From Greece to India: Can multiple Languages foster clarity of thoughts?

By Karine Leno Ancellin

I love, I dream, I think, I count, my feverish delirium is expressed indistinctly in two languages; I speak both with a relevant degree of affection and erudition….at least at academic level. I have publications in both. Thus I cannot elucidate which one is my most inner language. And I have tried and tried, over time, as I have been struggling in this linguistic bipolarity. I have done my best efforts, to decipher this painful dyad, and find my true, coherent and unique character.

I fail at every attempt….and because on top of this duality I have lived and immersed myself in the culture of other foreign countries, outside my two original ones, no one sees me as a representative of the quintessential American or the quintessential French. I am an American in France and a French in America, and randomly either one of these or none of both in a foreign country.

This frustrating situation was topped when learning yet novel languages, then no matter how unlike my own these languages were, or how remote and different their cultures were, like the austere Moorish nomad tradition, I was at home everywhere, had the proper accent and the people said (with that tinge of, thanks for noticing we exist) I fitted in perfectly. The tormenting part for me was that I was nowhere profoundly, inextricably attached, I had no deep territorial roots, so I set off to understand how people work with fragmented identities.

Having lived in North Africa for approximately a decade, then in Belgium for another decade (with a deep language divide between French and Flemish) and eventually living in Greece now for soon to be a decade, I had to grapple with the issue of this new language to my pantheon. Now Greek, before that Arabic, the experience of new calligraphies brought me to a slightly uncomfortable neophyte learner status, with basic questions on perception. How do concepts form? How have I formed my own and in what cultural tradition where they brought to my mind’s life in? Much as Edward Sapir interrogates:

We have seen that the single word expresses either a simple concept or a combination of concepts so interrelated as to form a psychological unity. (Source: Edward Sapir 1884-1939-An Introduction to the Study of Speech, Chapter 5, 1921)

I believe we see through language. Words form the concepts and emotions we are subject to. For example, I feel pain as I have come across the word ‘pain’ in childhood, in books, or in situations that have informed the meaning of pain, and loaded it with connotations, like giving birth, or like the melancholy after being separated from my love for months, etc. The mental constructs I am able to construe hereby, with various degrees of success, are the creation of the language I am using as I write. As such I am the produce of the Franco-American culture and its references.

Today, the second nature of the Greek urban elite is English, mostly from the USA, but also from the UK, but surprisingly the Greek identity is so profoundly rooted that people wear English as a ‘second hand’ cloak in their daily lives, it’s a natural practical language. Those of my friends, who spend most of their lives speaking English at home with their spouses and children, do not question that Greek is the matrix. Including the newly returned who don’t even speak Greek so well. So Greek carried me beyond the Rubicon of the binary American and French. It had already been knotty for me to identify where the concepts my mind selected subconsciously came from, but now I became curious to know what I would do if I endorsed Greek as a language of the ‘heart’, and in the wake of this new paradigm, researching multiple languages articulation, I created a bilingual poetry society, A Poets’ Agora, for Greek poets writing in both Greek and English. This new forum easily found its place amongst the fertile Athens literary scene with its original neoclassical aesthetics and convivial atmosphere.

It is in Greece, by way of its magical web of intermingling connections, that I was oriented to India, by Sudha Nair Iliades, Publisher and Editor of ‘Insider Athens’. Strange world.

Looking at India from a language perspective, I first focused on interviewing writers who wrote in English in India; already in love with Arundhati Roy, I was trying to make out if they were Anglo-Indian writers or Indian Anglophone speakers? That directed me to writers such as Suketu Mehta describing the buoyant and multicultural economic Capital of India, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. After reading Suketu’s account I found it was waiting for my questions. I preferred Mumbai over Delhi, or Kolkata where most writers lived because of its vibrancy and its artistry with language and its highly multicultural melting pot, as the ‘Gateway to India’ Mumbai welcomed foreigners from far and large in the state of Maharashtra, on the Western coast of the continent. Mumbai was like Manhattan in many ways, a threshold city that never sleeps, home of the Bollywood Industry.

When I landed at Mumbai airport at 4 AM, and went down to get a cab in this saturated dark moist air pollution underground, I cringed. Normal and easy, but the cab driver who spoke no English whatsoever had no concept where the hotel was. He was easy about it and he would stop in those very narrow dirty dark and gloomy streets and ask a person guarding an apartment block, or ask a lone passerby, or ask another taxi on the street. It lasted for about two hours – I had pre-paid at the airport – but when finally we came to where my hotel in a sullen street in front of a reservoir, I collapsed with disappointment. How was I going to elucidate the language question I had come to research from such a seedy area of Mumbai? Daylight answered with a wonderful chaos of warm colours lightening up my spirits, the streets were cluttered with adorable small crafts like shoe repair, phone stalls, Chinese junk, food shops galore, standing restaurants, fruits to the point where you had to watch your step not to squish a vendor’s display on the ground. I had an array of meetings with intellectuals from the Mumbai literary scene but how was that going to fall through?

Funnily enough for someone like me who celebrates, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or Diwali, over the mass Christmas consumer frenzy, at this point Christmas helped me land psychologically in Mumbai. I went along my agenda with a visit to the Prithvi Theatre, for a poetry night; more than just a stage, the Prithvi Theatre is also a multicultural, multilingual welcoming space. It also hosts a wonderful bookshop, where one would wish to get lost in as its shelves hold treasures of old editions and out of prints from other parts of the world, a collector’s paradise, with nothing to envy to Paris Shakespeare’s bookshop. Of course performances are the main attraction, mostly in Hindi, English, Marathi and Gujarati, but also many other languages and my neighbours were all riveted. How did they know/understand so many languages? At my table were a couple with the young woman living in Thailand, and a family from NYC on Christmas holiday, all snap their fingers, and if enough snapping is heard, the poet gets a free glass of wine from the bar! So we all read, some in English, more young women read in English than young men, and two-thirds in other languages, one Kashmiri poet, one Hindu poetess and many more (about 20 poets go by evening). Peter Griffin, the soul of the Caferati, discreetly towers the event behind the billboard.

Back to interviews and I left for Pune, the Oxford of India, to meet Professor Sanjay Ranade, of the University of Mumbai, also a poet and a Music Therapist. With Professor Ranade I was to elucidate the coexistence of the many languages and the possibility of a canon. Professor Ranade expounded on the inexistence of this canon because “[t]here has been attempts to standardize language throughout history as local dialects have developed into grammatical formats but there is not one exemplary language in India. Sanskrit is a language that reaches the paroxysm of sophistication in terms of grammar structure, so Hindi can become Sanskrit, as well as Marathi can become Sanskrit, Tamil too. When I write an academic paper I use Sanskritized English, it’s about the use of language. The word for culture is ‘Sanskriti’, expressing itself into a fine manner, but poetry is the highest form of speech that is accepted. If you become Sanskitized you will speak in verse. Sanskritize is also poeticized, Sanskrit uses different metres of poetry. Poetry is the highest form of expression with more sophistication involving symbols, metaphors, simile and allegory. You become erudite through interaction with others, these others have to be different. We are looking at expression and the goal of all communication is silence, says the Kashmiri tradition between 9th and 15th century, so we communicate as silence is not enough so we have languages.” Professor Ranade asserted that the intensity of the exchanges in India had blurred the lines between languages. All the languages have different forms of higher expression or dialectal forms, according to the location, the caste, the age and the gender of the speaker. Sanskrit, the primary liturgical language of India, the language of the Vedas, that dates back approximately two millennia before Christ, is a language on its own as well as being a form of sophistication in every language. All the languages were intertwined to some extent and he could not identify one that would be more elaborate or intricate that would set a canon. That revelation had me rethink my bilingual, possibly multilingual identity, as Professor Ranade explained, languages, and the concepts attached to the words, are more fluid now, there are no strict demarcations anymore: ‘Diwali’ ‘Christmas’ are understood the world over, even if there are strong cultural differences, globalization has allowed this gliding into each other of modern languages, that had existed over time in the history of Indian languages. I don’t see it as a ‘corruption’ of the language because I believe in the fundamental strength and the capacity for modern adaptation of each single culture, but in India, and in Europe, it is the scarecrow of the populists and nationalists.

Karine Leno Ancellin was born and grew up in New York until she moved to very different countries altogether. She worked on ‘Hybrid identities’ for her Phd at the Vrije Universiteit of Brussels. She earned an MA, with Honours, in Literature at the Charles V Institute of Paris. She is now a professor, writer and translator living in Athens, Greece. She has published articles and interviews for the WIP, Kulturissimo, and other media. She is now involved in the promotion of pan-Hellenic Literature. She co-founded a poetry society in Athens, Greece with Angela Lyras. Her poems have been put into music by the Jazz composer Leila Olivesi.

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