‘Hayr Mer, vor hergines yes’, … recited Joshua Benjamin Segers, my eight year old grandson, during a blessing of our meal. With pride he delivered The Lord’s Prayer fluently in Armenian; his maternal grandmother’s mother tongue. His ability and confidence filled me with pride but also a deep sadness for my mother tongue. What is my heritage? What is my language? Why have I not passed on my mother tongue?
Growing up under apartheid left my siblings and I confused about our mother tongue. Our home language, a constant battle between my parents, left us confused and switching between Afrikaans and English.
My Dad, born on the island of St Helena off the west coast of Africa, spoke only English.
‘I only speak the queen’s English’, my Dad regularly announced. ‘I will never utter a word of his oppressive government’s language.’
And he never did.
My mother, born in a country town, spoke Afrikaans as her first language. My maternal grandfather, born in Lisbon, spoke only Portuguese. My maternal grandmother, raised on a farm where her parents, my great-grandparents, worked as slaves, spoke only Afrikaans.
My maternal grandparents, despite their limited ability to communicate with each other, had 16 children. A definite communication in the language of love!
Researchers say that we hear our first language while in the womb and that language is responsible for the development of a child’s personality. A child’s perception of existence starts with the language that is first taught to them. My mother spoke Afrikaans so that makes it my mother tongue.
Afrikaans was my only language during school hours. As soon as we stepped inside the house, Dad, who was the main carer while my Mum worked, addressed us in English. As siblings, we switched between English and Afrikaans depending on who we were with, or talking to. It was common for us to switch from one language to another mid sentence. The majority of children in our neighbourhood spoke Afrikaans.
I often wonder how I completed my schooling in Afrikaans while reading only English books borrowed from the library. I have no recollection of reading Afrikaans books during high school. I remember every English ‘setwork’ book.
My writing, during childhood, turned into hand made books, told stories of great adventure; in the English language.
Here in Australia, every language spoken, and there are many, represents a rich culture, a connection with ethnicity, and is a special treasure. Many immigrants, see it as a duty and responsibility to preserve their language and to pass it on from generation to generation.
For us it is different. Our mother tongue, the language of our oppressors, left many vehemently opposed to speaking Afrikaans. It was one of the forms of rebellion against those who ruled us.
On the Cape Flats, where I grew up, a unique dialect of Afrikaans was the spoken language. This dialect has colour , humour and warmth. A language developed by the people, deeply connecting us beyond mere words. An identity, a cradling of our spirit. Only those who walked the streets of the Cape Flats, felt that pull in their psyche towards the expressions. It brought a smile to many a face when hawkers sang their tunes to sell their wares and women gossiped over the backyard fences or front gates in this familiar dialect. The expressions embodied a deep warmth that reverberated when a friend called from the street for us to come out and play. A familiarity that only a language can imbue.
Now, there are days when I long to hear my mother tongue, to laugh at the expressions and to be carried back in time. I long for a language that ravaged my childhood and tarnished my memories. Something embedded so deeply in my heritage that it left tracks that cannot be filled.
My father, put the fear of God in us if we as much as uttered a word in his presence. Because of oppression, detesting the language so intensely, he addressed our oppressors in English even if he knew that they could not respond other than in Afrikaans.
‘If you speak their language that is when they control you’, Dad often said. ‘Speak to them only in English so that you can maintain control of something.’
And that is what we did. It was some kind of vengenance in Dad’s psyche that he passed on to us. As siblings we continued this trait, taking pleasure in speaking to our oppressors in English only to watch them struggle in reply. Dad turned Afrikaans into their language; not ours.
I felt no pride, no special skills in having the ability to speak another language. It became a burden, a socio-economic indicator that we wanted to distance ourselves from. And we did so fiercely.
Since our move to Australia, our fourth generation now speak other languages as part of their vast lineage. This great asset offers a new window to the world, a deeper respect for other cultures, their lifestyles and beliefs.
I am left to ponder my mother tongue. It is, afterall, a language that one part of my lineage proudly spoke. Through their enslavement, Afrikaans developed into their mother tongue. This was passed on to my mother and through her to us.