Someone else’s words in your mouth

Daisy Johnson investigates how our nature is shaped by language.


 

There are a few things I would like you to imagine. Are you ready? Let’s begin.

 

You are a linguist working at a university. You are contacted by the US army and asked to come help them. When you arrive at the location you discover that aliens have landed and you are being tasked with finding a way to communicate with them. Slowly you begin deciphering their language, which appears as a series of intricate circles. You discover that the alien language changes the perception of time, enabling a person to see the future, that the more you learn the more you have this ability.[1]

 

You are an actor named Amy Adams. You have been acting for a long time and played many roles. You begin to feel that the only words that belong to you are borrowed ones, written in scripts, handed to you by people expecting you to take the words on as your own. You worry that when you open your mouth at home or in a restaurant the words that come out are really stolen. You begin to feel as if the life you are living does not belong to you. The impostor syndrome is enormous, hard to ignore. One day you do not recognise your husband. You begin to believe that by being an actor you have fated yourself to a life of being someone you are not. You become easily annoyed, snap at your children, drive through red lights.

You think of a character you once played: a linguist who discovered that our language determines our nature.

 

You are a character called Gretel in a book called Everything Under. You live with your mother on a boat moored in a wild part of the river. There are only the two of you. You play scrabble, make up strange games, create odd rituals to fill your days. Your mother invents a language just for the both of you. It is a language made from the sound of the water on the banks and the noises you use to comfort yourself. You grow up with this language tangling around your aching limbs, filling your throat.

 

You are an author named Daisy Johnson. Your novel, Everything Under, was published a few days ago, your second novel is out on submission. You are trying to think what to write next. You move furniture around, bake loaves of bread, fill the house with pots of cress that grow so fast you can almost see them moving. You read other people you think will help you and panic about money. You write notes all over the house. Sometimes you wake up at night and find you are wandering the rooms of your house, looking for something, looking for something. Looking for what? You become convinced that this lost searching in the midst of your dreams has come from being a writer for a long time. From being a writer since you were ten or eleven. Looking for words/ looking for good sentences/ looking for other writers who could tell you how to find the rest. You are never quite content/ always looking to the next thing/ always a little unsettled. This sleeping badly has been happening for nearly ten years. Once – in your parents’ house – you had tried to tear the window open in the night. To do what? To throw yourself out?

 

You are a linguist named Daniel Everett. You travel to visit a tribe called the Pirahã in the Amazon. There is too much to say about them. Conversations can be whistled or hummed. They do not have the words for numbers in their language, only for amounts. Time works differently in their language. The tribe asks you to teach them how to count but, after a year, it becomes clear this will be difficult. It will be nearly impossible. They have never needed to count and so have neither the ability nor the language to do so. [2]

 

You are a woman called Gretel who was once a girl who lived on the river with her mother. You are looking for your long-lost mother. You are a linguist and obsessed with words and language. You think about language more than twenty times a day. You remember when you were a child who realised that no one else knew the language your mother was teaching you. You wonder what she meant by doing this. You wonder if she understood the harm she was doing by teaching you a language that would ostracise you from the world. You’re a loner/ a recluse.

You begin to believe that it is the language you grew up with that has made this your nature.

 

In this imagining of yourself you speak English and it is 2018 and you identify as female. The world seems to be caving in around you, almost apocalyptic. You begin to notice words more than you have done before. You start to listen to the words you are called and that you and your friends call one another: slut, hussy, slag, bitch. You go to a friend’s house and walk home with your keys between your fingers, you are uncertain, constantly a little on edge. You feel how this language has grown with you/ around you/ tangled up with you. You sometimes imagine a place where the words for girl are: good/brave/strong. And the words for boy are: soft/kind/gentle. You do not know what we would look like in that world.

 

You are reading an essay. The essay is about how the language we use and grow up with can change our very nature. Perhaps your family had a cat that brought in dead animals and you all said that it was the cat’s nature and perhaps you found yourself using the same terminology when it came to a philandering man or a selfish woman, an aggressive group of people. You think of the binaries you learnt when you were a child. Black/white, dark/light, good/evil, heaven/hell, male/female. You think of the competitiveness that is bone deep inside. You do better/be better/make more. You think of all the words you have read today. Are you a greedy reader? The advertisements on the bus/ the back of the cereal box/ the newspaper you found on a train/ the messages on your phone/ the emails/ the book you carry with you.

 

You feel as if the essay is already decaying around you. The white spaces seem enormous, the words       spaced                         out. You are feeling unsure and a little nervous. What a time to live in.

 

You are wearing someone else’s shoes.

 

Their words burrow into your cheeks, fill your throat. You try to whistle the things you want to say. What do you want to say?

What do you want to say today?

 

 

[1] Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve.

[2] Don’t sleep, there are snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett (Profile Books, 2009)


Daisy Johnson was born in 1990. Her debut short story collection, Fen, was published by Cape and in the US by Graywolf. Her novel, Everything Under (Jonathan Cape), was published earlier this year, and is longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was the winner of the AM Heath Prize and the Harper’s Bazaar short story prize. She has been longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Prize and the New Angle Prize.

Photo credit: Pollyanna Johnson