:: Article

Mother Tongue

By Shona McCombes.




In the years she lived in countries that were not her own, she dreamed often of losing her language.

She had been in love for a while with a man who had no mother tongue. Growing up in the cradle of three languages, the tender neural pathways of his childhood hardened into safety-nets of meaning, protecting him from the threat of homelessness. He tried to teach her his tongues, sometimes, but it was like trying to teach someone how to breathe.

She had been in love for a longer while with a woman who spoke only one language, in an accent miraculously insulated from the erosion of influence, a whole voice free from the affectations and uncertainties of migration. Every syllable that fell from her mouth felt intended and important, like it could be pronounced no other way.

Living in countries that were not her own, she learned languages by a process of necessity. She donned them like ill-fitting outfits, rough materials that did the job of warmth and modesty but hung awkwardly from the curves and angles of her body, distorting her contours. She never stayed long enough to complete the laborious work of hemming and altering and adorning. So the languages would start to chafe, tightening around her throat, and she would leave before they had a chance to strangle her.

It was at these times that she dreamed of forgetting her mother tongue. Her mother’s face would be there, mouth moving with its familiar steadfast cadence, but the words would keep escaping, always on the brink of significance but running together in an impenetrable flow, and she’d try to chase them with the slow treacle terror of a heavy-legged nightmare. She could speak, still, in these dreams, but she could speak only half-known languages, languages with missing parts, languages that were not her own. She was exiled from fluency.

All exiles contain in their crevices the idea of a home that has never existed. After the years in other countries, there came a point when this idea grabbed her by the throat and would not let go, an unbearable pressure on the vocal chords that only her own country could ease. So there came a point when she went back.

The first weeks of fluency were laden with slabs of place marbled through with time. Visiting her mother’s house was like visiting a childhood where speech was fresh and delighting, or a pubescence where language dripped with the new possibilities of personhood. In dropped consonants and half-sentences and empty questions there was something complete; the uncalculated ease of every exchange felt like being whole.

But after a time fluency becomes banal, and wholeness reveals itself as a rhetorical trick. Exhilaration gives way to expectation; possibility resolves into repetition. Mothers always say the same things, and tongues convulse with the involuntary ease of muscle memory. A whole language at the tip of the tongue and no way to make it meaningful, speech unrolling and expanding only to fill empty time.




She begins, after some time, to crave silence.

Unwilling to abandon, yet, the idea of a home that has still to prove its existence, she shifts neighbourhoods, then cities; she puts deliberate distances between herself and her childhood, her pubescence, her mother’s house. She takes up tenancy in a solitary life, imagining that speech might become a choice and not a compulsion, imagining the relief of the pressure that still sits lightly on her throat.

But even in a solitary life, vocal chords cannot evade their economic obligations. The silent offices, the kind that sustain themselves on the click of keyboards alone, are all full; the work of the forests and the fields has no interest in her insubstantial mass when there are much larger bodies that can better fill their space. Her most valuable assets reside in her face and her throat.

Each day, in this life she presently inhabits, she boards a bus emblazoned with a destination she has never visited, an idyllic kind of name, a word containing the promise of a contentment that has never existed. She isn’t equipped with all the traces of meaning that the name might carry; she hasn’t lived long enough in this city to be fluent in the socio- geographical language of the place, the vocabulary of streets and suburbs in which people speak shorthand about the version of the city they want to call theirs. If she stays on the bus long enough, she could end up anywhere.

So she keeps this destination wrapped in a corner of her mind, where its possibilities remain intact, and gets off the bus at the same stop every day, in a zone where the names are familiar and placeless and language is a desperately functional thing, text plastered across walls and windows working tirelessly to generate association, curiosity, desire. Selling things, she has learned, is easier in your mother tongue; people trust you more readily. Each day the words come quick and light, and she wants to crush the pallid life from them beneath the heels of her shoes.

She becomes infatuated with an old fear, turning it in her mind, caressing it and nourishing it into something alluring. To unstitch the fabric of the mind, to unravel the patterns of meaning, to watch her mother’s mouth move and hear only waves of sound, to look at the bright desperate shopfronts and see nothing but shapes and colours and patterns: to live a life without a language is an unthinkable proposition, but all the best freedoms are unthinkable until they are thought.

She decides to forget her mother tongue.

To undertake such a project, she knows, requires patience. Forgetting does not happen all at once. It is a matter of erosion, revision, and all successful forgettings rest upon the strength of the things that remain. So begins a careful process of refining: slicing away what is not necessary, filtering out the sediment of significance, carving speech into an efficient device to solve a practical problem. (The problem is the selling: to stay alive she has to sell.) As language becomes more slender it becomes more saturated. Each phoneme is required to bear the weight of an explanation, a persuasion, a dense mass of meanings. Her language, over time, becomes so sharp that people are speared on it, held fast by its quick hypnotic cadence, its rehearsed hollow point.

Contrary to intention, she is crowned Employee of the Month.

She perseveres. Starving her language down to a skeleton is not enough: she needs to strip it of signification, dismantle it, shatter its bones into unrecognisable fragments of something once alive. In empty moments, she chooses a word and whispers it again and again like an incantation until it dissolves into something strange and comic. The nouns are easy. It doesn’t take much for them to reveal themselves as unwieldy, absurd things, nonsense sounds with no relation to the heavy materiality of the objects they are supposed to name. It’s the smaller bits of language that resist eradication: the pronouns and the prepositions.




She had imagined that, first, the written world would be lost. She had imagined that printed letters and words, with their shape and their weight and their coarse inky certainty, would lose their relation to sounds and things, turning into abstract brushstrokes, little pictures of nothing at all. Each day she trains her eyes upon the pages of the free newspaper that decorates the seats of every bus, trying to see only the lines and the curves and the spaces between. But print remains, for a long time, stubbornly readable. What happens far faster is that the shape of a vowel in the mouth, the position of the tongue against the teeth, the vibration of the vocal cords begin to detach from the meanings they once functioned to produce. The sounds that emanate from her body echo in her own ears, losing their lexical structure as discrete units of sonic time. On the page, she learns, words cannot run into each other the way they can in the body.

She begins to blur around the edges. She has always been a skin-picker, unable to leave alone a spot or a scab, peeling at every loose flap of herself to expose the darker flesh beneath. Now the stinging pain of burrowing too far begins to shift into something else. It’s not a deadening, exactly; the nerve endings are as alert as they’ve ever been, the surface of the skin as sensitive and susceptible as a child’s. It’s more like a mingling. Sensation ceases to divide into pain and pleasure. Experiences that once ordered themselves into somatic narratives of cause and effect and a moral to the tale (a hot stove and so a burning pain and so be careful; a scab ripped off too early and so a sharp seeping sting and so be careful; a pair of hands passed over flesh and so a roiling ache and so be careful, be careful) lose their threads of significance, refusing to explain themselves. A caress and a slap no longer dwell in different categories of meaning. They are only points on an undulating spectrum of intensity.

There comes a day when she stays on the bus. It is not quite a decision; the relations between intent and action become blurred as the anchoring I loses its grip upon the earth. But the electric orange idyllic destination is a lingering itch, a sliver of unfulfilled meaning in the corner of the mind. By the time she gets off, in a world of concrete that bleeds from the streets into the houses and the sky, the name has been shaken out of her. She does not know where she is.

At her mother’s funeral, the voice settles itself into a single monotonous note, a sound that might have been called a wail, if sounds still held their relation to the meanings a word like wail bears. A voice without a tongue is an animal thing; unleashed from the structures of subject and object and verb, all its meaning is concentrated in the degree to which it strains and cracks.




Shona McCombes is a writer, editor, critic and perpetual student from Glasgow, Scotland. She edits Letters to Barnacle and sometimes writes things about films, books and other stories at Consolatory Nonsense. She is currently based in Budapest.


Screenshots from the text of Mother Tongue manipulated by Glitch Tool , an app that corrupts JPEG files and was developed by Georg Fischer.



First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 24th, 2016.