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The Language of a Story

August 30, 2016

I always wonder if I “count” as bilingual when I didn’t grow up speaking two languages, I just learned English in school and through books and the internet… but it feels so natural to use it now, I think in it and write half of my notes to myself in it, and dream in it sometimes (maybe more than sometimes, but I usually don’t remember what language I dreamed in. As much as I think in words during the day, I don’t even know if my dreams have a language most of the time.)

And I’ve heard people making the case that our Austrian dialects actually count as a separate language from standard German, so maybe I’m actually fluent in three languages.

Most of the time, speaking in German feels more natural than speaking in English, but I’ve had times when writing felt much easier in English, because of how much I was using it on the internet, and trying to write a story in German felt weird and awkward and stilted and slow, and occasionally I had to switch partway through the story because it just wasn’t working.

But there are other stories that I can only write in one particular language. Because some things are just so much easier in certain languages. They’re not impossible in another language, but just … more difficult. Awkward.

(“Awkward” is such a good example of this. There’s no German word that can adequately translate what it means.)

Rocks and Reeds, if it had ever gotten past the first two pages, would have needed to be written in English. Because it needs gender-neutral pronouns, and they’re pretty much an unknown concept in German. I did some googling when I started Rocks and Reeds, and the only thing I could find was “xier“, which I couldn’t bring myself to use, because it felt so unnatural and artificial, with that x.

(I do wonder sometimes… if gender-neutral pronouns had been around when I was a teenager, if I had known that was an option… might I have asked people to use them for me? Because I feel like my gender is one of the least relevant parts of my identity. I think that thought actually started as a thought about a story too, about a transgender character and the realisation that I don’t really understand transgender people – just because I’ve never had any strong feelings about my gender at all . Because I don’t know what it means to “feel like a man/a woman.” I feel like I’m a woman only because people tell me I am.)

(But I’m getting off track.)

Nettle Patch, if I do manage to write it, strongly demands to be written in German. For now, anyway. Maybe I’ll sit there, three pages in, and think, “This just isn’t working,” and switch to English. But there are two characters who have already declared they are known as “Mütterchen” (“little mother”) and “Onkelchen” (“little uncle”), and that just feels so much easier in German.

And then there’s this  daydream-for-boring-workdays story (which, if I were to ever write it, which is unlikely, would probably be called Beside You), in which I gave one of the main characters a very similar job to my own, because I was lazy… and now all the dialogues for the story play out in Austrian German in my mind, because that is the language I speak most often when I’m at work, and the story does start at that character’s workplace.

I always wish I could learn more languages well enough to actually think in them, to think actual stories in them, because who knows what possibilities that would open for writing… but I never have the time or energy for it, and I’ve already noticed, when I learned a bit of Dutch some years ago, that it’s no longer as easy as it was when I was a kid.

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