Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Jackie Kay’s poem, Old Tongue
The following reflective pieces were taken as ‘fieldwork’ for our SRHE 2016 paper on metaphorical inquiry.
This poem highlights the way in which language is part of our identity and that sometimes learning something new actually invokes loss and even a connection with the past.
This sad tale of transition hits me in two ways. Firstly, it reminds me of the trauma of moving to France when I was a student and being completely lost in another language before eventually finding all those new words at once exhilarating and stimulating. However, unlike the narrator in the poem, I didn’t feel like I was ‘turning back’ or that ‘I would have taken them in,/swallowed them whole, knocked them back.’ For me, it was quite the opposite and I was desperate to absorb as many new words and sounds as possible with the aim of becoming French, becoming other…
The phrase ‘It made my mother’s blood boil’ made me smile (and not only because of the real ‘Scottishness’ of the phrase – she may have lost her words but not the sound). It reminded me of how upset my own (Scottish) mother was when – as I became increasingly fluent in French – I muddled up words, used the wrong prepositions as I substituted French syntax for English. There was a sense of betrayal. Yet it was this love of French, this desire to become French that was my intrinsic motivation to pursue my studies and keep going through the PhD. I have never lost this ‘new tongue’ and it has enriched my language, my ‘old tongue’ endlessly.
However, I chose my exile. For the narrator in the poem, this imposition of another language and culture is not made by choice. It makes me wonder – given that English is the lingua franca of higher education – how many others feel like that. How many of our international colleagues or students are economic migrants who arrive in our institutions, their ‘own vowels start[ing] to stretch likes bones.’?
The sense of rage, of helplessness, and finally in the last words, of defiance implies that the ‘old tongue’ lives on regardless despite being ‘lost’ and ‘buried’, the entire poem itself rejoices in the sounds and intonation of that same language. On a very personal way, it also evokes my own transition into higher education where I was struck by the inadequacies of my own language, particularly in English Studies. Like the narrator in the poem, ‘words fell of my tongue’ as I was forced to learn and become fluent in academic English. I remember returning to my hometown in a former industrial part of Scotland where I was mocked for ‘having a posh university accent’. I had abandoned my roots.
This imposition of English, of academic English in particular, in order to succeed in the world of academia and its paralysing and empowering effect on both staff and students is the thread that comes through both of these critical reflections of the poem. In one of our workshops, which we ran in Singapore, one of the participants was herself a Scottish academic who had lived there for a number of years and she chose to read the poem aloud to the group. She wept. The act of speaking those Scottish words aloud that had been ‘buried’ inside her triggered an emotional response. But also, as her tongue wrapped its way round those long forgotten words, she still knew them. As a learner and as a teacher, her ‘old tongue’ continued to speak to her. Another layer of identity to be unravelled…
The most striking aspects of Kay’s ‘Old Tongue’ relate to ideas of agency. Loss is a consequence of compulsion, a driving out, compelled by unidentified (or unidentifiable) external forces. Linguistic dislocation is an unconscious reaction to relocation. The result of this is similarly unseen, the gradual processes of loss not initially perceived, cannot be stopped until it is too late. Words fall, lost – although not lost. They still leave echoes, and can be recalled and listed in memoriam. It is this memory of what was before which perhaps creates the emotional experience of loss more than the actual changes in linguistic register. This knowledge of the ‘wrong sound’ – can only come from a remembrance of the ‘right sound’ – which was homely, and in which identity and sense of self and the expression of that self were aligned. This dislocation of self – can only be realised within the person who knows the before and after. It is imperceptible from outside. The new words which ‘march in’ are not ghastly if they have always been your words – ‘scones said like scones’./ Pokey hats into ice cream cones’. The poetic richness of language becomes functional, imaginatively sparse, anchored firmly to a prosaic explanation.
This speaks to my own loss of disciplinary familiarity. When I was 28 I was forced ‘south’, changing fields from the critical traditions of English Literature, which celebrates subjectivity and creative interpretations, revels in metaphor and reading against the grain to academic development. Immured in the social sciences, I felt compelled to swap pokey hats for ice cream cones.
My ways of disciplinary knowing become Kay’s lost language. They stole away, did a moonlight flit, loading the cart with academic identity, confidence and prestige leaving behind only a debt of methodological uncertainty. What happened to these ways of knowing? Kay’s poem seems uncertain, they are wandering and might be found, they are buried in her new alien land. In my own practice, like Kay, I try to call them back, ‘like calling in the sea’. I want them back, I want the right sound in my mouth, the old disciplinary ways of knowing which for me are forceful, powerful vehicles through which we can know more profoundly. In order to engage academics in pedagogic exploration, I reach for ways of expression which ‘gie it laldie’. This power can only be mastered as Heaney phrases it ‘in the language of first utterance’ – which for me is the creative, the poetic, the subjective, that which is powered by the force of critical imagining.
Yet, I pause. Is this desire to ‘gie it laldie’ and to find succour in my old ways of knowing, even now my disciplinary bones have stretched, and as I have grown into a new identity, like calling in the sea? It looks like my work is having impact, but the sea would have returned anyway. Has my new language, the language of learning and teaching, with its frameworks, paradigms, and data, born of the social science ‘south’ stealthily become my own? Is this professed desire to ‘gie it laldie’ – to express academic practice in an ‘old tongue’, a tongue which is lost, just a performance which testifies to my loss.