Who does your language belong to?

Who does my language belong to?

I don’t mean faceless vocabulary that course books are filled with. Here I’m talking about my distress in attempts to claim my own English. That is, are there words that would define my Self in both speaking and writing, the words that would bring colours, wrap up my most mediocre sentences to look nice?..

This thought has long, really long been unsettling for me. I realize in any language I speak or would choose to learn to speak, I’ll be a borrower. I borrow some words for a post or two, and others I never return. At times the realization that this particular word or phrase initially belonged to *name* is almost literally painful.. and the word or phrase is oftentimes dismissed from my list of options to fill the blank.

Just to give you a real feel of what I’m talking about:
I’ll always know swell, lousy and phoney come from Holden Caulfield. Tenterhooks and bated breath from Laura Phelps. With a nonchalant air from a unit in my university course book, year three or something. Scavenge from Morcheeba. On the bandwagon from Kevin Stein. Hubris and listicle from Mike Griffin. Fluid and compassionate from Josette LeBlanc. Lukewarm from an episode of Modern Family. And so on and so forth… books, songs, people own these words in my imagination – because that’s where I first saw them, that’s how they finally got stored in my brain (hopefully, for good).

I may wish to type or say this or that word, because it truly and uniquely fits, but every time I feel like I’m stealing it right out of their mouths. They will know. Everybody will know. It’s just not safe vocabulary for a vain writer. Thesaurus is good at such moments, a true friend.

I’d so much like to cast off those thoughts bugging me but they’re rooted too deeply. I feel like cheating and I’m surely going to be caught red handed.

That is, suddenly, the end to my post. I would like to know if I’m weird and alone in feeling this, or if I’m weird and there’s more of us, pondering the imperfections of acquired language and acquiring language.

Ironically (because this), I’ve bought a guide on creative writing today. I’ve read 7 pages of this book and written 5 pages of my own since then, at a frantic pace. I stopped to think about a certain word choice every now and then, but generally it was a true spasm for writing that I couldn’t hold back. Every line I read found a response in my mind, heart (or chest, to be more anatomically correct regarding the feeling), and pen in hand in the end. And I’ve thought of this commonplace idea that my writing (as well as my speaking?) might be authentically mine through means other than merely words I use.

Soon this blog might become even less of an ELT-related space than it already is.
But then I never promised consistency.

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13 thoughts on “Who does your language belong to?

  1. Anna, you write ‘warning.
    Soon this blog might become even less of an ELT-related space than it already is.
    But then I never promised consistency.’ as if it is a bad thing =)

  2. An interesting thought. I recommend you check out David Crystal’s “The Stories of English,” it’ll knock those thoughts right out of you! English is the borrower’s language. For example, Shakespeare is credited with coining over 1000 new words in his works, some of which are still in use today.

    • annloseva says:

      Thank you for the comment, Richard! I wish simply knowing the facts about the language helped to ease my clearly psychological problem) By the way, I take a special kind of odd nerdy pleasure when I happen to successfully coin a nonce word myself. Just like Shakespeare, in a way, with the obvious difference of mine not staying in use for centuries)))

  3. Igor says:

    We always take words from different sources – nevermind the language. Speaking foreign just emphasizes this feeling of heist – normally you do not pay a lot of attention to this, but when the word is really “tasty” – you just remember its origins.
    And trust me – when I have a feeling that my interlocutor quotes something that I know as well, from the game, a movie or a book, I feel certain bonding and I like him a bit more.

    • annloseva says:

      This is an excellent comment with a reassuring reminder that it does indeed work that way for any language, including our mother tongue. And looking at this borrowing being recognized by a person – well, I didn’t even think of it. Now I suppose you are right and it could be a positive, instead of shameful, experience. I like this attitude.
      As for “tasty”, I’m about to mentally attach this word to you))
      Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it. Audience other than teachers of English is a very welcome change.)

  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Dear Anna,

    I can’t even count how many times I’ve pondered the same question. When reading your post, I smile and nod in agreement. Yes, we do steal words from others as we learn. And I can’t help feeling that as a NNEST I’ll always be a word thief. But at the same time I believe that the way I combine words and chunks of the language is unique and thus, to answer your question, my language belongs to me. Once you, Anna, start reading my word combinations, they also belong to you because you are the one who decodes them – in your own, unique way…. By the way, I think this is a very ELT-related post. 🙂

    • annloseva says:

      Dear Hana,

      Yes, that blunt line appeals to me – we will always be word thieves.
      I’m not really worried about stealing/ learning from coursebooks or any educational material – that’s just to show how impersonal the language there is to me. I’m always conscious of “offending” real people I know by using “their” vocabulary. I think maybe it is silly.

      I like to decide your word combinations!! Thank you for the comment, thoughtful as ever. And with all the stolen vocabulary – still very Hana-like. 🙂 that’s what matters, right?..

  5. kevchanwow says:

    Hi Anna,

    Me, too! Me, too! In fact, the idea of me jumping up and down and shouting ‘Me, too’ is probably something I lifted from a kids cartoon I watched as a child. Most everything I write (and most of what I say when I’m actually paying attention to myself when my lips are moving) is a kind of artifice. It’s just as close as I can get to what I want to say. So in my first language, I feel this way. And in Japanese, I often feel this way as well. Although sometimes when I snag something from English which isn’t mine and then twist it around into Japanese and it comes out slightly wrong but understandable, the phrase which was lifted from someone else suddenly becomes truly mine. Have you ever had this feeling in English?

    I am very exited to see what reading a book on creative writing will do to your already fascinating blog.


    • annloseva says:

      Hi Kevin,

      I need to keep my eye sharp for spotting the cases when I feel good about the borrowed (and maybe transformed) language. I also wish I’d remembered about the Stein nature of “aficionado” earlier and mentioned it in the post.

      I constantly feel that I use and abuse same words again and again and again in every piece I write. It’s just so depressing. Can’t I have a larger vocabulary?..

      The book is good. Exercise #5 made me listen to my granny and hear what she is saying in a new light, with a new kind of attention. Because the task was to write down some family story that I’d never heard before. My readiness to listen resulted in now having around 10 short episodes from the lives of my relatives that I’d never been aware of (the episodes, not the relatives). The funny thing is that I didn’t even need to ask her to tell me. The stories just poured out into my hands.

      Thanks for leaving this comment!

  6. Hi Anna,

    I had the pleasure of seeing two of your workshops and talking to you this weekend at KOTESOL International and saw your blog listed on one of your slides. It was really nice to meet and talk with you. Thank you for all of the ideas of about using social media in class.

    Again, this is an excellent post that made me think about the words I’ve borrowed over the years. Despite being American, I’ve always liked certain words and phrases that British and Irish English speakers use like “bloody hell,” “quite right,” and “wanker.” Another favorite is “whinge,” which is similar to “to whine” or “to complain” which probably came from a Roddy Doyle novel. He’s an Irish novelist.

    Rock on! I look forward to reading more here.

    • annloseva says:

      Hi Chewie,

      Well I had no idea when I was talking to you that you are the person behind the Gangwon Dispatches blog! So cool to match online with offline.. I’d come across your blog just about a week before I left for Korea))

      Thank you very much for attending the sessions, caring to come up and talk about them afterwards, that really matters a lot to me. It makes all the prep and stress worth it.

      Your thoughts are actually quite interesting to me, in that what bits and pieces of English are shared between all you many kinds of native speakers and how far your own borrowing goes. It would be interesting to read such a post somewhere, one day)) Because apparently my borrowing is just a random mix of Englishes coming to my brain through a variety of sources and sinking in there.

      Thanks a lot again! =)

  7. […] “Mammoth” used above in this post is the language I decided to borrow from Mike’s class. I hope his students will also steal it and use in their exam. […]

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