Wednesday 1 July 2020

My Language is My Reality (2020)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVIII No. 1 Spring/Summer 2020

Ruins of a mysterious ancient city usually considered to have been built by the Shona people around the XII century. Whatever, the skill of its builders was very impressive: the original complex consisted of several million heavy blocks (fifteen thousand tons of stone), all perfectly matched and held without mortar.

My Language is My Reality

By Simbarashe Nyatsanza

In which a biotechnologist explains how, in language, he discovers something subtly shaping his everyday reality.

Returning to campus after the end of every vacation always makes me nervous. I have this crippling sense of social anxiety that makes it nearly impossible to socialise with others on campus. A few of the people who have reluctantly become what I might as well call my ‘circle of friends’ appear to be drinking mates more than anything else. We drink. We get drunk. We throw words around and make attempts at some kind of profundity. And then we call it a night and depart. I can’t necessarily say that I am always keeping up with what happens or what is said during these exchanges. I usually find myself alive at the beginning of every morning, and for that I am grateful. Most of the time I keep to myself.

I don’t speak a word of Afrikaans. Besides the fact that we share a learning institution, there is nothing else that binds me to those who are fluent in the language. Our common points of reference are so limited that it’s nearly pointless for me to try and ingrain myself into that world; it would take much more than what’s necessary out of me.

It’s hard to have meaningful genuine conversations in any other language that is not English. At the same time, the incorrect perception that Blacks who use nothing else but that language are somehow ‘better’ and ‘more enlightened’ in vague-relation to other Blacks makes me think twice before I enter into any exchange, in a bid to avoid being labelled incorrectly and being seen as something I am not. However, if I do happen to find myself hanging on the dregs of a particularly drunken night, I tend to get very flagrant and go on hours-long tangents of aberrant thought and free conversation. On usual terms, I tend to stay away from those who easily force others into a corner and can’t imagine them as being anything else other than what they assume. It upsets my nerves.

On the other hand, English itself is a language I’d like to think that I frown upon. I am against its use as a measure of intelligence and a marker of sophistication of sorts. In more ways than one, speaking the language makes me feel like I have become overtly participant in the erosion and erasure of my own conscience. It makes me want to question if the voice of my thoughts is entirely my own or simply a reactionary stream drilled into my mind by years of gullible susceptibility to the language.

It is frightening to realise that inasmuch as I used to think that education would liberate me from an already preconceived sense of ignorance and create sustainable paths towards something of a bright future, whatever that means, it has over the years slowly turned me into nothing but a product of what I have been learning. Over the years, without realising it, my participation in the so-called ‘system’ has guaranteed a means for me to explore it further and perhaps even get to become an influential component of it. At the same time, my zeal for creativity has progressively dwindled and, with each day, I lose a little more of whatever impetus I originally had in terms of seeing ‘real change’ or making a timelessly significant contribution to the zeitgeist. It seems all my years of education have instigated an endless war within me, one that leaves me treading an apparently empty street of free information, regurgitating years of false knowledge to whoever cares enough to listen.

Shona*, my first language, is not common on campus. It is spoken by a few in whispers away from the ears of the general university populace. I think this is because people are simply trying to distance themselves from the language and the implications it carries; the most direct one being that one is from Zimbabwe. Besides being able to understand and use Shona and other Zimbabwean languages, it is difficult, at least for me, to point exactly at what makes a person Zimbabwean or to describe that elusive essence that constitutes the core of what it means to be such. Previously it was our collective hate for Mugabe’s regime; now that he is dead, the mist has returned.

The ones who converse openly in Shona are usually the overzealous religious types who would want to drag you to overnight prayer crusades as the basis for friendship. Such people cannot have a conversation on anything without finding the need to mention some prophet somebody or a prophetic something. I find conversation with them exhausting. I lose my interest so easily in those situations. They leave me with headaches that are just as horrible as the hangovers I usually get after drinking a little too much. In fact, these conversations usually turn into heated altercations stemming from the differences in opinions and general ways of living. They infuriate me. I try as much as I can to avoid situations that enable my conscience to escape me without any hint of guilt, instances that make it plausible for me to be described as frantic or erratic, fidgety, without respect for general decorum, clearly susceptible to premature disintegration. In my right mind, I tend to stay away from these contraptions.

I usually go to the library and do my work over there. Or read a book. Or try to write. Or something. When I feel like talking to people, I catch a ride to a nearby campus and hang out with the eccentric others over there who have rather become reluctant friends; at least their judgements on my character are somehow more palpable. I honestly can't share the same sentiments about my own people.

You see, the thing is that I can bear anything that’s said to me in English. It doesn’t invoke any resentment, or a sense of worthlessness or patriotic betrayal. . .  English is like a jacket that I put on and off, according to the atmosphere around me.

You see, the thing is that I can bear anything that’s said to me in English. It doesn’t invoke any resentment, or a sense of worthlessness or patriotic betrayal. It doesn’t go to any place of depth in me. It’s usually a fun continuing experiment on the uses and effects of the language and coming from Zimbabwe where I use it only as my second language, it becomes rather an interesting game to play. I am simply mesmerised by other people’s reflections in the mirror of language. The differences are bearable, unlike the heart-wrenching Shona rebuttals that are associated with my people, the kinds that aren’t so far away from curses, ones that leave you rather paralysed from the heart outwards, making diving into a volcano an option far more preferable than continuing to swim in a mire that would have become your own in the eyes of the homeboys.

These altercations, especially if they are with those Zimbabaweans who seem to be always intent on promoting their origins, the ones who make it a point to remind you at every inconvenient instant that they went to Eagleville, to St George’s, to Hartman House – to some we’re-the-cream-of-this-country’s-education kind of school – rather leave you with a terrible sense of shame, as if, by being from Zimbabwe, you had naturally been trusted with the simple task of carrying the nation’s integrity on your shoulders and had, through your ‘wayward’ and rather impulsive way of being, failed.

So I stay away. I try to avoid trouble. My life, my way of thought, my daily routine and preferences don’t fall effortlessly into the cast that is the stereotype under which most of my people are confined. I like to think that I’ve made myself invincible to the rest, and yet I am somewhat still present enough to succumb to a significant extent, to their influence. I feel it. It’s always there, making itself constantly known to me especially through language.

With all its implications, insinuations, inconsistencies, ironies and innuendos, English is like a jacket that I put on and off, according to the atmosphere around me. My spoken English is different depending on whom I am speaking to. Sometimes I find myself going over past conversations just so that I can reacquaint myself with a gist I would have lost through using too many long words.

Shona, on the other hand, is the protective layer that covers the skin of my thoughts, and is always poking holes into the fabric of my newfound reasoning. It is in the back somewhere whispering strange things about how it is the centre of my conscience, the very core out from which my being emanates, and how all this mock impulsivity is an effort towards erasing it.

But is it even possible for me to erase my own identity? How can I want to tear out the eyes through which I first saw the world and formed a perspective of it? How can I convince myself that I can ‘graduate’ out of my own self and be anything else other than what I already am? And is any of this absolutely necessary?

Shona does not have to leave. It’ll never leave. It can’t leave. It’s always there somewhere growling in the abyss of my other forced thoughts. I get scared sometimes, like when it throws me to a place of desperation after disagreements with those who recite poetry in it. And yet at times I also want to sink into its rather homely embrace, to bathe my entire being in it; when I open my old Ndau hymn book and softly sing back my old high school memories, taking myself back to that place again, in those moments I pledge my loyalty only to it…

But I am here, internally conflicted in this rather fragmented country where the diversity and the beauty of the languages that clothe the people around me seems to offer no place for my own. It rather banishes me to a place of enraged solitude and misunderstood silence, which to the onlooker appears to be some kind of quiet reserve, but is no different from forced indifference. It’s a place that makes it possible to accept inexpression and nonchalance as much healthier alternatives than to constantly be screaming in the wind, to be constantly speaking yet to no one in particular. To constantly, that is, just be wasting words.

Editor's note  *Shona is a Bantu language belonging to the Niger-Congo language family, spoken by nearly eleven million people as a first language and by another two million as a second (or third) language, mainly in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi and Zambia.

About the author: Simbarashe Nyatsanza is a biotechnologist, originally from Zimbabwe and now based in Cape Town. He is also a freelance writer and journalist whose writing mainly focuses on issues of African Nationalism, Identity and Politics. He believes in an African present and future shaped by the needs, wants, desires and ideas of Africans, and one that is also a reflection of African culture, ideology, politics, religions and the essence of its humanity.

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1 comment:

  1. The title of your intriguing personal account, Simbarashe, is ‘My Language Is My Reality’. All of which is true, of course. Concurrently true, I propose, would be a flipped version of the title, that being ‘My Reality Is My Language’. I suspect the connections (influences) between language and reality are in fact bidirectional. That is, language shapes one’s reality, and reality shapes one’s language. Regardless of whose language we’re talking about.

    The process necessarily sways how we think — which is, after all, how we get to language and notions of reality. Put another way, how one sees the world influences the building blocks of language — as well as, by important extension, the building blocks of something even bigger: culture. Including the limits of knowledge, understanding, and beliefs. The reciprocal influences between language and reality are accordingly fluid, changing, and continual.

    In this course, language shows enormous plasticity, as does one’s mind in taking in his or her experiences of the world and converting the those experiences to linguistic description and expression. Here, I’m speaking of one’s ‘perception’ of reality — apart from how much, if any, of reality stands independently, outside of personal perception, which is a separate conversation. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, summed up some of these ideas. As he famously phrased it, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’.


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