A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to English

March 24, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Kaja Weeks

I was born to World War II refugees from Estonia, a tiny country on the Baltic Sea. When they escaped the horrors of war, they couldn’t take much—but they wrapped up their language, as precious as a baby in a blanket, and carried it with them to the new world.

Despite being born in America, my early life was cocooned within an all-Estonian speaking family and community. What I remember from being a five-year old is landing in American kindergarten as a fluent speaker solely of my mother tongue, Estonian. Then English seemed to rush in like a summer storm full of wind and lightening.

As I grew, I created family stories, personal history and poems. I loved words—reading, writing, recitation. And though I retained something above “kitchen Estonian,” my facility with English quickly dominated complex thinking. By elementary school, I wrote short stories, in high school my poems were in the literary magazine and yearbook. By adulthood, I penned memoir-based essays.

Clearly, I was on my way to life as a creative writer, in English.

But then a funny thing happened in midlife. Words from my earliest language began to poke, then tantalize. I longed for them to billow from memory to my lips and onto paper. Up at midnight (my most creative writing time), I found myself whispering words in Estonian—words my mother had spoken to me. Their trauma, beauty and mysterious power cast spells upon me, though at first, as a writer, I wasn’t sure what “to do” with these words.

Linguistically Estonian is a rare Finnic language that has been described as “elvish” by some and earns a blank look of non-recognition from others. Vowels flow with such abundance that it often sounds like singing. Consider, aiaõue (into the garden), laulja (singer), and even my name, Kaja, with its last three letters articulated as vowels.

I became enchanted with specific words, especially ones that contained shades of meaning. I was fascinated by ones for which I could find no English equivalent. Take the word sinetus, derived from sinine, meaning “blue.” Its multiple meanings and associations elude the stand-alone English word, blue, implying such distinctions as “blueness,” or “the continuous act of blue-ing.” The poet Kersti Merilaas’ phrase, “a cornflower’s sinetus against the milky sky” names the color while binding it with an active process.

An exciting exploration unfolded as I became inspired by the various kinds of resonances encoded in Estonian as well as English words. However, the actual craft of mingling a first language with a functionally dominant later language, turned out to be tricky. It differs from true bi-lingual writing.

Author Amy Tan offers excellent insight about such variegated influences. Growing up in the United States in a Chinese immigrant home, she describes a process in “Mother Tongue” that brought to her “all the Englishes I do use.” These, Tan asserted, included her own “perfect” English, her mother’s Chinese-to-English translations (which, for lack of a better description, she terms her mother’s “broken English”) and even imaginings of her mother’s internal language.

Eventually, I, too, began to weave threads together from my different skeins—English, Estonian, and archaic dialects. My writing path became increasingly unique as Finnic runic verses with thousands of years-old roots captivated me. I was consumed by ancient words requiring research, magical world views, and rhythmic, repetitive sounds. Once, a writing teacher circled the many instances of assonance, consonance and alliteration in my English-language poetic prose. “How,” she asked, “have you learned to use them so easily?” At that early stage of my journey, I, too, was surprised. Apparently, I had absorbed these techniques from the runic songs, where they abound, and unconsciously transferred them to English.

Lately, I’ve been examining the deep influence of each language on my identity, and even more so, the surprising effect of their intersection upon my writing voice. My creative writing output is still primarily in English, and I’m aware that English is, in fact, the most spoken language in the world, with 1,348 million speakers. Estonian is natively spoken by barely one million people. In more and more of my writing, I create a lattice of Estonian with English. Sometimes I draw specific words from that old language, sometimes I let underlying influences of sound and rhythms resonate.

My first language has connections to just a few Finnic languages, some of which are endangered or have already become extinct. The last native speaker of Livonian, once spoken around the Gulf of Riga near my mother’s birthplace died in 2013.  This knowledge braced me as I finally completed, well into my sixties, a poetic memoir weaving words of both languages, an homage in English to my ancestral roots.

Of the approximately 7,000 living languages, many are in flux. Some are no longer spoken by children. In our fast-changing world, they are as tenuous as the communities in which they are spoken. It’s estimated that only ten percent of languages appear safe for survival in the long run.

Still, I’ve seen that delicate mother tongues—whether challenged by dominant languages, fading intergenerationally or disrupted by massive migration—simmer at the core of identity, with stories to be told.

Kaja Weeks is a poet, essayist, and classically trained singer. Her writing has appeared in The Sugar House Review; Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, The Arts and Humanities; Under the Gum Tree; and elsewhere. Kaja’s memoir-based chapbook, Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots (published in 2020) included two poems subsequently set as choral compositions by composer B. Doss-Johnson. These were performed during the 2021 Pandemic by a virtual global chamber choir. Her writing will be a centerpiece for the 2022 Estonian Mother Language Day program created by VEMU, The Museum of Estonians Abroad. A graduate of New Directions, a writing program of The Baltimore-Washington Center for Psychoanalysis, Kaja’s literary website is www.lyricovertones.com

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§ 7 Responses to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to English

  • Vickie says:

    This was very interesting. Languages and how they impact us has always fascinated me.

  • bearcee says:

    Such a fascinating story! You opened up some areas of imagination I hadn’t thought about, such as blending the sounds of different languages and creating a patois, perhaps, of both. Thank you for an opening to a different world!

  • Thank you for this, for describing your linguistic journey and how Estonian informed your use of language, how it flowed into and enriched your poetry.

    My husband was once one of a few people who spoke Puget Coast Salish, but a language program was instituted to reinvigorate its presence. When language is lost, so is culture at its deepest core, because languages express ideas deeply and uniquely. Too much is lost in translation.

    When I taught poetry, I used to warn students reading haiku, there is meaning, music, and form—which do you sacrifice when a one-syllable word becomes two in English? How to note season when your do not know when a flower blooms? They had all written haiku in grade school, but the only “rule” they knew was syllables. There is more going on.

  • “…they wrapped up their language, as precious as a baby in a blanket, and carried it with them to the new world.” Beautiful and important especially now.

  • Nancy Brown says:

    A fascinating story, feels tender and important to a world where refugees flee and countries and culture, our very foundations crumble. Beautiful. I’m heading over to-read your poetry, hope to listen to the sounds.

  • Ulle Mai Sinka Ruben says:

    I am an Estonian. I was born in Estonia. When I was a young child our family left our country because World War 2 threatened small Estonia and other small countries. Many homes were destroyed, people killed by the bombs. 50 years have have passed and Estonia and other small countries are now under the protection of a United Europe. Hurrah!!

  • […] how my first language came, integrated, faded, reappeared and keeps growing. This piece appeared on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog (Somewhat) Daily News from the World of Literary Nonfiction. It reflects upon how Estonian, which I spoke before English, beckoned me in midlife and eventually […]

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