Saturday 7 January 2012

My homeland is my language?

If you’re familiar with one of the great figures of 20th century literature, my fellow countryman Fernando Pessoa, you must have recognised the title of this post as a tribute to him.

Pessoa didn’t question that his homeland was his language, though: he stated it. In his autobiography of sorts, Livro do Desassossego (‘Book of Disquiet’), he wrote that “Minha pátria é a língua portuguesa” (‘My homeland is the Portuguese language’). Far from me to engage in the speculation surrounding what Pessoa meant by this, but I like the idea that your language, any of your languages at any given time and place, feels like home.

Languages are not just sets of conventions to express meanings, they also reflect those meanings which their users find relevant to express. This is why we talk about kräftskivor in Swedish and about fado in Portuguese, but not the other way around. (I had to say this: in case you haven’t been told, my beloved, multi-rooted, multi-cultural, and very Portuguese fado gained recognition among UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage just recently.)

Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow that a Portuguese-Swedish multilingual, say, will relate to both kräftskivor and fado – or to whichever local practices these languages reflect. In order to feel at home in a culture, you need nurturing in that culture, a point made by Una Cunningham in her book Growing Up with Two Languages. Both the languages and the ways of living those languages need input, so that they can be made ours. You can find out more about this at Una’s website, where you can also listen to parents’ and children’s reports about their cross-linguistic and cross-cultural experiences. 
Nurturing is something that people do, according to the practices of the groups to which they belong at specific times and in specific places. The places, however, instead of the people, somehow came to be seen as the owners of cultural practices – and so as the owners of people, too –, in the sense that you “belong” somewhere. “Somewhere”, in turn, came to mean not only ‘a single place’, usually the one where your mother happened to give birth to you, but a homogeneous place – in the sense that if you belong to Portugal, say, then you relate to fado. But there’s fado and fado, actually, both of which are Portuguese because the two places where they come from, Lisbon and Coimbra, respectively, happen to be located in the piece of land we call Portugal.

The problem with defining who you are by means of a place is that places are, well, stuck in place, whereas you and your languages aren’t. The association of (one) land with (one) identity didn’t hold water for Fernando Pessoa either. Like many literary figures past and present, he used several languages, and published in them too. But it was his “homeland” which spoke in multiple ways through the different voices of his heteronyms, all of them Portuguese. Granted, these were literary personae, but there’s no difference between what they represent and what all of us do in everyday uses of a single language: there is more than one way of being at home in any single language.

Small wonder, then, that so many of us find our home in different languages too. I never understood the funny claim that belonging to more than one place means that you don’t in fact belong anywhere: having several homes doesn’t mean you’re homeless. And it doesn’t mean either that you must belong to one place more than to another, in a replay of the myth that you must also have one language that tops them all. So what happens when someone can’t accept, or won’t accept, that people don’t need to belong, or don’t want to belong, to a single place – and perhaps don’t care about issues of belonging? The next post gives one example.

© MCF 2012

Next post: “Do you feel Swedish?” Saturday 14th January 2012.


  1. I thouroughly enjoyed your article and fully understand and live the concept daily. I am a native born Portuguese speaker, that acquired English through immigration, French in school and Spanish trough study and work and marriage. Wich language am I most comfortable in? It depends on the situation. French being my weakest, it leaves me completly at home with Portuguese with family and friends, English for my day to day and Spanish at home (Mexican wife) and work.
    Of course living in California, makes one's ability to speak both English and Spanish to live in bi-liingual bliss.

  2. Corisco: Your linguistic homes and your thoughts about them are a perfect example of what I meant in my post. Obrigada por nos dizer!


  3. I am a translator and consider myself practically bilingual. This text was written for translators but I consider it 'fits' here too...

    The process by which I learned English, been a native Brazilian Portuguese, led me to formulate a theory of language learning and, as a result, of translation, as I realized the process my brain uses to alternate between these two languages.

    Each language makes use of symbols (words) which mean something unique, and they have no corresponding match in the other language. This is so because meaning is not an absolute thing, but depends on other neighboring concepts, which make up the culture in which this language was created. It is a mesh of meanings with infinite interactions, and each one contributes with a iota of meaning to make up the comprehensive meaning of each word.

    That is why translating was so difficult for me, in the beginning. I always tried to find the exact term, in Portuguese, to mean the same thing the English term meant.
    I think I really started to translate when I changed my approach, when I realized that a translator is "an author without a subject". By that I mean that translating is rewriting a text in which the subject belongs to someone else who, to start with, originated in another culture.

    The act of translating intends to be a messenger which takes a MESSAGE from a sender to a recipient. This can be accomplished through language, music, painting, sculpture and so many other forms of expressing oneself. To be absolutely effective, the message must comprehend all (?) which exists in the original and must be received entirely (?) by the recipient.

    There are other utopias around …

    One day, maybe, we may get to the conclusion that an original work - Shakespeare, for example - is no more than a translation. It is a message, originated in the author's self, being transmitted to an external recipient. Maybe then I will update the line "A translator is an author without a subject" and try another one: "An author is a translator of self."

  4. I couldn't agree more. I am at ease in French with my daughter, in English with my husband (hate speaking French to him) and work-related issues.
    I wrote my thoughts on the topic on my blog too

  5. I think I know what you mean, JC. I worked with translation for quite a while, and I had the same misgivings that you report, about fitting subjects into words and words into texts which might arouse in their readers a similar kind of effect to the one that I experienced when reading the original text. Then I wondered what other translators would have done instead. Translating is a never-ending story, right? Even for the same person. Just like original writing, as you also say. Um abraço para si, por este comentário que me fez pensar!

    And Annabelle, I would also feel really funny using the “wrong” language with the “right” people around me. Thank you so much for your support – I read your blog post, you ask a very, very good question there!


  6. Thank you for this excellent blog post Madalena. You pose some interesting questions. I had a friend who spoke several languages, and moved countries many times but didn't have a 'home' in the sense of one country, one language. Many people couldn't understand this - how did she define her identity and what language did she think in. We have to become more flexible with how we define these things.

  7. Flexibility is the right word, Eilidh. Home is where you feel at home, in body and mind. Your friend might agree? Thank you for wanting to be part of this blog!


    1. Great idea - home is your languages-something you carry with you wherever you go. I work in English, English being the tool of my trade, I live in French and was brought up in Portuguese. Reading brings you closer to certain aspects of your 'home'. I sometimes have a strong urge to read in a particular language-as if I need to go home-so I plunge into Saramago, or enjoy a Maalouf or pick up a South African author. Makes me feel all warm and cosy!


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