with OP, Estonian National Television’s culture programme, has been rigged up in a makeshift studio above the Hell Hunt bar. (There’s a warning against guessing at a foreign language: ‘Hell Hunt’ in Estonian is ‘gentle wolf’.) And we talk about language, of course. I am here to teach an international Winter School at the university — to work in English with people of five or six nationalities. Should I be just slightly apologetic, for happening to inhabit what is currently the nearest thing there is to a world language?
No, I decide I won’t be, for two reasons: i) the English language is a fluid, changing and evolving thing, with a habit of absorbing something of whatever history has brought it into contact with (its failure to take anything from Welsh is a notable exception); ii) it also has a habit of slipping out of the grip of whoever wants to use it as an instrument of power, so that a whole world of Indian, Caribbean and African Englishes, not to mention the language of the USA, have taken on their own life, and what’s more, come back to haunt and to enrich it, if we care to listen.
I’m a mongrel too — Cornish-Estonian, with a dash of what my nastier great-aunt would refer to as the tar-brush on the Indian side. And I’m absorbent too, hovering up the sounds of language from wherever something touches me. So English (rather than a smaller, more self-protective language, having to police its frontiers to protect its purity) may be the natural place for me.
As if I had the choice. (Maybe we have. People change languages, sometimes for political reasons. Discuss…)
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But the heart of the interview-conversation turns out to be not words; it’s the spaces in between. (The title I’ve chosen for the course is POETRY: A Conversation between Words and Silence.) We talk about how I heard my father speak Estonian for the first time in my thirties; I had grown up knowing by some instinct there was a space in the house, in our language, where a lot was not being said. ‘I was the son of the Duke of Nowhere’ said a poem in an early book of mine.
That could so easily be a standard grievance-line. But maybe it need not be. (I understand why he chose not to talk about the life, the land and family he’s lost; why pass on an irremediable grief?) What that silence also schooled me in was an awareness of the tingling round the edges of what’s said — the power, in fact, of what’s not bluntly expressed.
I say that in the interview and the interviewer smiles, knowingly. Estonians are famous for their reticence, their self-containment, their preference for keeping a precious feeling in a safe and private place. I talk about learning to vaue the way the partly-said things brings back resonances from the space around itm, and he smiles. Aha, he’s thinking, so you are an Estonian after all…