As of late, my lover has this habit of calling me in the middle of the night “just to say goodnight”, but that of course always ends up in long conversations. A couple of weeks ago, we talked about language. To be precise, I went on a long monologue about how I relate to different languages and how those languages affect the way I ‘love’ or express my feelings.
See, my lover always says that “language matters”; that what one says and how one says it is crucial in creating spaces that either include or marginalize, celebrate or shame. While I totally agree with her, her little phrase got me thinking in a slightly different direction. How can certain languages influence one’s ability to process and verbalize emotions? This is a question I have never actively asked myself, but that I find myself having to answer more and more as my relationship with my lover progresses.
“I have never said this to anyone, but I cannot express my feelings in French…English, for me, is like a love language; a language in which I can confess my love without sounding alien to myself”.
This is what prompted a two-hour long conversation.
See, for my lover, what she calls ‘Standard English’ was never a love language. It could never be. White-and-proper English has been used for a long time to delegitimize her linguistic experience and that of her people. Too much pain was associated with such a language for her to claim it as a love language. Personally, my inability to associate love with French results from a different kind of pain.
See, I come from a family where certain emotions are simply not expressed, neither physically or verbally. I cannot honestly recall an instance of my mom, let alone my dad, telling me that they loved me. And I can say with certitude that I have never verbalized my love to them. This is not to say that I do not love my parents or that they do not love me. Not at all. In my family, how one feels has just never really been dinner-table conversation material. We engage in discussions on important and not so important issues, go through happy, sad and dull moments without ever really verbalizing the emotional implication of our intertwined lives.
Happiness? You could easily pick it up from my mom’s tone of voice as she teased this one and sent that one to the corner shop. Sadness? Well, you are a lucky one, for sadness, in my family, is an emotion best dealt with in private. You will therefore probably never have to be confronted with it. If, however, on some rare occasions you find yourself having to face sadness, worry not! Your discomfort will be short-lived, as the person will undoubtedly quickly walk away to a more private space to deal with their emotions.
I remember how terrified I was, awhile back, when I witnessed my mom’s voice trailing as she talked about her cousin who passed. What to do or say, I did not know. “I am sorry for your loss”? To me, it did not feel like a ‘natural’ thing to say to one’s mother. Give her a hug? We only did that at airports, when reunited after being separated for long academic years. So what could I have possibly done? Anything, you say? At that particular moment how I wished I could wear being affectionate like a second skin. But my mind froze. My body froze. And I did just that: nothing; nothing but stare at her in horror, hoping she would pull herself together. I know…I am a disappointment of a human being.
See, being confronted with extreme human emotions, especially love and grief, is something I have always dreaded. What do you do when someone starts crying in front of you? Do you hold them and tell them things will get better? Do you patiently wait for them to pull it together? Do you propose some tissue?
I have no idea, at least I thought I didn’t, until I had to do it in another language. The first time my lover cried in my arms, I was really taken aback, and a little mortified. But I held her. I soothed her in ways I never thought I was capable. With her, it was different. It was the first time I was confronted with ‘English sadness’ (for lack of a better expression). I realize how strange this may sound, but please, bear with me. See, confronted with this foreign sadness, I had to provide foreign comfort. And I did. And it did not feel awkward or fake. Not like the many times when, with my French voice, I attempted to comfort a loved-one.
See, English, for me, is a language in which I am growing to feel comfortable in all of my skins: the African, the woman, the queer, the overweight , the little weird, the bit-of-a-loner, the introvert, and more. Maybe, it just so happened that I started to speak English as I was making my way out of that awkward phase of adolescence. Maybe! Maybe, I would have been just as comfortable if I had made this transition solely speaking French. Truth is, I will never know and it does not matter.
Fact remains that English has become a language of comfort for me. It is a language in which I have learned to apologize and mean it; a language in which I have learned to verbalize love and appreciation without feeling awkward; the only language so far in which I have been able to acknowledge the sexual assault I have been subjected to as a child. I am yet to find an adequate way to say “I am queer”in French, let alone Wolof. As of now, it is the only language that seems to provide me with the possibility of being wholly and fully human. It has helped me to appreciate the beauty and power of words in processing emotions. And this is why it is my love language. This is, in no way, a rejection or belittling of the other languages I speak. Those will forever carry with them the weight of memories that I cherish so dearly. Every funny Wolof expression, every French word, carries within itself something that no other language will ever be able to provide: the familiarity of emotions that need not to be expressed out loud to be real.