Last Words, Lost Words

There is too much too say. I don’t want to oversimplify or to make Estonia seem simply charming, plucky, quaint. The danger of my family connection is of falling into a kind of nostalgia in the present tense.

Nowhere, however small, is simple. One third of Estonians are Russians, part of a wave of people brought in by the Soviet Union, with that distinctive blend of internationalist ideals and hard realpolitik, diluting nationality, cementing central power in place. And of course their children and grandchildren. Estonia is working out a way to be a culture that includes all this — not quite without contention, in the area of language policies. If you’d like to think this one through, from a Welsh context, you could start with basic information on:

And this blog makes me think of the (I hope) tasty lumps that are worth fishing for in the tasty peasant-style soups you get in almost any Tallinn café. Fun to find them, and try to put a name to them, but the real flavour in the medium they float in. And that hardly comes in words at all.

Now, back in Wales, I’m also back in Tallinn, on the tram… Round me, there’s a gentle wash and backwash of voices, and I’m floating on it. Instead of straining to pick out a word here and there, or at least to train the sense that tells me whether I’m hearing Estonian, or Estonian-Russian, or a visitor’s language. I’ve been here just long enough that when a British or American voice bobs up on the simmer it sounds strange. How can we (at least in the middle ground of British English) be so wasteful of our vowel sounds, so often letting them flatten into schwa, the neutral sound phonetics writes as ə — and letting adjacent vowels merge and meld, not like the fluid carefully-nuanced vowel strings I’ve heard here?
If I spoke the language, I’d hear so much more. That’s obvious. Less obvious is that maybe I would also hear less. More of the sense, less of the pure sound values, rhythm, timbre, all the physical. not-quite-verbal things that are three quarters of what’s happening when we feel that we communicate.
Two nights back I did a reading in the Writers’ House, the Soviet-era grey Writer’s Union building, with the contemporary music group Resonabilis. (See the link at the side of the page.) Their music keeps sidling off into sound, into breaths and mutters, hums and clicks. It keeps fading either into silence, or into a sound that’s like a silence made audible. Putting music in among the poems seems to tune our ears to word-sound, to its rhythms, tones and interruptions… so that we listen in a different way. More spaciously, in fact.

But now I’m home. I hopped from airport to international airport, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, then Cardiff — not quite in sync with my suitcase, which had dreams of a world tour of its own… but that’s another story. I want to tell my father all about it, but that’s the one thing I can’t do. In his nineties, he is deeply deaf, can hardly read, has lost his spoken language to the aphasia brought on by mini-strokes, is losing the shapes and concepts of language at a deeper level, too.

I’ve brought him a loaf of Estonian black bread.

Outside in the street today, I’m scraping frost from the car window, and the sounds it makes, to my still travel-lagged brain, are Estonian, and sometimes Russian, consonants and vowels, their particular rhythms, the distinctive indescribable attitudes of a language, syllable by syllable. No meaning in the sounds, of course. I don’t have that much language. But I sink nto them happily… and out of this blog. I’ve enjoyed doing it, but suspect myself of putting too much into words too soon, without letting it sink down into deeper place.

Now I sound like an Estonian. But sdon’t worry. It may pass.

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2 Responses to Last Words, Lost Words

  1. Mike Joseph says:

    From this particular follower of your blog, I assure you you have not put too much into words too soon.
    First words, first feelings are their own truth.
    Later on comes the reflection, the measured balance, but later on also you loose the first startled glance, the shock of a connection newly struck, with the fall of an icicle.
    So, thanks for all the fresh words!

  2. Shauna says:

    To echo the last response; I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of space you portrayed in the blogs alonside the sense of place, both captured using all senses.

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