Mother Tongue & Mother Land

(Photo Credit: Ian Cylkowski)

Cymraeg. Gaidhlig. Gaeilge. Norsk. Dansk. These are the tongues that speak to my ears. A balm for my soul, a challenge for my mind, comfort and delight and frustration. Welsh. Scots Gaelic. Irish. Norwegian. Danish. These are the threads through my days and each in their own way is richer and more expansive than the English which is my first language.

Some days, when I have been focused on learning them, they push English out of my mind and I struggle to remember the English word for tomato or trousers. In Gaeilge, we don't say that we know a language, we say that we have it. Ta Gaeilge agam. I have Irish.

Whatever emotions swirl within us, we do not say that we are those emotions. We are not sad.

Ta bron orm. Sadness is on us. What a difference it makes to be able to understand and express that we are not our emotions, but that they come and go as visitors.

Today, I reached an unbroken streak of 600 days of language learning. For me, learning new languages has been more than a hobby or a way to pass the time during the pandemic. It has given me a new sense of self, a new way to view the world. It has brought tears to my eyes and comfort to my spirit.

I'm by no means fluent in any of these tongues, whatever fluency is. But I can cobble together my own charms and prayers and songs to match the languages of the lands whose blood flows through my veins, the places where my ancestors belonged.

My speech is halting and imprecise, but to have regained any of it at all, especially when languages like Gaidhlig, Cymraeg and Gaeilge are at risk of extinction is no small thing. When I think of the laws imposed in Scotland, Ireland and Wales by the British, forbidding people from speaking their own language or of teaching it to their children, the displacement of people from their ancestral lands, the banning of outward displays of Gaelic culture such as tartans, it means everything to me to hold in my heart something which despite all attempts at its destruction has persevered.

As Gaeilge, we say "Is fear Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste". Broken Irish is better than clever English. In an interview, one of my favourite musicians, Einar Selvik, spoke about how, in times past, our forebears lives were shaped by song. Songs for doing the laundry or harvesting wheat or greeting the moon or all manner of things. And with colonisation and industrialization, these songs were lost. He spoke about how we still need songs to shape our days, even if that means making new songs.

Give me a bold, bruised heart over clever English any day. What's so clever about colonialism? There is dignity and vulnerability in sitting and struggling to put together the pieces we have and filling in the gaps with our own inspiration and yearnings.

Part of my rune study involves galdr, the chanting of the runes. Runes are an alphabet and divination tool and keys to other worlds. They have their own potent energy and after mere minutes of galdring, every fibre of my being feels transformed by the energy of the keys. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, everything trivial falls away and I am in a different time, place and frequency.

I think it's the same with ancestral languages. They speak to places within us, show us possibilities which do not exist or cannot be voiced in colonial languages. So we piece together what was possible for our ancestors and create what must be possible for us today. I do it with the surviving Mersberg charms and the Carmina Gadelica and waulking songs, with folk tales and recipes.

And if I am patient and lucky, some tender and untamed part of me begins to feel the language call me back to the lands my people are from. If only for a moment, I can see the world as they did. Beautiful and terrible and vast enough to hold all of their stories.

The whole time those lands went silent with their mother tongue, the stories gathered in crags and moors and blades of grass, waiting to be set free. Waiting to have a voice again. Shaky or uncertain, they care not.

They ask for humility and willingness, not perfection. Their voice is here. Every song and prayer I learn in the languages of my people is a voice willing to speak for them, and to add my story to theirs, for without them, I would have neither story nor life.

Gather the stories and songs of your people. Stay with them. Honour them and honour yourself by turning your heart and your mind to the ones who brought you to this moment. Loud and strong as you can, speak for them and for yourself and let your land and your language love you.

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